The previous five months have been extremely frustrating for NBA fans. Until owners and the NBPA reached a handshake agreement early Saturday morning to end the NBA's lockout and start the season on Christmas Day, the prospect of losing the entire season was alarmingly real. After the entertaining and successful season the league just completed, blowing up this season was incomprehensible, but it almost happened.
The buildup and then collapse of one negotiating session after another, and mishandling of both the negotiating and public relations strategies by each side, had reached the point of absurdity. Hardcore fans watched and grew more and more dejected and angry while casual fans didn't even bother to follow. The current world economic situation made the squabbling of overpaid players and overly wealthy owners appear even more ludicrous.
With training camps scheduled to start on December 9th and a 66-game regular season December 25th, only 16 regular season games have been lost. Also lost was the NBA's summer league, extended free agent signing period, training camps and preseason. In their place will be a little over two weeks of combined FA signing, camps and preseason. From a calendar standpoint, about two months of meaningful basketball were missed by fans.
We've shared plenty of angry and frustrated words about the lockout on this blog, many written by me. Now that it's over, how long do you hold on to that bitterness or indifference brought about by the events of the lockout? Are you ready to let it go right now and fully embrace the Suns and NBA? Or will it take a little coaxing, maybe a thrilling Suns victory or two or additional time, to win you back? Will you continue to attend games if you had previously? Buy NBA League Pass if you live outside Phoenix? Buy NBA apparel?
Speak up, Suns fans. Our lockout coverage will soon be wrapping up, and the real league news will be coming hot and heavy over the next few weeks.
First, we must establish where the Suns fit into the new rules. Are they a Room team, a Cap team or a Tax team? This determination is made at the beginning of free agency, for the purposes of the rule set they must follow throughout free agency and into the season (with some specific exceptions outlined in the CBA).
Where are the Suns today, and what can they do in this abbreviated free agency and trading period?
A Room team is one whose salary cap number slides under $58 million. These teams can spend up to that 58 million cap. After that, they can only use Bird, minimum-salary and a new 'Room Team Exception' (2.5 million) to exceed it.
A Cap team is one whose salary cap number fits between $58 and $70.3 million. These teams are limited to using exceptions only: the new Mid-level (starting at 5 million, with a 4 yr max), bi-annual (starting at roughly $2 million, 2 year max), Bird Rights re-signings and veteran-minimums. Caveat: those who are less than 1 million away from the 70.3 can only offer a mid-level that keeps the team less than 4 million over 70.3 after the transaction is complete. Same is true for sign-and-trades.
A Luxury Tax team is one whose cap number is more than $70.3 million. These teams are even more limited in their spending (this was the main crux of that last month of the lockout). But since the Suns are not in this category we can discuss those rules in a different story.
Where are the Suns? Check out this excel sheet (click to enlarge)
The Suns, despite having only $50.7 million in guaranteed commitments this season (assuming the 4 million to release VC), have another 18 million in "cap holds" that place them squarely in the Cap team group.
"Cap holds" are those expired contracts that remain as holds on the team's salary cap so they won't circumvent the cap rules by allowing all their contracts to expire, then sign $58 million worth of new talent and THEN exercise Bird Rights to re-sign their old players. "Holds" are usually bigger than the last contract amount (Hill and Brooks are 200%, for example) to further dissuade this practice. Teams can renounce these players at any time, but that renounces their ability to exercise Bird Rights (longer contract, larger raises) on them.
So, the Suns are a Cap Team even though they only have 8 guys under guaranteed contracts.
This means the Suns can supplement their 8 signed players using only the following options:
rookie deals (Markieff Morris)
the new Mid-level exception ($5 million to start * 4.5% raises on year 1 salary * 4-year maximum = $20.675 million total)
minimum-salary exceptions (Lawal, Siler, Dowdell)
trades (regular trades involving any of the 8 signed players, including sign-and-trades and extend-and-trades)
This means that the most the Suns can offer any one player, unless they execute a sign-and-trade or extend-and-trade is $5 million in year 1. Look at the fringe-starter market for the Suns this offseason. This is true for most of the league, however, and is down about 20% from last year ($5.85 million to start, on Chilly's contract).
