The Phoenix Suns now have 15 players on their roster, all of whom will want playing time next year. How will the Suns work that out?
Only three players on the projected 2014-15 Phoenix Suns roster will be paid more than $6 million next season. Those three - Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas - comprise a "three headed monster", coined by coach Jeff Hornacek, as combo guards rotating a two-pronged attack from both sides of the court at the same time.
Conversely, the other 12 players -- three of whom are projected starters -- will each make less than $6 million next season. Sounds like a recipe for disaster right? You can't win with such low-paid players, right? Wrong. The Suns parlayed an even more disparate mix (just two active players over $3.5 million) into 48 wins last season, only missing the playoffs to injury woes. Still, the Suns finished the season with the most wins by a non-playoff team in more than 30 years.
Can the Suns repeat their success again? Or can they do even better?
Last year, the Suns only high(ish) paid players were Goran Dragic ($7.5 million) and Channing Frye ($6.4 million). That's paltry compared to most of the NBA.
Since the end of the season, the Suns have lost F/C Frye (28 minutes per game) and PG Ish Smith (14 minutes per game), while adding Isaiah Thomas (34.7 mpg last year) and Anthony Tolliver (20 mpg), along with two more first round draft picks.
On the surface, that's a 42 mpg swap for 54 mpg, not even including either draft pick.
But even more lopsided is that big-minute player swap came from two very different positions. Can the Suns handle adding another high-minute player to the guard rotation?
The Suns implemented the two-point-guard system last year with great success, racking up a 23-11 record when Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe started in the same game. Despite playing at a height disadvantage, the 6'1" Bledsoe and 6'3" Dragic were a plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions when they played together.
In fact, Bledsoe was part of the top 5 three-man Suns lineups last season (all plus-7.6 pp100p or higher) while Dragic was in 8 of the top 13 three-man lineups (all plus-3.2 or higher).
But unfortunately injuries took a toll, as the pair only played 884 minutes together, just 22% of the possible minutes in 2013-14. Bledsoe missed 39 games with two different injuries, while Dragic missed six but was hobbled with ankle woes in a number of other games.
When one of the pair was out, the Suns started 6'8" shooting guard Gerald Green. Green had a career year (15.8 points, 1.5 assists per game), but is not a primary ball handler. With only one guard capable of running an efficient offense, the Suns went just 25-23 causing them to miss the playoffs in the tough Western Conference.
Thomas played point guard for a really bad Sacramento team last year, but his name is dotted all over the Kings best lineups per 100 possessions. Thomas was not the Kings' problem last season. He put up Dragic-esque numbers of 20.6 points and 6.3 assists per game with an overall plus-9.4 points per 100 possessions (that's versus the times he wasn't on the court. In pure terms, the Kings were plus-0.2 points versus opponents with him out there vs. minus-9.6 with him on the bench. Yes, the Kings were bad.)
He now joins a Suns team as their (likely) third highest-paid player without an obvious starting spot waiting for him. Is that a problem though?
Not if you consider that the Suns needed a second point guard to execute their attack the 78% of the time one of Dragic or Bledsoe were unavailable last year.
With the three guards at Hornacek's disposal, it will be much easier to sustain success.
"We feel it just gives us another weapon if something happens with Eric or Goran with injury, and not lose a beat," coach Jeff Hornacek told me after the press conference.
Let's see how that shakes out.
"We talked about it," Hornacek said. "We talked about how it was going to affect peoples' minutes, how we would play it. But again we still go into training camp with the guys that are here and are going to play."
If Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas play all 96 guard minutes, that's 32 minutes each. Each of Dragic (35.1), Bledsoe (32.9) and Thomas (34.7) played more than 32 minutes each game last year. Just by numbers, none of them can play the same minutes in 2014-15 as long as they take the court as a threesome all year long.
For Dragic, that may be a blessing as he got run down by the end of the season with all the minutes. But he won't need to drop too many though. He played a solid 33 per game in 2012-13 and finished stronger than he started, scoring 16 points along with 9.5 assists in 36 minutes per game in the second half.
Bledsoe clearly had never played so many minutes per game before - never exceeding 22 per game as a backup in LA - but he's arguably the best returning player for the Suns and will get plenty of minutes as the starting point guard. But he missed half the season with a knee issue and finished with only the 8th-most minutes on the team.
Thomas played his most minutes of his career last season, averaging nearly 35 per game, but figures to take the biggest hit in minutes behind the incumbent starters. To get a change of pace in the lineup for floor spacing, like Gerald Green, or size, like P.J. Tucker or Archie Goodwin, some minutes have to be squeezed from the three guards at the top of the pecking order.
