The Suns have gotten off to a great start this season, although they haven't faced the stiffest of competition. The Suns opened the season with a double-digit win over a Portland Trail Blazers squad who wasn't ready for opening night. The DragonBlade bakcourt looked dominant while Miles Plumlee came out of nowhere to post a huge double-double.
Things went much less smoothly against the Utah Jazz on Friday, but the Suns still managed to come out on top thanks to some late heroics by Eric Bledsoe. Dragic and Bledsoe both struggled mightily early one, and the Dragon took an early exit after a collision with P.J. Tucker led to a facial contusion. After scoring just one point through three quarters, Bledsoe exploded for 17 in the fourth including the game winning three right in Gordon Hayward's eye with less than a second remaining.
The Thunder's first game went much like the Suns' second, as they pulled out a close win over the Jazz thanks to a big fourth quarter by Kevin Durant. Durant had 42 points, including 15 in the final period, and got just enough help from his supporting cast (14 each from Reggie Jackson and Thabo Sefolosha) to get the job done.
However, things got out of hand early against Minnesota and the Thunder never got back into the game. Durant finished with just 13 points while Jackson turned the ball over seven times and scored just eight points.
The Suns' early success has had a lot to do with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, which isn't a surprise at all. However, it's the unexpected production that is leading to these wins. Miles Plumlee has had double-doubles in both games, averaging 14 rebounds per game and showing off a nice array of skills offensively. P.J. Tucker, better known for his defense, rebounding and all-around hustle, has been a potent scorer early on with 18 and 12 points in the two games. Even Dionte Christmas, who made his debut after sitting out game one, came up huge for the Suns by hitting a couple of shots that got the team going in the second half (he finished with nine points, four rebounds and a game-high +17).
However, while these guys have been a pleasant surprise, the Suns have struggled mightily from 3-point range as most expected them to. Phoenix has shot a combined 10-41 (24.4 percent) from deep in two games. P.J. Tucker (he of the trebuchet shooting motion) has been the Suns' best shooter while Channing Frye has understandably struggled with his shot. The Suns are going to have to start hitting some shots if they want to keep winning games.
The Thunder have been without superstar point guard Russell Westbrook so far this season while he continues to recover from injury,
and that will be the case again in this game. Reggie Jackson played pretty well in his place during the playoffs after Westbrook went down, and played well in the opener. But he was a train wreck in their last game. Serge Ibaka has also been unable to get it going early in the season as he has yet to reach double figures in scoring and has shot 7-28 from the field. Second-year guard Jeremy Lamb hasn't even been as good off the bench as Kevin martin was last year, let alone James Harden. They needed Durant to go off for 40 in order to reach 100 points. That team is designed for Durant and Westbrook to score more than half the team's points, and without Westbrook this team is very beatable.
Dragic's status is unknown at this time; if he is held out I'm guessing Gerald Green gets the start and we see both Ish Smith and Dionte Christmas again. We'll update you when we know more. Per Paul Coro, Dragic is fine to play and left the last game early because the facial contusion inhibited his vision. No concussion as some had feared.
Let's take this in to overtime for a minute. With both the Suns and 76ers both getting a game under the belt, each were surprising and impressive in different ways. What is your one game, way too early, instant (over) reaction to Michael Carter-Williams having an otherworldly rookie performance?
The Suns were impressive in the fact that they played with amazing energy, got off to a hot start, and held off what most people would consider a playoff team. That was an entertaining game. The rookies were not overly impressive, but they are also not a part of the fabric of the team just yet.
It is a one game snap shot for both teams, but it seems that each are going to be more exciting than a typical bottom five lottery team. -- KH
That Sixers game was the best regular season win I've ever seen. They're going to lose a lot of games, sure, but it's such a great feeling for the players and coaches when they win in such a solid way. Also an F-U to people that think they're doing something wrong, which I'd like to repeat, is ridiculous.
MCW can play at a high level in the NBA. That's what we know from this. It won't be every night, but he's got the ability to do everything on the court to become a franchise point guard. That's crazy encouraging.
