When this summer began, I noted the prior Phoenix Suns regime’s stark differences in handling restricted free agents.
Over the years, the Suns have either gotten their rookie extensions done early, or they’ve botched the negotiations badly and ended up losing the player in a toxic devolution.
As we are now five days past the “early” point with Kelly Oubre Jr.’s restricted free agency status, the signs are not pointing anywhere good.
There’s been no real news on the new contract front from either side, except for a few cryptic Sirius radio screenshots shared on Oubre’s instagram feed. But even that was super-cryptic and didn’t end up going anywhere.
We don’t even know what Oubre wants, or what the Suns want to offer.
All we know is that the Suns have not blown Oubre away with any offers to date.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane on the Suns’ history of RFA negotiations since Robert Sarver took over as managing partner and final say on all transactions.
Joe Johnson — 2004
Going all the way back to Suns owner Robert Sarver’s first summer as managing partner after paying $450 million to Jerry Colangelo’s ownership group to buy the Suns, we remember it as a resounding success. The dawn of a new era. That summer, the Suns signed point guard and two-time All-Star Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks for $65 million over five years and
traded for signed as a restricted free agent Quentin Richardson for $48 million over six years to round out a starting lineup that would go 62-20 and dawn the Seven Seconds or Less era.
But let’s not forget what ended up going wrong that summer: the failed negotiation with young Joe Johnson on a rookie extension. The Suns and Johnson wanted to talk about extending him a year before his rookie deal was up. Johnson had just completed a pretty good year — 16 points (30% on threes, 43% overall), 4.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists — in his third NBA season for a 29-win Suns team. Reportedly, confirmed by Paul Coro in the AZ Republic much later, the 22-year old swingman wanted $50 million over five years starting in 2005, while the Suns’ owner Robert Sarver had a cap of $45 million over the same years.
So they agreed to disagree, and Johnson bet on himself to get a better contract a year later. He played out an incredible year with the 62-20 Suns, including 47 percent three-point shooting, and now would be in line for a max extension worth $70 million. Sure he was still just the fourth-best player on the Suns, behind Nash, Stoudemire and Marion, but he was worth the money anyway.
But he didn’t want that money from the Suns. He was still angry over the failed negotiations the year before, and begged the Suns for a sign-and-trade to a team that would appreciate him. The Suns agreed, and traded him to Atlanta for basically Boris Diaw and a couple future first round picks (Robin Lopez).
Both player and team had great success anyway. Johnson became a seven-time All-Star and made almost $300 million in his career, though he never got past the second round of the playoffs. And the Suns went on to appear in two more Conference Finals before age (Nash), injuries (Nash, Stoudemire) and bad transactions (you name it) snuffed them out.
But could it have been better for them if they’d stayed together? Johnson was a good defender as well as everything else. Could Joe have helped the 2006 team or 2007 teams go further than Boris did — maybe all the way to the Finals? Could he have helped the Suns survive the demise of Nash and Stoudemire? Joe was still just 28 and in the midst of his All-Star run when the Suns faded into the sunset in 2010.
Eric Bledsoe — 2014
A decade after losing Joe Johnson in a $5 million negotiation gap, Robert Sarver and his management team tried to do it again. Bledsoe wanted the max for
$70 $80 million after leading the Suns to a 48-34 run back to relevance, while the Suns tried to use his short resume (one year starting) and injury history to get him to sign for a lot less than that.
The Suns hardball tactic failed again.
Bledsoe and his Klutch team held out, in silence, all summer until the Suns finally gave him just under the max just hours before training camp started. In the meantime, they managed to derail all the positivity from the fun season, singing an insurance policy in Isaiah Thomas and leaving Goran Dragic to wonder about his role.
Ongoing tensions between Bledsoe’s agent and the Suns led to a trade demand before that max contract extension was even half over.
Outside of Bledsoe and Joe Johnson, the Suns have not held out on rookie extensions to their stars. There was no hesitation to give Amare Stoudemire (2005), Brandon Knight (2015) and Devin Booker (2018) the huge extension when they could (STAT and Book were max, Knight was same as Bledsoe). And they even quietly gave the Morris twins (2014) and T.J. Warren nice extensions (2017) a year before their rookie deals were up.
But Iso Joe and Bled should be cause for concern for Suns fans of Kelly Oubre Jr. because those are the only two RFAs the Suns really wanted to retain but could not close the deal on day one or way before the first day of restricted free agency.
We are now on day five of total silence on the Oubre front, though now that Kawhi Leonard has signed and there is only one other team now (Dallas) with enough money to make an outright offer big enough to scare the Suns away, the Suns are breathing easier on the likelihood of their “reasonable” offer being accepted very soon.
Again, as I wrote below, we don’t know what either side is offering to the other.
No way he gets the possible max extension ($29 million per year), but how far down does each side want to go?
Oubre’s arguments for big money:
- only 23 years old
- plays with high energy and consistent effort
- locker-room leader by example
- able to handle the pressure of being top scoring option on the floor
- able to handle the pressure of being top perimeter defensive option on the floor, plus can defend the rim from the weak side
Suns arguments for lower offer:
- does not pass (1.6 assists per game) well or rebound all that well (4.9 per game)
- does not shoot the three-ball well (32% last year and career)
- probably won’t make any All-Star games
If Oubre wants to bet on himself like Joe Johnson did all those years ago, he might get an even bigger deal next summer. In Oubre’s case, that’s taking the qualifying offer of a one-year deal in order to become an UN-restricted free agent a year from now when he could be one of the best players in a shallow market.
Some of you might want that outcome, as opposed to spending $17 million or more on a guy who will never be an All-Star. And I wouldn’t blame you.
But are the Suns really in a position to give away a 23-year old with super long wing span who galvanizes a locker room, inspires a fan base, creates his own shot and plays solid — sometimes spirited — defense both on the perimeter and at the rim? Even if that’s not at an All-Star caliber level?
Last night’s Summer League game reportedly will NOT be made up, according to what I’ve heard so far.
So the first Suns game will be on Sunday evening.