Hornacek thinks the Suns can figure it out on a game to game basis.
"I think they will all be affected a little bit," he explained. "Like we did last year, when guys are going good they will be in there. We've explained it to them that some nights you're going to have it, some nights other guys are going to be hot and you're going to ride with them and maybe that game you don't play as much. The next game you might be the hot guy and you play some more."
Over the course of the year, if there are no injuries, you'll see a drop in total minutes from all three of the top guards. Dragic and Bledsoe will see the smallest drop, while Thomas and Green will inevitably see the bigger hit.
If you assume 30 minutes per game from Dragic and Bledsoe (60 total), that leaves 36 for Thomas and Green to share. Clearly, each has earned more than an 18-minute-per-game role.
Thomas started 54 games a year ago, playing 34.7 minutes per contest. Green just finished his best season of his career, playing all 82 games and starting 48 of them while playing 28.2 minutes per game with 15.7 points per game and making 40% of this threes.
But still Thomas, with the four-year contract and high-scoring profile, will likely take the bulk of those 36 minutes. Where does Green go? To the bench? Or to the small forward spot?
"He could," said Hornacek of the 6'8" Green taking some small forward minutes. "Or he could play the 4 with the three guards. That would be fun."
Hornacek is highlighting the tectonic shift here. Once Green is considered for some small forward minutes, what of the current glut that's already there?
P.J. Tucker is the team's starting small forward, and can't be taken off the floor without a shotgun. And, he just got a big new contract. Marcus Morris is entering his contract year and had the fourth-highest three-point percentage on a team that thrives on making threes. And then there's rookie T.J. Warren, the #14 overall pick in last month's draft.
All four of those guys, including Green, sharing just 48 minutes a night? Collectively, they played 131 minutes a night last season (Warren with N.C. State).
You have to assume Warren won't see any time as a rookie, and that Marcus Morris will shift to the power forward position on many nights. Still, that leaves a few minutes for Morris at the 4, a few minutes for Green at the 3 and Tucker getting the bulk of the time.
Now, on to power forward.
At PF, you have Markieff Morris (28 mpg last year) and newly signed Anthony Tolliver (20 mpg) and Marcus Morris (22 mpg). None were starters, but all were key role players last year. Squeezing them into 48 PF minutes will be difficult. All of them will make almost exactly the same money ($3 million per year) and all are in contract years. The Morrii will be restricted free agents, while Tolliver is only guaranteed for $400,000 in 2015-16 which makes him basically an expiring contract.
Hornacek knows it will be a mix and match game, and hopes that if the team stays the same they will come back with the same attitude as last year.
"Our guys were good about that last year," Hornacek said. "It makes it easier on us coaches that they understand that and respect that. They know that's the best chance we have for winning, the hot guys staying in, and they cheer for each other and that's what's great.
"As a player," Hornacek continued. "That's an environment you want to be in."
"I'm a fan of basketball and I watch a lot of basketball," Isaiah Thomas said at the press conference. "The Phoenix Suns were a team that I watched a lot last year. There was a lot of excitement. The guys, they seemed like they played for each other and with each other. They just had fun out there. Everybody counted the Phoenix Suns out and they won 48 games. I want to be a part of something like that.
"Even playing on the court against the Suns, there was really no arguing," he said. "There was just wanting to play, wanting to have fun and wanting to win. I wanted to be a part of something like that. The direction it's going is forward."
"The sum was greater than the parts this year," Lon Babby said at the closing press conference in April. "But things change. Contract change, players want to demonstrate that they have improved. I always say its like another school year. It's not the same each year."
Last year, only Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker were in true contact years and they didn't have to worry about their minutes. Each played as much as they could handle. Frye ended up choosing to be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but didn't have the pressure to perform because he could otherwise have picked up his 2014-15 player option.
This year will be different. Dragic, Green, Morris, Morris and Tolliver will all be fighting to earn their next contract, and yet all are fighting for minutes too. Dragic could lose time to Thomas and/or Bledsoe. And we've already covered the logjam among the other four, who all make about the same amount of money.
Let's hope next year the Suns are just as happy with sharing minutes as they were last year.
It appears that, above all else, money talks. And the Phoenix Suns offered a lot less than the Orlando Magic offered, causing Channing Frye to bolt the desert for the greener pastures of Orlando.
He said that 2013-14 was one of his favorite seasons ever, and that his joy was all about the process and the team more than wins on the scoreboard. He even ranked the 2013-14 team as his second favorite team ever (presumably just behind the 2010 Western Conference Finals team).