While sign-and-trade and extend-and-trades are still allowed, they are only allowed with shorter contracts like regular free agents. (Example: Amare actually signed a free agent contract with New York, not a Bird Rights contract, so that sign-and-trade would be allowed. Example 2: Carmelo Anthony, however, signed a full Bird Rights extension in conjunction with his trade to New York. In the new CBA, he would have been limited to 3 new years at 4.5% raises versus 4 new years at 7.5% if he'd stayed in Denver at least 6 months afterward.)
Assuming sign-and-trades and extend-and-trades become less attractive to star players or restricted free agents, you can probably rule out restricted free agent Marc Gasol coming to Phoenix (as an example).
Otherwise, if you're looking for the Suns to acquire a star, they would have to make a big trade. And since their second-biggest contract is only about $7 million a year, the Suns would have to package multiple players to acquire that star.
The good news on trades is that a Cap Team or Room Team can now have a 50% difference on matching salaries (plus $100,000, up to $5 million difference in real dollars). This is better than the old CBA, which allowed up to only 25% difference in salaries. Now, a $7 million player(s) can net a $10.6 million player(s).
Expect a lot more trades this year than in prior years, especially since most of the league is made up of Cap Teams.
I've been very resistant to post this story. In fact, I wrote it four months ago, at the beginning of the lockout, figuring I'd trash it once the lockout was over and the prospect of Suns basketball gave me goose bumps again.
Well, the lockout is effectively over, and I'm not feeling goose bumps.
The more time that passed without basketball, the more objective I feel I can be with this Phoenix Suns team. Without major change, this Suns franchise is hovering in the 25-win (in the event of an inevitable Steve Nash injury) to 35-40 win territory (even if he is "healthy") for the next couple of years. And then after that, if the front office doesn't perfectly plan the transition to the inevitable post-Nash era, we could be looking at 10-15 of years of rebuilding (eye-opening Scott Howard article) while becoming a lottery staple amongst the Clippers, Twolves, Warriors, Pistons, Kings and so many others.
Even in the near term with a healthy Nash, the likely 35-40 wins a year is the WORST place to be in the NBA. You don't get a star draft pick (yet another eye-opening Scott Howard article) and you don't make the playoffs. You just exist in limbo, signing mid-level free agents and drafting mid-level college players in hopes of getting lucky.
The Suns need young, healthy superstars around whom they can build a new winner into the future. Yet, a slow fade by Nash keeps you shopping in the dollar store.
But where do they come from? How do we get that 1-2 superstars in the desert?
If you'll remember, I wrote an article in summer 2010 detailing how "carry-your-team-to-a-championship" superstars must be found via the draft. Trades and free agent signings almost never hit that jackpot. Just look at all the league champions since 1989, covering 22 seasons. Shaquille O'Neal (4 rings) is the only free agent example to date. Kevin Garnett/Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace/Chauncey Billups (1 ring per pair) are the only trade examples.
By contrast, Michael Jordan (6 rings), Tim Duncan (4), Hakeem Olajuwon (2), Kobe Bryant (2 as the head honcho), Isaiah Thomas (2) and Dirk (1) have led their teams to 17 of the last 23 championships as their team's draftee. Even O'Neal (Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade) and Garnett/Allen (Paul Pierce) had a superstar draftee on their team when they won the championship.
If you want a championship, forget the outlier (Pistons in 2004) and accept the truth: the Phoenix Suns will not win a championship until they DRAFT the superstar who will carry them there.
And the Suns will not draft their next superstar while Steve Nash remains in Phoenix. He wins too many (but not enough anymore) games. Plus they need the cap room in summer of 2012 by not having his 10+ million on the books.
