"Hey, that guy in the uniform that is not purple and orange looks familiar. Didn't he play here? Great, now what am I supposed to do?"
By now the point has been hammered home hard enough by local and national media alike -- The Phoenix Suns didn't make the playoffs. Time to put that tool down before you knock down the structural integrity of your basketball knowledge. Good?
Now the NBA Playoffs still roll on and a unique thing about the Suns, and by my own admission I have no clue if other teams experience this because I do not track their rosters as closely, but the concept of Former Suns In New Places creates a unique basketball viewing experience right now. There are a lot of them. especially in the past 3-4 years when the team was overturned, rebuilt, and redone more times than Romeo & Juliet or King Kong Movies... They happen a lot.
So when those players go elsewhere do you have a natural urge to root for them to succeed?
When they were a part of "your" team obviously the thought would unanimously be for that player to be the best they could possibly be. Naturally, there is a bitterness towards success when you fell just shy of that same goal so a rooting interest in a former player might be tougher in this circumstance. For the most part ex-players become that way under amicable circumstances with outliers existing, but generally an ex-player is the same as a friend moving to a new city or a breaking things off with a significant other where you both knew this was fun, but not that serious.
Now if that girl started dating a good friend right away or your friend that moved starting working for a rival company, then it is natural to root against the overall success of their surroundings, but do you have to root against them personally?
We live in a very negative and bleak world where if something good is not happening for us as an individual we do not know how to sit back and appreciate success for another.
This roster was turned over seeing 37 different players in four years wear a Suns uniform for at least 20 or more games. That formally excludes Caron Butler, despite his efforts as a fashion model for the new uniforms before the season. With eight new players this year, four players that have been here 2+ years, one old face returning (Leandro Barbosa), and long standing holdover (Channing Frye) this is a team that has a lot of players in other uniforms this time of year.
What is the Standard Operating Procedure for rooting for them then?
Jared Dudley is a major fan favorite, but now resides on the Los Angeles Clippers bench with former head coach Alvin Gentry. He is a division rival much like Jermaine O'Neal on the Golden State Warriors.
Right now former big men Marcin Gortat (Washington Wizards), Michael Beasley (Miami Heat), and Luis Scola (Indiana Pacers) are jockeying for position in the Eastern Conference while Robin Lopez (Portland Trail Blazers) is doing the same out West. Gortat and Lopez were not necessarily appreciated here in the Valley for their own unique reasons, so it is tougher for most fans to appreciate their success.
Most of the former Suns players were here for a cup of coffee and then were out. It just happened that way as the different regimes were trying to figure out what this team was going to look like long-term.
Every year there is turnover, some years more than others, so why not root for, or at the very least appreciate, the success of these players in their future endeavors? The concept is tougher for the Nash's of the world who angle their way out to a division rival, but he also won a few MVPs out here and did some tremendous things. Same for the Marion's, the Dudley's, the Gortat's, and maybe not so much for the Beasley's or the Turkoglu's.
On the whole, as sports fans -- Can we root for former players in the playoffs?
Time to hand out some awards.
The NBA regular season is officially over. That means it is time to hand out some meaningless awards to players who will never see them. Everyone else is doing it, so I felt obligated to throw my picks out there as well.
My criteria is different for each award and is completely arbitrary. If you disagree with my selections, you are wrong.
Without further ado, here are my awards. I spent a lot of time making these, so I hope the recipients appreciate them.
There are a lot of deserving coaches this year. Some of them have been winning for years, while others have impressed in their first season.
Steve Clifford has done a terrific job turning the Bobcats around in one year. They went from a laughingstock to a playoff team and are playing some of the best defense of anybody right now.
Everyone here knows just how good of a job Jeff Hornacek has done for Phoenix. The Suns improved by 23 games from the previous season. They were 28th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating a year ago, and this year they jumped to eight and 15th, respectively. 11 of the 15 players on the roster had a career year (the other four being Channing Frye coming back after a year off, Leandro Barbosa, Shavlik Randolph and Slava Kravtsov). The Suns were one of the best stories league-wide this season, and that's due in large part to the work of Jeff Hornacek.