Seems like the Suns are really going to ease Len back into things. I don't really agree with that, unless it's an injury concern. Giving PJ Tucker 39 minutes seems like just a bad idea all around. -- ML
With Len it is 100% an injury concern. They are easing him in because his foot is still hindering him and they do not want to cause further damage. The team has done a good job of communicating that so Len does not get an impression of a guy that not playing well or is, thanks to recent memory, another Kendall Marshall.
What is wrong with Tuck getting the minutes? He is the teams best all-around wing defender, rebounder, and player in my opinion. The alternative is Marcus Morris and/or Gerald Green. Also, for one game, Markieff Morris was suspended so they were down a big and some players played out of position.
As we wind this conversation down, which has been fun, I would be remiss if I didn't bring up Nerlens Noel. Thoughts on Coach Brown verbally committing to him not getting on the court this year? -- KH
Tucker isn't part of future plans. His contract expires after this year. If he's trade bait, I get it, but even still. You want to get those young guys in there for more time. He's inessential to what the rebuilding plan is. He's Damien Wilkins from the Sixers last year. Maybe you don't have those young guys to plug in -- I don't think much of Gerald Green -- so that's more of an organizational problem coming into the season.
Brown most certainly did not "verbally commit" to Noel not playing this season. And it's not like they're keeping him out intentionally. He tore his ACL. The Sixers spent a very high pick on him. They will not rush him back until he's ready. He's vital to the team's future success and this season doesn't matter. When he's healthy, he'll play. Brown said as much. They're just not going to deal with timetables and "he'll be back in January" because of everything that happened with Bynum last year. It was a PR disaster, and this year is all about managing expectations. I believe Noel will play 20 or so games this year. But if Brown says a date and then he doesn't make it, it'll just add to the built-up frustrations of an exhausted fan base. -- ML
I get that. You do not rush back anyone from an injury and committing to a timeline can ultimately come back and bite you in the ass. It is almost the same situation as Len, different injuries with different severities, where you do not want to overexert a piece to the future puzzle.
For the 76ers, MCW and Noel are two of those long-term puzzle pieces. They have maybe 3-4 of those pieces at this stage in the game.
With the Suns, Len and Goodwin are both pieces. They also might have a few more in (either) Bledsoe and Dragic, Plumlee, and the Morris Twins. I agree that Tucker is not a long-term piece for the team, but as a veteran leader I can see him lasting on the roster for 4-5 years for the right price to be a locker room presence. We might have to agree to disagree on that one. The 76ers do not have that middling veteran that is not overly talented, but works hard get on the court. There is value in that for the young players in my opinion. -- KH
Well, differing perspectives, sure.
Congrats on the win, good luck this season with whatever you'd like the Suns to do. -- ML
Same here, hopefully the Suns and the 76ers can be a fun and exciting product for their respective fan-bases. That is all a fan can ask for in this situation of rebuilding. Thanks for jumping on and dealing with me via email for the past few days as we get started with this current NBA season.
Based on the way Michael Carter-Williams and Miles Plumlee debuted this could be a much more interesting season than anyone would of thought, for the the teams at the bottom.
Anyways, best of luck to you in the lottery. If anything, the Suns and the 76ers both seem to need the talent the No. 1 provides and deserve a shot at a franchise star player to lead the way going forward. That I am sure we can both agree on. -- KH
What do you think Bright Siders?
After finishing an abysmal 25-57 season with a middle-aged club, the Phoenix Suns entered the summer of 2013 with 10 players under guaranteed contract for the next season and only about $7 million in cap room to add free agents.
Seven million dollars does nothing to improve a 25-57 team, so the new GM set about to make wholesale changes.
"The talent needs to be upgraded across the board," General Manager Ryan McDonough said in his opening media conference in May after being hired.
Six of those incumbent players were traded or released. Ten players and two future first-round draft picks have been added to those returning four, including P.J. Tucker whose 2013-14 option was later guaranteed.
McDonough made four trades, drafted two rookies (three, technically, but only two are in the NBA) and signed one free agent (Dionte Christmas).
In the end, the Suns enter the 2013-14 season with 14 players (plus 6 upcoming first rounders in the next two years) and only sacrificed about $1.5 million in cap room.
The cap room during this season can be used to absorb the contract of another player(s) whose team is underachieving and want to rid themselves of salary (for the price of more assets, of course) by the Trading Deadline in February.