And when is the best time to trade Steve Nash?
As soon as the lockout ends.
Reason 1: Money. The Suns have already sold the tickets they are going to sell for next season, and that one's only 66 games. The key is the summer of 2012 and a new ticket-selling season. As long as the Suns acquire a new "ticket-seller" by next August, Sarver won't have lost much of anything.
Reason 2:The 2012 Draft is loaded, already being hailed as the best draft since 2003 (which boasted LeBron, Anthony, Bosh and Wade plus 4 other all-stars). If there was a year to have a top-5 pick, 2012 is it. Six top young college players pulled out of the 2011 draft to wait out the lockout in college. Another half-dozen incoming freshmen are considered the best in a long while. By the end of the college season, a handful of these guys will have "multiple future all-star games" on their prospect profiles.
Reason 3: There are a lot of major free agents available in the 2012 offseason, with a more-Suns-friendly CBA on the horizon to help sign them. You get Nash off the books and spend next season cleaning house, you're looking at $30-40 million available to spend on the draft and free agency. Unrestricted free agent stars: Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Deron Williams. Restricted free agent stars: Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook.
Not convinced yet? Compare these two scenarios...
Scenario 1 - Keep Nash, Close Eyes, Cross Fingers and Hope For The Best
Keep Steve Nash and Grant Hill through at least the 2012-2013 season. Pray you hit the jackpot with an all-star player at the 11-18 slot next June.
In that scenario, the Suns would likely have about $43 million committed to 9 players entering the 2012 season: Nash @10 mil, Hill @3mil, Morris @2mil, new rookie @1.5 mil, plus Gortat, Childress, Frye, Warrick and Dudley.
Basically, the same team we've got today and only about $10 million to spend on free agency. That's 1 or 2 more mid-level veterans. No way a superstar (Howard, Paul, D Williams) comes to play with a fading Phoenix team still hanging its hat on Steve Nash.
Another couple years of 30-45 wins, here we come.
Trade Steve Nash and Josh Childress to the New York Knicks for SG Landry Fields, PG Chauncey Billups, combo G Toney Douglas and the rights to rookie PG Iman Shumpert. Really, there's nothing else on that team worth having that NY would give up for Nash.
Figure out how not to play Billups. Either buy him out or trade him again for more young talent.
Win 20-25 games, resulting in a top-5 pick. Draft the player with the best potential, regardless of position.
That summer, the Suns would have only $24 million committed to 8 players:
5 quality backups (PF Morris, PF/C Frye, PF Warrick, PG Shumpert and combo G Douglas)
Scary? Sure. That lineup right there would win 20 games a year.
Tons of options? YES.
That lineup leaves $30-40 million to spend on a "star" free agent PLUS your top-5 draft pick and one more starter to fill whatever hole is left. $30-40 million is a lot of cheese, folks. And a top-5 draft pick next spring will likely net you a multi-time all-star.
Forget Dwight Howard. That would be just mean to the Polish Hammer.
But if you're PG Deron Williams or Chris Paul, would you want to step into a young 10-man rotation with a rookie superstar plus 3 solid starters and 5 proven backups ready to raring to go?
We will have an NBA season! According to several reports, NBA owners and players arrived at a handshake agreement on a new CBA a little after 3AM EST today. A 66-game regular season will start on December 25 once the deal is ratified by a full vote of players and owners, and a fast, furious free agent signing period and preseason is completed.
Finally!!! Much, much more to come on this breaking news story. For now, do a happy dance, raise a drink in honor of pro basketball's return next month and start thinking about how the Suns will try to improve their roster via free agency once the free agent signing period starts.
This here basketball blog will soon be filled with content about real basketball!!!!
@HowardBeckNYT: Free agency and training camps set to start simultaneously on Dec. 9, Stern says.
Beck's full story in the New York Times can be found here.