Gregg Popovich led the San Antonio Spurs to the top record in the NBA, finishing as the only team to crack the 60-win barrier at 62-20. The only three players on the roster to play 75 games or more are Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw. The regular starting five combined to miss 75 games, while Manu Ginobili missed another 14. The Spurs are a machine, and Pop is the engineer.
No Derrick Rose, Luol Deng traded away mid-year and Jimmy Butler missing 15 games, yet Tom Thibodeau refuses to let his team lose. The 48-34 Bulls clinched the No. 4 seed in the East. Joakim Noah has elevated himself to All-NBA status and Thibodeau has found a way for his team to win despite having one of the very worst offenses in the league - namely, one of the two best defenses in the NBA.
Doc Rivers has done wonders for the Clippers and their big men in particular as Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have both made big leaps this year. The Clippers hold the No. 3 seed in the West after finishing with a 57-25 record and are in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. They've missed a significant part of their team for much of the year in J.J. Redick an Chris Paul himself missed 19 games.
Clifford has done a great job with the Bobcats, but Higgins was the one who hired him in the first place. Clifford is also the one who signed Al Jefferson, who has had a monster year and nearly put up 22 and 11 per game. Clifford has also done a solid job of acquiring cheap role players such as Gary Neal, Josh McRoberts, Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts who have played well. All of these moves have turned the Bobcats into a playoff team, no small feat when you take into account the organizations history and where it's been the last few years.
First and foremost, Ryan McDonough hit a home run by hiring Jeff Hornacek. Second, let's take a look at the net result of what McDonough has done so far. Since taking the job, McDonough has acquired Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Ish Smith, the 2013 18th pick and the 2013 27th pick. In exchange, he has given up Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola, Kendall Marshall, Shannon Brown and Malcolm Lee. I'm calling that a big win for McDonough. The Suns have a deep roster with plenty of assets, yet McDonough has maintained cap flexibility while pulling all of this off.
The Blazers had one of the better starting fives in the league a year ago, yet they also had one of the worst benches I've ever seen. This year, Olshey rounded out the starting five by adding Robin Lopez and overhauled the bench by acquiring Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright and drafting C.J. McCollum. The result is 54 wins and the fourth seed in the West.
Finally, Masai Ujiri - the reigning executive of the year - moved to Toronto after they threw giant bags of cash at him, and he has continued to be a good GM. He ditched Andrea Bargnani, got rid of Rudy Gay and kept Kyle Lowry. As a result, the Raptors finished with the third best record in the East.
DeMarcus Cousins has always been an enigmatic talent. He put up numbers in his first few years, but they weren't all that efficient or impactful, despite the talent he clearly possessed. Then the Kings extended him, and many were wondering how he'd respond after getting his contract. Turns out, he elevated his game and cut out a bit of the nonsense. He's had a monster year, putting up 23 and 12 while improving his shooting percentage to almost 50 percent.
Goran Dragic made that very difficult leap from solid starting player to a true star in his sixth season in the NBA. He put up a solid 15 and 7 line amid the turmoil that was the 2012-13 Suns season and showed flashes of how good he could be; however, the consistency was lacking. This year, his points shot up to 20 as his shooting percentages went up across the board. He turned himself into a lethal scorer, shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and 54 percent inside the arc. He is one of the best transition players in the league, and his step-back/pull-up jumper has approached automatic status. Dragic was the driving force behind the Suns surprise season.
Gerald Green is another big reason the Suns have done so well. His career has been all over the place, bouncing between the NBA, the D-League and overseas leagues. He cracked back into the Association with a strong 31 games for New Jersey in 2012, signed with Indiana then promptly turned back into the old Gerald. He averaged 7.0 points on 37 percent shooting and only appeared in 61 games. The Suns acquired him as part of the Luis Scola deal, and he has been reborn under Jeff Hornacek. Green is still taking a lot of the same crazy shot he has been his whole career, only they are going in now. He averaged 16 points on 45 percent shooting and 40 percent from deep.