Flexibility is king, and the Suns have it. Only Philadelphia has more available cap space for contract absorption this year.
Well, in the purest sense, the Suns could have as much as $28 million dollars in cap space to spend in free agency. That's a lot a chedda - but the Suns would only have 8 players under contract, and each team can have a minimum of 13.
Only eight current Suns have guaranteed contracts for the 2014-15 season. All eight are currently in the Suns' top 10 rotation players: Goran Dragic, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len, Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Gerald Green and Channing Frye.
Yet it's not that easy. To get the $28 million in spending money, the Suns would have to renounce their rights to six free agents, though only two of them are in the regular rotation so far this season: Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker.
But it's very unlikely the Suns would just renounce their Bird Rights on Bledsoe and Tucker, so each will have a cap hold associated with them all offseason until they sign with the Suns or another team.
In addition, the Suns will be charged with cap holds for their four first round draft picks (guesses on their draft position are pure speculation at this time, but they cannot be ignored when considering cap space).
This means that on July 1, 2014, when it comes time to sign free agents, the Suns will likely only have about $11.56 million to spend. Cap holds are charged to teams so that they don't cheat the system and arrange to exceed the cap before re-signing their own free agents.
However, I have some very good news for Suns fans. The more you understand about cap holds, the more you will see the genius behind waiting to re-sign Eric Bledsoe until after next summer's feeding frenzy.
Bledsoe's "cap hold" while he is a restricted free agent is only $6.57 million. No matter how big the offer he gets, the Suns only have to keep $6.57 million in cap room available to match any offer from another team.
"From the Suns' perspective," Suns President Lon Babby said to Paul Coro of azcentral.com last week regarding not extending Bledsoe just yet, "It needs to be considered from the context that Eric will be a restricted free agent in the summer, which gives us matching rights. In the end, it seemed prudent to wait until July. In the meantime, we will be rooting for Eric to have a great season."
Babby later confirmed to me that "We can match an offer sheet with Bird rights. Salary in offer sheet is included in team salary once team gives right of first refusal exercise notice."
So not only do the Suns have the right to match any offer, they don't even have to have all the cap space to do it (just the cap hold), while the signing team needs every penny of the offered salary. The Suns can use their Bird Rights on Bledsoe to exceed the cap to re-sign him (for anything bigger than his cap hold).
Now you can see more reason why the Suns waited and why Bledsoe waited as well. Bledsoe will still get every penny, and then some, without strapping the Suns cap future yet. In the two weeks or so it takes to match a Bledsoe offer next July, the Suns will have $4-7 million more dollars to spend in free agency (the difference between his cap hold and the likely offer amount).
And by just doing a little more creative finagling to reduce cap number even further, the Suns could offer a mini-max contract to a free agent small forward or power forward (whichever hole remains after the draft) to pair with a re-signed Eric Bledsoe and the returning young core.
Imagine this current Suns team with a top-5 pick AND a top free agent next summer to fill the forward spots around Len/Plumlee and Dragic/Bledsoe/Goodwin. The best free agents will be restricted (like Bledsoe, 2010 draftees) who were not extended this fall, two of whom are named Gordon Hayward and Greg Monroe.
Even if the Suns don't want to spend all that money next summer, depending on trades between now and then, why tie up the money when you don't have to do it? Better to stay flexible as long as possible.
In the end, the Suns are in better shape than you might have thought next summer.
Whoops, I forgot about the stretch on Beasley's $2.3 million remaining, which adds another $1.6 in cap space starting next summer. By waiving Beasley, any future years are stretched by twice the remaining years plus one (ie. stretches 1 year into 3 years, in Beasley's case).
So, the numbers are even better than I thought. The Suns just need to make another minor trade OR renounce P.J. Tucker in order to have enough space to sign a mini-max next summer before matching on Bledsoe, IF that's that they want to do.
Renouncing P.J. Tucker doesn't preclude the Suns from re-signing him. It just doesn't give them the Bird Rights to do it - ie. exceeding the cap to bring him back to whatever contract he deserves. All that depends on Tucker's play this season, and the draft picks, and etc. etc.