When the season began there was little doubt who the Phoenix Suns best players were supposed to be, but as the season has progressed there have been others who have stepped up their game.
One of them, without question, has been 16 year veteran back-up center Jermaine O'Neal.
He has had a resurgence for the Suns as most veterans seem to do with the great training staff here. That and his loyalty to the team that gave him another chance are the reasons why O'Neal has publicly stated he would like to remain with the team for the rest of the season.
Jermaine O'Neal tells ESPN that he is staying with Suns and NOT seeking contract buyout. More to come shortly
That is loyalty coming from a player that is coveted by contenders to solidify their chances for a title.
Time will tell whether or not the Suns have the same feelings towards O'Neal. As the roster stands today, the team has 15 total players on the roster including recently acquired center Hamed Haddadi and tweener forward Marcus Morris. Will Jermaine make the cut?
Everyone's going to talk about the rotation now, which is a mishmash of disparate parts to be sure.
The Suns now have too many of the same kind of player, so basically its just up to head coach Lindsey Hunter to give people trials. That means playing some guys for a week or two, then moving onto someone else.
You can't look at today's roster (below) and project the same minutes for guys in each game the rest of the year. It's going to be a moving target on the lineup each night.
Notice I used the term 'wing' because I believe the wings are interchangeable, depending on who's on the floor together. They can switch on defense to match the opposition.
In fact, on the whole roster, there's only 3 guys (Kendall Marshall, Marcin Gortat, Hamed Haddadi) who can only really play one position, but even that gets muddled. O'Neal and Gortat have played time together - who knows who the center is at that point.
But everyone else can switch around: Goran Dragic and Diante Garrett can be PG or SG, all the wings can be either SG or SF, Marcus Morris and Michael Beasley can both be SF or PF, and Luis Scola and Markieff Morris can be either PF or C.
That's what Hunter will have to do. Play 9 or 10 of the 14 guys each night, mixing and matching lineups for evaluation. I don't see anyone playing every single game from here on out. Even Dragic, Dudley and Gortat will be more and more likely to sit in the season's final weeks if Hunter really wants to see other guys.
Let's look at summer.
Here's the guaranteed salaries.
It adds up to:
They will have 12 players on guaranteed (or partially guaranteed) contracts for $50.9 million dollars.
As you can see, the Suns will have about $9 million to spend on free agents AFTER counting the rookie cap holds but before picking up the salaries of non-guaranteed players (P.J. Tucker, Hamed Haddadi) or qualifying offers (Diante Garrett). Marshall and Morris*2 have already been guaranteed for next season.
And, this does not include more trades of current players.
If the Suns release someone and use the 'stretch' provision, they can have more money available. In the right-hand column, I comment on remaining years and whether a player can be "stretched" if released.
The big "IF" here is Shannon Brown. Since he has not been moved or released, the figures above assume the Suns keep him on the roster. If they release him, his cap number drops by $3 million because they use the "stretch" provision to spread the $1.75 million guaranteed over 3 years instead of one. If they don't use the "stretch", then the cap hold is $1.75.
So, Brown is the difference between $9 million available and $12 million available. Expect the Suns to wait until the last possible moment to decide what to do here. Look at the roster: not a single other real SG besides Brown.
The other guys the Suns could "stretch" upon release are Goran Dragic or Michael Beasley. Every other player is either on a rookie or non-guaranteed contract, or was signed under the prior CBA which prohibits them from being "stretched".
That's where we are, fans.
You could make the case that adding a $9-12 salaried free agent PLUS two lottery picks to a supporting cast of Gortat, Dudley, Dragic and the others can propel this team right back into playoff consideration.
Or, you can say the Suns still have a LOT of work to do to change out those 12 returning players.