Markieff Morris' career got off to a great start, but took a nosedive after the All-Star break of his rookie year. He was awful for a year-and-a-half following the break. He was a power forward who shot 40 percent from the field. Forty. His offensive ratings were 97 and 96. And it's not like he was a great rebounder or defender either to make up for his offensive ineptitude. He completely turned it around under Hornacek, however, putting up a solid 14 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes per game off the bench. His shooting percentage shot up to 49 percent, he improved to almost 80 percent from the charity stripe and his offensive rating climbed to a very good 111. That's a 15-point bump in points per 100 possessions. That's huge.
Lance Stephenson has been a bit of a media darling, getting plenty of attention for the season he has had. He was hailed as one of the biggest All-Star snubs and is now being thrown around in many MIP discussions. His numbers are up across the board, as is his playing time and usage rate. His rebounding and distributing are up significantly. However, oddly enough, his offensive and defensive ratings are identical from the previous year and his win shares per 48 is only slightly up. Stephensn played a much bigger role this year, but he improved much more from his second to his third season.
Jamal Crawford won the award a few years back while he was with the Atlanta Hawks, but he made his case for a second award this season. He averaged almost 19 points in 30 minutes per game, the best per-minute scoring season of his career. He's only shooting 41 percent from the field and 36 percent from deep, however. He's also started 24 games and the 30 minutes he plays is the most of anybody on the list.
Taj Gibson has had the best season of his career for Chicago and has stepped up offensively with Derrick Rose out of commission. His numbers are very similar to Morris' at 13 and 7, and he's a terrific defensive player. He's a big reason Chicago was able to survive after Luol Deng was traded away.
I've already talked about Morris above. He's been terrific for Phoenix, and his new-found consistency has been key to the team's success. He was the only player on the team that provided interior scoring, and his ability to knock down jumpers as well helped space the floor. There were several stretches where he acted as the go-to scorer for Phoenix this season, and was even named Western Conference Player of the Week early in the season.
Bah, nobody cares about defense anyway. Nobody wins.
As much as I'd like to give this to a Sun - and Goran Dragic's name belongs in the conversation for voters' ballots - Kevin Durant is the only answer here. He has had a phenomenal season. He put up 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, and he nearly did it on 50-40-90 shooting. His running mate Russell Westbrook missed 36 games, yet Durant dominated and the Thunder won with or without their starting point guard.
Other names that belong on the ballot: LeBron James, Joakim Noah, Blake Griffin,
(He's not a Sun so he can make his own award)
There you have it. My completely unbiased picks for the end of season NBA awards. While the Suns won't win every award, it is a testament to the season they had that the team has legitimate candidates for each of them.
The Suns are in great shape going forward, with a 48-34 team and a ton of picks and cap space to add to the fun. Let's review what's to come this summer.
We have all summer to delve into this issue further, and believe me we will do just that. However, on the first day of the offseason it's time to set the stage for what's to come.
The Phoenix Suns finished with a 48-34 record, tied for the most wins by a team not to reach the playoffs. In the automated power rankings on ESPN that factors in recent play, strength of schedule, and offensive and defensive efficiency, the Suns finished the season ranked sixth overall.
But they didn't make the 16-team playoff field.
Minnesota, so far, has kept their top-13 protected pick. But if the Suns somehow jump to the top of the lottery, that would push Minnesota down one rung and... the pick would go to Phoenix.
But let's assume the 98.5% chance the Suns stay right where they are.
The Suns will enter 2014 NBA Draft season with three picks in the first round:
Last night, Washington jumped into 5th in the Eastern Conference thereby dropping the Suns' pick to 18th overall. The Pacers finished first in the Eastern Conference, but give the Suns the 27th pick because three Western teams had better records.