But Frye opted out of his 2014-15 option for $6.8 million and then two days prior to July 10, the first official day to sign with clubs, Frye left his home town team by accepting a fully guaranteed 4-year, $32 million contract with the Orlando Magic.
So why didn't he re-sign with the Suns?
You'd hope it would be about more than money, but so far that's what it appears to be.
"The question I always ask is 'would you take a hometown discount?'" Frye told Burns and Gambo Wednesday on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. "People say that, it's just absolutely ridiculous. Because the thing that happens is someone takes a discount. Let's say the market says they're worth $10 million and they take $5 million. The next day they get traded, so they're like 'well dang, why did I take $5 million if you're just going to trade me?'
"Think about it, our careers are short-lived. So why not go somewhere where you're going to be extremely appreciated, where you're going to be part of the future? People just say 'take a discount,' why? I'm 31. Why would I do that? I'm not asking for $15 million a year -- I'm not crazy. The market dictated what was going on and I took the best deal."
I love Channing Frye and everything he stands for, at least I thought. And I have ZERO problems with him taking the highest offer out there.
Definitely, take the highest offer.
Never take a discount unless you're forced to. Always, money talks. I'm all for that. There should be no hometown discount. Period.
But this is where I differ from Frye: "extremely appreciated" is not all money. You can be "extremely appreciated" is ways more than dollar signs.
But that's what free agency is all about. Dollar signs. The most dollars = the most appreciation.
If you're taking the highest bid, just take it and be happy and proud about that. Don't come up with that "they didn't appreciate me" crap.
Frye to Coro just after accepting the Orlando offer, and before he came admitting it was all about the highest offer:
"I felt like (the Suns) were saving money for other things," Frye said to Paul Coro of azcentral.com. "They were not close enough to me to take it seriously, which makes sense. It's a business.
"You have to be somewhere you're wanted. I felt like the guys who have been there for years became a side note."
"Phoenix was preoccupied with other things," Frye said. "I wish them luck, but I made the right decision. I feel like we had something really awesome going. I didn't want to leave it because I was really close with those guys."
Well, sure they were preoccupied with other things. The Suns were preoccupied with LeBron James. Everyone was, if they thought they were in the running.
But the Suns did want Channing back. He wasn't considered a side note. He wasn't ushered out the door with a pat on the butt.
The Suns wanted him back, though definitely at a lower number than $8 million a year for 4 years.
"I can say that we visited with him in Portland before free agency started," Suns basketball operations President Lon Babby told me. "We prepared a very thoughtful video of all the reasons why we wanted him to stay in Phoenix. We presented him with a book tracing his career back to his earliest high school days.
"I can't speak for him. I don't think that he really meant that we didn't express desire to bring him back. I think it was more he may have been commenting on the contract and the circumstances, something like that.
"We have a great deal of respect for him. We understand he's an important part of what we did. We made an effort to bring him back and he made a decision to make a terrific offer in Orlando. That's part of the business."
All this talk means one thing: The Suns wanted Frye back, but at a much lower price than Frye got from Orlando.
"No hard feelings about him accepting it," Babby continued. "We made a strong effort to sign him before he exercised his option in an extension. We were limited by the rules of what we could do, and he decided not to do that and become a free agent. You know I think it worked out well for him. I wish him well and he'll do well in Orlando."
The Suns opinion of 'strong effort' and Channing's opinion of 'strong effort' are vastly different, apparently. We have no idea what the Suns were offering, but clearly it wasn't in the same ball park of what Frye got from Orlando.
However, if the Suns were working within the confines of the CBA when offering an extension, as Babby indicated to me, here are the rules:
So, reading the tea leaves of Channing's comment "they were not close enough to me to take it seriously" indicates that the Suns were offering a lesser amount per year in 2015-16 and 2016-17 than Channing is currently making and certainly one less year than Channing really wanted.
Again, we don't know specifics. Maybe it was about the years (4 vs. 3) into the future. Maybe it was the money per year. Maybe it was both.
Really, if the Suns had offered to keep his salary the same ($6.8 million) or slightly increased it, would Channing have said he couldn't take it seriously? Especially if offered prior to his opt-out, which happened in the third week of June?
No. So my guess is the Suns offered what amounted to a two-year extension through 2016-17 at a substantial discount. And that's where Frye's pride got hurt.
Were the Suns right to offer a lesser amount to Frye than $32 million guaranteed over the next four years?
