Solving Problems: The Phoenix Suns Need Direction
The Phoenix Suns went from a 2010 Western Conference Finals bid to the lottery in 2011 with a 40-42 record. The big loss was Amar’e Stoudemire, who moved on as a free agent to the New York Knicks, helping NY climb into a long-awaited postseason berth.
Now a year later, where do the Suns go from here?
Are they a playoff team coming off of a one-year hiatus or is it time to truly rebuild?
Suns Most Pressing Need: Direction
The Phoenix roster, as it stands in mid-September, is about what it was after the midseason Vince Carter/Marcin Gortat trade. Grant Hill and Aaron Brooks (restricted) are the team’s two key free agents.
The team drafted promising forward Markieff Morris (13th) in June, but even if Hill and Brooks return, are the Suns appreciably better than they were last year?
Do they come close to any of the five franchises in the Western Conference who won at least 50 games apiece (San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets)?
Can the team develop and invest in the current core or is it time to say goodbye to star point guard Steve Nash?
Keep Nash and Hill?
Nash has been the face of the franchise for seven seasons (not including his initial two in the league before six years in Dallas).
While he’s still among the best point guards in the league (with an insane shooting line of 48.9% from the field, 42.9% from three and 90.4% from the line to go along with his 11.4 assists per game), Steve is already 37-years old and heading into the final year of his contract.
If the lockout takes an entire season to resolve, will Nash play another game with the Suns?
Do they reinvest in the aging guard to the age of 40?
Hill has been as solid as any veteran in the league. Even at nearly 39, he can still play (on both sides of the ball) but unless the Suns are truly committed to winning now, it doesn’t make sense to expect Grant to be a part of the team’s long-term future.
Even if the Suns want to win now, they may not have the means to do so in whatever window Nash and Hills have left.
Let Vince Carter Go
Another (maybe not so tricky) decision is Carter’s $18.3 million contract that has just $4 million guaranteed if he’s cut before the season.
It almost makes too much sense to cut him loose given his 13.5 points per game with the Suns last season on 42.2% shooting.
If Carter is out and the team chooses not to re-sign or extend Nash (or if he chooses to leave), what long-term pieces do the Suns have to build around?
Do the Remaining Pieces Fit?
Both Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat are solid role-players. Josh Childress was a wash-out in his first years with the team. Hakim Warrick can impress with his athleticism but often times gets through a game without making a significant impact.
Channing Frye stands out but he’s primarily a jump-shooter who is best running pick and pop off of a creative point guard like Nash.
Is Brooks the future at the one for the Suns?
In Aaron’s best year with the Rockets, he averaged just 5.3 assists per game along with 19.6 points. While Nash is a setup man first who can hit shots (big shots) when needed, Brook is more of a scorer than play-maker.
Brooks is also coming off of a down season after an ankle injury which saw his three-point shooting drop from 39.8% in 2009/10 to 29.7% this past campaign.
Mickael Pietrus and Robin Lopez are both going into their final year of their respective contracts although Lopez will likely be restricted. Robin was ineffective for most of the season, often to the puzzlement of Coach Alvin Gentry.
All told, the Suns have a mix of pieces that don’t quite fit together save for the unique creativity of Nash. With Brooks instead of Nash, is this a squad that can even near last year’s 40 wins?
Help Wanted: Guards
At 6’7″, Dudley is more of a small forward but he’s a valuable piece who can play off-guard. Childress can play in the backcourt as well but badly needs to rediscover something to be a contributor for the Suns.
Pietrus is already looking beyond Phoenix and probably isn’t the solution there either.
In theory, Carter can be cut and re-signed if both parties are interested but should they be? Maybe for a single year.
If Brooks returns and Nash has a couple more years in him in Phoenix, then the team is set at the point for as long as Nash stays at the top of his game. That would mean another contract with the Suns.
The answer just isn’t as clear at shooting guard.
Where’s the Low-Post Option?
With Stoudemire in New York, the Suns don’t have a dependable big man who can score with ease near the basket.
Gortat is the closest but he’s not going to give 20 every night (13 per game last season on an impressive 56.3% shooting)?
Rookie Morris is considered to be less-polished offensively but more defensive-minded than his brother Morris (who went to Houston with the 14th pick).
Frye can and will put up big numbers but almost exclusively from the outside. Warrick can dunk. Lopez remains a mystery.
Time to Rebuild
So with no prolific big man to get easy baskets with regularity, no shooting guard, a big man who would rather shoot threes and a bunch of swing men, the Suns work as well as they do because of Nash.
Without him, the Suns have no clear direction. With him, they’re riding a player who is nearing 40.
It’s time to start putting the building blocks in place for the future.
Assuming the lockout is resolved and Phoenix cuts Carter, the team isn’t expected to have any significant cap room.
Finding a way out of Childress would be Plan A but that’s going to be difficult given the $27 million he has left on his deal over the next four years.
Warrick doesn’t make a lot per season ($4.25 million) and has just two of his three years guaranteed.
Gortat and Dudley look like keepers and unless the team can find a true low post big man, the duo joined by Morris may suffice . . . but that’s only if the team can bolster the backcourt.
Unless Jason Richardson returns or the team keeps Carter on a cheaper dollar, the free agent choices this summer aren’t especially appealing.
J.R. Smith isn’t the answer. Jamal Crawford is probably looking for more than the Suns will have to spend.
Or Wait . . .
It may make sense to just tread water for a year with Nash and wait for the summer of 2012 when star players like Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard are expected to be free agents, the Suns could have a significant amount of spending power.
The Frye/Gortat combination might work inside if the Suns manage to land another superstar point guard and a solid two-guard.
If Nash, Carter, Pietrus, Brooks, Lopez and Hill are gone, the team could have about $30 million invested in a handful of players.
A free agency score may be the only way the Suns can get a quick jump on the rebuilding process.
Another option might be dealing Nash before his contract expires. The Suns got calls this past summer but were asking for the world in return.
It may be hard to get high-level youth given Nash’s age but it’s certainly an avenue Phoenix should at least reasonably explore.
Nash is the draw for the home fans and the team, without the right return, may be a mess without him . . . but ultimately a post-Nash future is coming and the Suns need to be ready for it.