The Suns also are one of only a small handful of teams that still have 2013-14 cap space that can be used to absorb salaries during the draft in trades.
The Suns still have up to 3 first round picks in the 2015 NBA Draft to use in trades as well.
Going into the summer, the Suns will have two starters enter restricted free agency: Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker. Each player will have a 'cap hold' against the Suns' salary cap until they sign a contract with someone, anyone.
That's just over $11.4 million in cap holds - money they cannot spend in free agency even though the players are not under contract.
The only way that number changes is when (a) Bledsoe and/or Tucker sign an offer sheet or contract after July 1 and/or (b) the Suns trade one or more of the picks.
Unless the Suns renounce the rights to Emeka Okafor, they will have a cap hold - money they cannot spend - of $19.18 million this summer. Expect the Suns to renounce his rights.
If Channing Frye opts out of his final year at $6.8 million in order to secure a longer-term deal, which he just might do, then the Suns will incur a new cap hold of $9.6 million - a net increase against their cap of $2.8 million. That cap hold of $9.6 million will stay in place until Frye signs a contract or the Suns renounce their rights (his Bird Rights).
Frye just might opt out, with the intention to sign a longer-term deal that just might be less per year than $6.8 million in exchange for security. He talked about that this week - wanting security. He did not mention accepting less, money, but that's usually how it goes.
If that happens, the Suns cap space shrinks until his contract is signed, which cannot happen before the moratorium ends in July 11 at earliest.
Dionte Christmas has a deal for $1.15 million that is not guaranteed until July 31. He just might be used a salary filler in a trade in July, where the receiving team can release him after the deal is done.
Or, he might just be kept on the team as a great, great 12th man. There isn't a better cheerleader and locker room presence as 12th man out there.
The Suns have 8 players on guaranteed deals, including Frye, for the 2014-15 season. Below is a breakdown, in order largest salary to smallest salary of the Suns cap situation, per shamsports.com
These numbers are a bit misleading, as they include Eric Bledsoe's $3.73 million contract which he will never sign. Bledsoe does have the option to sign that deal and become unrestricted next summer but no player ever does that unless no one wants them and that's their last resort.
As far as guaranteed deals go, including Frye's player option, the cap total is only about $30 million.
But even then, the Suns do NOT have more than $31 million to spend in free agency. You have to discount the cap holds as well.
Here's the bottom line, including Frye's $6.8 million.
So, that's just about $20 million to spend while Bledsoe and Tucker are still just cap holds. Once they sign contracts, their cap number will change accordingly.
It's possible the Suns would sign a free agent for up to $20 million before Bledsoe and/or Tucker sign contracts/offers.
There you go, Suns fans. Not only do the Suns return their 48-34 pieces, but they can add up to $20 million in new pieces PLUS three more draft picks.
The Suns want to move into elite status soon, and they want to use this summer to do it. While trades are the most likely way to accomplish this ascendence, let's review the free agents available in July.
Phoenix Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough stated the obvious in Friday's season-ending press conference: that the Suns want to win even more than the 48 games they won this season.
"We are not going to sit here as a team that didn't make the playoffs and say we're all set," Suns GM Ryan McDonough said. "There are some roster upgrades you can make."
To keep those two among the league's best, you need to continue playing the offense that was designed this season which is predicated on spacing so they can drive to the hoop to create havoc. No more than one big guy can be in the paint on offense at any one time. The Suns accomplished this with front-line combinations of Channing Frye, Markieff Morris, P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris and Miles Plumlee this season - somehow playing a stretch offense while being passable on rebounding and defense as a team.
Somehow, the team finished in the top half of the league in defense (points per possession) and rebounding, while also being 8th on offense (points per possession).
However, each of those stretch-shooting players has limitations and a murky contract future.
"We would like to retain as much of our core as possible," he said, "but if you look at our cap sheet, we have a lot of flexibility coming up. But we also have big decisions to make. How can you upgrade the talent? Or, how can you retain the talent you already have?"
