Where Do the Suns Go From Here?
If there was a perfectly average team of the 2011-12 NBA season, it was the Phoenix Suns. After going into the season with playoff aspirations built around the final season of All-Star point guard Steve Nash’s contract, a dip at the end dropped them to 33-33 overall, three games out of the playoff picture, and facing major decisions in the months to come.
The Suns were the only team to finish at .500 on the season. The posted a scoring differential of -0.2, tied with the Houston Rockets – just above them in the Western Conference standings – for the differential closest to even (Houston posted a +0.2). Their longest streak of any kind was a five-game losing streak in early January. They turned the ball over the exact same amount as they forced, at 14.1 per game. Behind Nash they tied for sixth in assists per game, but fell well into the bottom third when it came to rebounding.
Most any NBA fan will tell that average seems like a good thing, but as a measuring stick it’s an indicator of being stuck in the middle between rebuilding and success. The good news for Phoenix is smart management could turn them back into a playoff team in short order.
The Suns spent $64.03 million on this team and failed to make the playoffs. The good news is they have just seven players under contract for 2012-13 for a total of $31.8 million, giving them plenty of money to work with. The bad news? None of the players under contract is Steve Nash. This may actually end up being a good thing, because while the team still indicates they want Nash to return, it’s a prime opportunity to rebuild instead of bringing back the same team that missed the playoffs two years in a row.
That’s not Nash’s fault, to be clear. Instead, it’s a byproduct of poor spending decisions, including long-term contracts to players like Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick that simply are too much. This past offseason, the Suns demonstrated a previous unwillingness to spend the money it takes to get out of bad contracts when they paid to waive players like Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus. They could choose to do that again via the amnesty clause for Warrick or Childress, who played 14.4 minutes in 35 and 34 games respectively. Their scoring averages combined to be 9.3 points a game and for that the Suns spent $10.8 million. They bit the bullet in December, but they need to do it one more time to clear another roster spot and cut up to $6.5 million off their cap obligations.
There is good news. Center Marcin Gortat continued to prove his value, playing all 66 games and leading the team with 15.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and posting a Player Efficiency Rating of 21.2. At $7.3 million next season, he is also an excellent value. Second-leading scorer Jared Dudley will also be back, as will Channing Frye and up-and-down rookie Markieff Morris. Reserve point guard Sebastian Telfair will also return for $1.6 million.
Phoenix can also issue qualifying offers to reserve center Robin Lopez and returned-from-China point guard Aaron Brooks to make them restricted free agents.
Since replacing Terry Porter, head coach Alvin Gentry has posted a 145-116 record for the Suns. He brought back the uptempo offense, emphasizing versatility and the ability to make open shots in transition. Much of that depends on the skills of the point guard and few have ever been better than Nash in the open court. Gentry’s job is safe, but if the Suns do part ways with Nash he will have to make changes to his offense. Not drastic changes, but expecting anyone else to step in and fill the role without missing a beat would be a bad assumption.
This is why making decisions on the roster sooner rather than later will be so important, because Gentry needs to know as soon as possible how to start preparing for next season. What plays will he have to modify? What new plays will he have to implement, assuming the new point guard won’t be given as much latitude as Nash?
The Suns have just one choice in the 2012 NBA Draft, the thirteenth pick, because their second-rounder went to the Atlanta Hawks in the sign-and-trade deal for Childress. They have a minimal chance of moving up, but the good news is at 13 there could be plenty of guards to choose from, including point guards. North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall, Kentucky’s Marquis Teague and Weber State’s Damian Lillard could all be available. Each of them would be a good choice for these Suns and a solid hedge against losing Brooks in free agency.
Phoenix may not choose a point guard, but they absolutely need players who can create their own shots. UConn’s Jeremy Lamb, Duke’s Austin Rivers, Baylor’s Quincy Miller and Kansas’ Terrence Jones will also get consideration, but point guard should be their first choice.
For the Suns, free agency actually starts now as they decide whether or not to use amnesty and whether or not to make the qualifying offers to Brooks and Lopez. Brooks’ $3.0 million QO is a no-brainer. In fact, the money it would cost to keep Nash should just be funneled to Brooks. The 2009-10 Most Improved Player is an excellent fit as the starting point guard for these Suns. If they add another point guard in the draft, with Telfair rounding out the rotation, the Suns will be set. The nice thing is using amnesty on Childress would just about even out after they signed Brooks (though Brooks will cost a bit more, depending on the offers he could get from other teams).
Lopez will get a QO as well. His numbers and minutes have regressed a bit from two years ago, but he’s a solid backup to Gortat and the Suns liked how he bounced back the second half of the season. Even if he signs the one-year QO worth $4 million, that’s a solid investment in a backup center. They could also sign him to a three-year deal in the $7 million range and feel confident about their center rotation. General Manager Lon Babby asserted the Suns will match all offers, but that should probably be amended to have “reasonable” in the phrasing somewhere.
The Suns would be able to make those moves and still be sitting on over $15 million in cap space. Depending on which way they go in the draft – wing or point guard – they need to go the other way in free agency. They need players who can create their own shots. Jamal Crawford is rumored to be high on their wish list, plus they could make an offer to a potentially restricted free agent like Brandon Rush or Courtney Lee. Lou Williams would be another excellent option.
Then, the Suns can use the rest of their money to add a solid rebounder at the four. Carl Landry, J.J. Hickson, D.J. White, Darrell Arthur and Jordan Hill could all be solid options, depending on the money the Suns have left to spend.
The Steve Nash era in Phoenix has been phenomenal and while it’s sad that it will likely come to an end, it’s probably the right time. It’s time for the Suns to get younger, more versatile and more balanced. It’s going to cost the franchise some money to get there, but the right draft pick and spending their cap space wisely could absolutely put them back in the playoffs in 2013.
What’s your take on the Suns? Leave your thoughts in the comments below! Follow Jason Fleming on Twitter @jfleminghoops.