Conventional wisdom among NBA experts is that when the window of championship contending has closed for a team, it's time to trade off valuable veterans for young prospects and picks to expedite the rebuilding process. The Phoenix Suns are currently ignoring this axiom as they keep their two team captains, each on the wrong side of age 35, and attempt to re-tool without bottoming out.
With the re-signing of Grant Hill, repeated expressions of desire to hold onto Steve Nash for the final year of his contract, and pending signings of modestly priced free agents Sebastian Telfair and Shannon Brown to 1-year deals, the Suns likely find themselves in the place that is seen as dreaded no man's land: a team that will be a lower-rung playoff seed at best, with aging and declining team captains.
Why aren't they making a push for any of the superstars who are in play right now? Failing that, why not strip the roster down to the bones and amass as many picks and youngsters as possible, success this year be damned? What are the Suns thinking?
It's easy to look at the Suns now and say that Sarver and his revolving cast in the front office have mismanaged the team to leave them in this situation. The time to blow it up and trade Nash was when he had more value than he does now as a 37-year old coming off an injury at the end of last season. But, as always, it's not quite that simple.
When should the Suns have traded Nash? After the Shaq experiment failed? Then we would have missed out on the glorious playoff run of 2010. I'll pass on that.
After Amare left for New York? This would have made a little more sense, but it would have meant entirely blowing up a team that made the conference finals the previous season, and there was some realistic hope that the Suns could fill in pieces to replace Amare. That they failed in those attempts doesn't necessarily mean it was faulty reasoning, just bad execution.
Let Nash go right now? There is no way Nash is worth as much to any other team, both on the floor and at the box office, as he is to the Suns. Any offer we'd receive for Nash would reflect that. Hopes of returning a blue-chip prospect or premium draft pick for Nash? Unlikely. This in addition to the fact that the Suns would suffer a huge public relations hit in dealing the super-popular Nash and guaranteeing a season of terrible basketball, when owner Robert Sarver's fan approval rating must be at an all-time low already.
So, here we are. It's not an ideal position, but it's also not impossible. The Suns front office is aiming to achieve these objectives:
We're all witnessing the chaos of the current lockout-shortened free agency period and it isn't pretty. A preseason of a little over two weeks won't be kind to teams trying to radically reconstruct their roster right now. For the Suns, jettisoning Nash (for a questionable return) would doom us to a season as one of the league's doormats. It would also further define the image of Sarver as a mean old miser who tore the team down and cares only about dollar bills and not wins.
Let's not discount the image problem Sarver has. On the one hand, you don't want to make basketball decisions due to public relations or short-term fan concerns. On the other hand, a miserable season from the Suns right now might cement the image of Sarver and his team as losers. Cap space next year will only be worth anything if players want to play for your organization. The Suns have some work to do in that area after once excelling in it, and a terrible season now is the last thing they need in attempting to improve the organization's image.
Besides, what would we really gain by blowing up the team and this season? It's well-established that the upcoming draft will be good and deep, so it makes sense that we'd want to load up on picks BUT this also means that teams won't be tossing around first rounders in trades as they were before the last draft, which experts knew to be weak. What quality of pick or picks could we get for trading off our assets? The last thing we need is more role players, so acquiring them would be pointless. Our cap situation for next offseason is already just about optimized, but for the contracts of Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick, who are overpaid but not obscenely so.
So far, the Suns are executing their plan well this offseason in re-signing Hill and signing Brown and Telfair. It remains to be seen if the team assembled can thrill fans with a push for a playoff spot. Depending upon a 37-year old Nash at point with a marginal Telfair at backup could doom the season anyway, but there is hope for a playoff team here. The real challenge will be in the summer of 2012, when the front office will have to make wise decisions with this cap space they've carefully created for themselves.
The plan is fine; execution will be the key.
The Phoenix Suns waived guard Vince Carter and power forward Gani Lawal today, according to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic. Waiving Carter was expected since the Suns now owe him only a $4M buyout instead of the $18M he would have otherwise made this season, and he was clearly not in the team's plans.
Waiving Lawal is slightly more surprising, as he was the Suns highest draft choice last season, albeit only the 46th pick overall, and was reported to be making progress playing in Poland this fall after an injury-shortened rookie season in which he tore his ACL after seeing only two minutes of action as a Sun.
Lawal has fine athleticism, but is very raw with almost no offensive game except for dunks and putbacks. Additionally, Markieff Morris was selected by the Suns with a lottery pick this past June, pushing Lawal to 4th team PF behind Channing Frye, Hakim Warrick and Morris. Lawal averaged 16.5 points and 11.7 rebounds per game for Zastel Zielona Gora of the Polish league, on 62.7% FG shooting and 56.1% FT shooting.
Carter's stay in Phoenix was disappointing, as the one-time star never found his fit after the December, 2010 trade from Orlando. He produced inconsistently, disappearing altogether for stretches before head coach Alvin Gentry benched him in favor of Jared Dudley. Carter averaged a career low 13.5 points per game in his 51-game Suns career, shooting only 42% from the field and making 36% of his 3s.
The 2012 cap space is alive and well for the Suns, who spent about $11-12 million this week on 3 players but not a dime past this season.
The Suns considered Hill their top free agency priority and showed it in spending on Hill, who is the second oldest player in the league at 39 (by a day to Kurt Thomas). Hill has been a bargain for the Suns, making $10.1 million over the past four years as a productive starter one of the top defenders in the league.
His return was essential to the Suns' pursuit of defensive improvement and the happiness of Steve Nash in the last year of his contract. The Suns also want Hill's leadership influence on the rest of the team and it is believed he could have a long-term role with the organization beyond his retirement as a player.