Both the Morris twins will be restricted free agents in a year. Channing Frye will either sign an extension this summer or become unrestricted next year. P.J. Tucker is restricted this summer, and might earn more money than the Suns want to pay.
McDonough specifically mentioned that the team would like to upgrade their talent, and that the small forward, power forward and center positions would be areas of focus.
"We could bring back all the guys," McDonough said. "But I think we'll make some tweaks and try to get better."
As we've seen with McDonough, the Suns are not all about signing free agents to improve the team's talent level. Last summer, they signed zero big-name free agents but executed four trades to bring in young, unproven talent that outperformed their contract.
Generally, free agents are already at the peak of their skills and are being paid commensurate with that production. In this age of salary caps, the more cheap rookie contracts you the better.
However, the Suns do have about $20 million in free agent money* to spend on day one of free agency. If they sign Bledsoe to his mini-max ($13.8 million vs. his cap hold of $6.5), that drops to $13 million. If they sign Tucker to anything more than his cap hold of $2.8 million, it drops further.
*After factoring in the new projected cap of $63.2 million, and adjusting the cap sheet from Lon's feedback to me, the Suns will have $19.7 million available on day one, including Frye's contract and RFA cap holds.
Will the Suns spend their $13-20 million in cap space on a free agent or two? Not likely. Most likely the Suns will save their room to use in a trade for a star that's not a free agent.
However, let's have fun anyway.
This summer, many of the "class of 2010" is up for RFA offers. This means that their current team can match any offer made by another team.
This helps the Suns keep Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker, or at least have final say over what happens with them.
But it hurts the Suns because the RFAs this summer are the best available free agents, as a combination of youth and productivity allows the Suns to spend money on their prime years rather than their sunset years.
Focusing solely on the RFAs that play the SF, PF and C positions, ESPN's Amin Elhassan ranks them thusly:
Monroe's season hasn't been the resounding statement he'd probably hoped it would be after failing to reach an agreement for an extension last October, but it bears mentioning that he's been able to maintain relatively even production despite playing in a pretty questionable situation. At 23 years old, he's got a world of potential, although his defense lags far behind his offense. This deal is framed against the comparable extensions signed by DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors.
Monroe is ranked fifth overall in this summer's free agency, behind Wade, Bosh, James and Nowitzki. He is the top available RFA, according to Amin.
Monroe is offensively talented near the basket but has no stretch game at all. When you need buckets as the game and/or clock wind down, Monroe can get you that. However, he's a sieve on defense. The Suns would likely improve their offense but worsen their defense by signing Monroe.
I would take a pass on this one.
2013-14 Salary: $3.5 million | Suggested AAV: $9 million/year, four years
Hayward has struggled with his shooting touch this season (3P% below 30 percent), but there will be no shortage of suitors willing to take a chance on him, particularly if he doesn't have to be a main offensive option. His size, age and skill level all make him a worthwhile investment, although his valuation gets knocked down to reflect the precipitous drop in shooting efficiency.
The Suns and Gordon Hayward have seemed like a good match for years, until Hayward completely tanked it this past season that is. Everything fell apart for him.
But you could say that his shooting declined when Hornacek left, and he's still just 23 years old. A reunion with Hornacek could be just what Hayward needs. As a small forward in the Suns' offense, Hayward could be that third playmaker and stretch the floor with shooting, while also rebounding at a good rate.
Hayward still put up 16 points, 5.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game in a bad year on a really bad Utah team. He draws 5 free throws a game (making 82% of them) and until this season made 40% of his threes. Hayward still appears to be a perfect fit in Hornacek's offense and though he's not defensive dynamo he moves better than Marcus Morris.
The hesitance with Hayward is a 30% three-point shooting this season, and the looming contract. It's hard to imagine Utah giving him away for a normal contract amount ($8-10 million per year), so the Suns would either have to entice them with a trade of good assets and/or offer bigger money.