I'll tell you that at the end of the season, I saw no way the Suns would want to bring Frye back at his current salary ($6.8 million) let alone giving him a raise. I was hoping for something in the range of $5-6 million per year in the new years of the deal.
I also didn't want the Suns to commit more than two extra years, considering Frye's age already at 31.
However, I may be alone in that sentiment. The Suns will definitely miss Channing Frye. He was a unique player for this system, being able to spread the floor AND defend big men in the post.
ESPN lists Frye as one of the best signings of the summer.
Who knows if the Suns made a huge mistake in not paying $32 million to keep Frye. They replaced him with a guy who will likely produce a LOT less and accordingly make a lot less money (Anthony Tolliver). Tolliver isn't nearly as big as Frye and can't be counted on to defend the other team's 7-footer in the post.
The Suns will miss Frye, for sure.
"Channing got a great offer," GM Ryan McDonough said. "And I think he felt like it was best for him and his family to take it at the time it was offered. We wish him well going forward."
Did the Suns low ball Frye? Did they lose another free agent because they valued the contract more than the player?
The Suns lost Joe Johnson in 2004 and 2005 (yes, twice) because they didn't make him feel appreciated enough. To this day, team owner Robert Sarver says that was his greatest regret in his first few years with the Suns. He thinks if he'd handled the negotiations differently, JJ might have stayed and been happy in Phoenix.
The Suns lost Amare Stoudemire in 2010 because they offered an NFL-type contract (nearly $90 million, but only about 60% guaranteed against injury) whereas the New York Knicks guaranteed all five years 100%.
And those are just the big names the Suns lost to higher bidders after having been Phoenix Suns for years. It's important to note the Joe and Amare were both considered heavy overpays throughout the lives of their new contracts, but is that small consolation to having lost the player entirely?
Sarver says he's learned his lesson. But he and his management team let Frye go with the same unrequited love feeling.
Now the Suns have an even bigger problem, potentially, with Eric Bledsoe. The Suns have currently offered Bledsoe a contract at the top of his market as a point guard: 4 years, $48 million. It's higher than Steph Curry got, when he signed as an injury risk in 2012. It's the same that Kyle Lowry got this year, and Lowry has proven himself for four more years than Bledsoe has.
But just like in 2004 and 2010, it's not necessarily about being right. It's not entirely about being the cooler head, and not offering a fully guaranteed max deal just because you don't have to.
The Suns need to keep Eric Bledsoe in the fold, and they need to do it with Bledsoe's pride intact.
The Suns newest stretch forward is eagerly awaiting his opportunity to help the Suns shine.
Tolliver is a 6' 8" 240 lb forward, and a six-year NBA veteran originally from Creighton University. However, our own Jacob Padilla already did a fantastic job of detailing his history and identifying how he fits on the Suns team, so I won't rehash those details here.
Instead, during today's introductory press conference, Tolliver was able to answer some of the questions from his own perspective about how he envisions fitting in with the Suns, why he chose to play in Phoenix, and the journey he took to get here.
"I've been a lot of different places and played for a lot of different teams, all over the world," Tolliver said. "To get signed and play for a team like the Phoenix Suns, where I feel absolutely wanted and needed to help this team win is just a great feeling."
Anthony went on to answer the question of what Suns fans can expect to get from him as a player. "You're going to get a hard worker and someone who's never going to take a second of this for granted. I appreciate the opportunity for the bottom of my heart."
Still, Tolliver understands that this is a business, and that situations can change at a moments notice. But he's looking to make the most of his time in Phoenix, and hopes to make this a lasting relationship. "Hopefully this is a really long chapter," Tolliver said. "That’s the plan, to make this a two-years-plus chapter in my story."
"At the end of the day, I am a person that takes the punches as they come. Whenever I get an opportunity I take advantage of it and work as hard as I can to make it the best I can. If I have to move on I move on and if I get to stay, I stay." He continued, "But I'm not one to dwell on old stuff, I am all about what is going to come this next year. I am a Phoenix Sun and that is all I am worried about."
Anthony also provided a very honest answer on why he chose Phoenix instead of other potential destinations. "The biggest thing that tipped the scale here was the open arms, the ‘we want you here’," Tolliver said. "They were very forward with it. They didn’t say, we're looking at you and a couple other guys and we will see what happens", they said, ‘we think you're our guy.’"
Tolliver continued, "When someone says that, as simple as it sounds, as a basketball player your confidence goes up automatically. Coming into this situation knowing they were seeking me out specifically it really meant a lot to me."
Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek also expounded on the targeting of Tolliver to Dave King, "Obviously, the LeBron possibility took center stage. But once that was out of the picture, Ryan moved on things quickly. He had his guys that, once we lost Channing, to fill in and really add."
"It was quick," he added. "(Ryan) called me, he said ‘what do you think about these guys?’, I said I like them, next thing I know we got them. Ryan moves quickly when he knows guys are good for our team."
Suns President Lon Babby also expressed to Dave King how important signing Tolliver was to their plans. "Once we lost Channing, we had a list of potential replacements lined up and Anthony was at the top of the list. As soon as that decision was made, we began to pursue him."
So what made him one of the top priorities?
What Tolliver brings to the Suns first and foremost is his shooting. The reason he was brought in is to help fill the vacancy that was created once Channing Frye decided to sign with the Orlando Magic. Overall, he is a career 35.2% three-point shooter in the NBA. But he has increased his percentage in each of the last three years, focusing more on his shooting and posting an impressive 41.3% from beyond the arc in Charlotte last year.
"Going back to high school and college," Tolliver said. "I kinda knew I wasn’t going to be a 7-foot player, but I also knew with how the NBA was going, no matter how tall I was, that it would be a valuable thing to be able to shoot." "In college, they stuck me down on the block because I was the biggest guy on our team. But in the off-season, that's not what I worked on...I worked on shooting and being able to stretch the floor."
He continued, "This plan to make it to the NBA, was based upon me being able to shoot. Obviously it took me a couple of years to really get it going once I made it to the NBA, and be able to do it at a high level. Like I said, it has changed my life to be able to make it to the NBA because I am an undersized four, and I knew I had to 100 percent be able to shoot the ball."
And that is likely how the Suns plan to use him, as an undersized, but skilled power forward who can space the floor and make teams pay from deep.
Hornacek echoed this plan in an interview today with Dave King. "I think it will strictly be four. That’s what he’s used to working with and in our offense we need that guy, that four who spread the floor and shoot threes. He’s not a afraid to battle. He’s done it his whole career."
Anthony also identified what he plans to continue working on during the off-season.
"I'm going to continue to work on everything, you have to be a complete player to play in this league. Obviously I'll continue to work on my craft, which is shooting, but to be able to come back and show people some different things," he added. "A lot of people think I just catch and shoot it, which is a big part of my game, but there is a lot more I can bring to the table. I'm looking forward to being able to show the coaches and everyone here that I'm more than just a catch and shoot player."
On filling the void left by Channing Frye
"Playing against the Suns for the last however many years I've played against them, Channing's been a huge piece of that the last few years. I just remember how difficult it was playing against him in this system with these guards. When you add Isaiah Thomas to the mix, I just don't see how we can't be successful."
"Picking and popping is probably my biggest asset as an offensive player, and I know that's what (Frye) fed off of in this system. Just the ability for me to come in and use that, and use it to be able to also open up Isaiah (Thomas), Goran (Dragic), and Eric (Bledsoe) if he comes back it will be great. It will be a great fit for everybody. I'm not one that really cares about scoring a whole lot of points, all I care about is winning. So being able to use what I do to help the team win is all I care about."
On what he can provide beyond his ability as a stretch four
"I think I can put the ball on the court a little bit better than most people think. The last few years I've played at the small forward position. I'm big for a small forward, but not so big for a power forward. But I use my speed and quickness against the power forwards and am able to get to the basket and finish around the basket a lot more than I have been able the last few years playing at the three. Having some of the quicker three men closing out to me I can't really go past them as well. So I kept it pretty simple the past few years and either shot it or passed it. But I just fill a role. If the coach asks me to play the three here that's what I'm going to do. So I'm not saying I have to play the four to be successful. I've shown that I can be successful at multiple positions and guard multiple positions as well."
On whether the Suns' up-tempo style of play could help open up more opportunities for him as a player
"Absolutely. I pride myself on being in great shape, and always beating my man down the court most of the time, and using my speed, quickness, and length on the offense and the defensive end. Getting up and down the court it's hard for a team to set up the defense. If you have a little bit more size than I do, now I can just use my speed and quickness to beat you down the court and get up a shot before you even get back. I feel like this system fits what I do perfectly, and I just can't wait to get started."
Anthony Tolliver seems like a great fit for the Phoenix Suns, who pride themselves on players who give their all night in, night out. Tolliver also seems like he will be a great addition to the locker room, where the team chemistry they built last season seemed to be one of the key components of their success.
Whether or not Tolliver can replace a crucial component like Channing Frye remains to be seen. However, he certainly seems to posses the right attitude, team-first mentality, and will to win in order to do so.