I'd really explore this one hard, and try to get it done.
2013-14 Salary: $3.2 million | Suggested AAV: $5.5 million/year, three years
Davis' production has been encouraging: an efficient scorer around the rim (almost 68 FG% at the rim), an above-average shooter in midrange and an excellent rebounder. He hasn't had the minutes to post the type of gaudy numbers that can drive up his market value, so there might be an opportunity to lock him into a value deal.
Amin has Ed Davis ranked 19th overall this summer, and the #2 big man RFA available. He's been playing behind Zach Randolph for the past two years, so he really hasn't put up any numbers worth crowing about.
He's thin as a rail, and never been a full-time starter in the NBA. If the Suns pass on Monroe, they could offer a mid-sized deal to Davis but is he a real upgrade from Morris or Miles Plumlee? Davis doesn't shoot threes, so he's more of a Plumlee/Morris replacement than Frye replacement.
I'd say pass on this one. He's not a real upgrade.
Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade all could become free agents if they want (early termination options) but all make $20+ million per year. To get them, the Suns would have to work out a sign-and-trade with their current teams.
James and Bosh would fit very well on the Suns, while Wade would not (frail, plays SG) and Anthony would not. Anthony is a super-Marcus (like, Marcus x 1000) but that's not really the Suns scheme to shoot a ton of mid-range jumpers.
Let's cross these guys off the list for now.
Zach Randolph has an option to become a free agent too. He would be great in those big moments the Suns need scoring at the rim or a big rebound or both, but he would slow the team down and he doesn't play good D. At this point, I'd take Greg Monroe over Zach. Pau Gasol is another over-the-hill player who can score and rebound in big moments but otherwise is a bad fit on the Suns team.
Lance Stephenson has been coveted for a long time in the Valley, but his part in the Pacers' swoon cannot be discounted. I just don't see him being a good fit on the team in terms of chemistry. Gordon Hayward would provide much of the same production with a much better attitude.
And then there's Luol Deng.
16. Luol Deng | SF | UFA | 2013-14 Team: Cleveland Cavaliers
2013-14 Salary: $14.2 million | Suggested AAV: $7.5 million/year, three years, team option on third year
There will be a bidding war for Deng among several teams vying for his services, including his former team, Chicago. I still maintain my skeptical assessment of Deng's long-term effectiveness, and his performance in Cleveland thus far hasn't inspired confidence that he can provide All-Star level production going forward.
Deng is on the decline lately, and the Bulls were better after he was traded. However, Deng is still a very good SF who could play stretch-four a lot in the Suns scheme and can help improve the Suns defensively.
I would love to have Deng on the Suns, especially at the price Amin suggests.
2013-14 Salary: $7.7 million | Suggested AAV: $5.5 million/year, three years
Ariza went from being an invaluable piece in a championship team as an early 3-and-D player, to an overpaid player with an inflated self-opinion, to back to fulfilling the role he should have never left behind. One of the best corner 3-point shooters in the league (44 percent corners 3's), Ariza should be in demand for contending teams looking to upgrade their perimeter defense without sacrificing spacing. A three-year deal worth $16.5 million represents full midlevel exception.
Ariza certainly fits the bill for the Suns and would be a nice addition. I've just never liked him as a player, so I'm cold on this possible addition. He seems to me to be a bad investment as a mid-level deal you wish you hadn't made.
I'd rather keep Tucker than add Ariza.
In summary, the Suns are more likely to trade for their next big-ticket player but if they want a free-market solution I would lean toward SFs Hayward or Deng. Both are big enough to play stretch-four on occasion while spending most of their time as big SFs in the Suns scheme, and both would be clear upgrades at their position.
Deng is the easier addition because he won't require as much money and/or assets as Hayward, but he is 6 years older so his long-term future is one of steady decline.
As far as free agent big men go, none are a perfect fit for the Suns scheme.