Stay patient, kid. Vegas will wait for you.
Stay patient, kid. Vegas will wait for you.
There is has always been a constant battle within an organization to choose between building for the future or winning in the here and now. That battle often leads to questionable decisions that hindsight picks apart like ants on a piece of forgotten bread on the picnic blanket...
An ongoing trend in basketball has been the poor development of young players. Let's correct that statement: The poor development of non-superstar level players. Or to take it a step further simply the lack of development in basketball.
In recent years too many talented players that have the potential to add something to a franchise have been tossed aside like those pieces of bread on that blanket, but there is never a real, rationale, or reasonable reason delivered as to why. Why should an 18 or 22 year old that has shown promise simply be cast aside? Why is Thomas Robinson, a former No. 5 Overall pick in the NBA Draft, on his third NBA team begging for opportunity?
Also, why is Samantha Prahalis, the 2012 No. 6 Overall pick, without a job?
There is never a real answer as the responsibility is stripped from the organization that made a commitment to the player. Players are attacked and buried in the media when they move from team to team making power plays and demands like year after year. They do as they please or as much as they can with contracts being considered, but when they do that they are vilified. Organizations, general managers, and coaches do the same thing and are not.
The responsibility to develop these players is dismissed. The responsibility as a whole is dismissed, flicked into the grass, and along with the ants; completely forgotten.
That lack of development and lack of responsibility happens more and more in basketball. For the Phoenix Mercury, Sammy Prahalis is the latest casualty in the lack of responsibility to the younger generation of basketball players that may or may not have "superstar" potential. She became a fan favorite and showed promise as a rookie with little help around her before becoming one of those ants without a crumb, in the grass, and abandoned.
This is an affirmation of the times as young players are discarded without rationale, reason, or any sense of responsibility.
Last season Prahalis filled in admirably for a group that more resembled an M.A.S.H. ward more than a professional basketball team.
She didn't ask any questions, just started 28 out of 28 games giving the Mercury a steady ball-handler in place of the idle Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor. With her at the helm of a team that suited up 14 different players the team only won seven games, but without Taurasi and Taylor they were the equivalent of the Miami Heat if they featured LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in suits with Mario Chalmers and Chris Bosh as the nightly one-two-punch.
This season Prahalis started off doing only one thing wrong; playing behind All-World Taurasi who was back to claim her thrown in the WNBA after missing nearly all of last season.
By her own admittance Prahalis struggled early on, but the only reason she was brushed aside this week was because of a lack of patience, development, and team responsibility.
Yes, Taurasi is playing on a level not even seen by Taurasi during her amazing career. She is leading this team offensively playing at an all-time high. She needs the ball in her hands. But does that mean Prahalis does not need a locker in central Phoenix? Head Coach Corey Gaines speaks to the lack of minutes for Prahalis with direct correlation to the play of Taurasi. As a head coach it is Gaines responsibility to find the right role, spot, and time for his young guard to get on the court and develop.
Coaching is all about winning and a coach will do what is required to win no matter the cost. The game is the game and the system is rigged, but it does not mean it is right.
That cost can at times be punishing the infallible.
Across all levels of basketball this has become the case. Development and responsibility have been cast aside by coaches and teams to the point where players are more and more being put in this situation.
Over the past five years 21 lottery picks were traded before making it to the end of their third season in the NBA. That is 4.2 players per lottery that are cast away for different reasons and circumstances, basically 30% of the lottery picks over the last five seasons. Between the years 2003-2007 there were 19 lottery picks that were traded or moved before the end of year three. The exclamation point came in 2010 with eight lottery picks flicked off the blanket in their first or second year in the league. No patience. No responsibility.
If that is the precedent going forward, what does that say about the game? If you are not a star by game 200 you are expendable?
Robinson is the new benchmark after lasting 51 games before the Sacramento Kings sent him off to a new home. Then, just 19 games later, the Houston Rockets delivered him to the Pacific Northwest for his third uniform in less than one year. For the first 51 games Robinson played in dysfunction with the Kings before they turned him into Patrick Patterson and cash.
The Mercury didn't turn Prahalis into anything. Rather, they waived her just 36 games into her career after eight DNP-Coaches Decisions and a rough start to her sophomore year.
As a 23 year old point guard Prahalis has the potential to be a serviceable starter for years to come, or, at worst, a change of pace guard off the bench that can create offense for others and shoot the ball. On a team filled with stars, aging by the minute, having a young talented player off the bench can be invaluable. It can be invaluable if the emphasis of the team is development.
There is no reward, no responsibility, and especially no trueheartedness in this business. This is after all is a thankless business for young players like Robinson, Prahalis, and many more to come.
Much like any other professional sports league, the NBA is as much a business as it is the greatest mass display of the sport of basketball. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement, ratified in December of 2011, is the contract between the NBA and its players that dictates the rules that the league, its teams, and its players must adhere to. Specifically, every NBA team is subject to certain financial restrictions that ultimately affect its success. Therefore, it is important to understand the relative standing of a team's salary situation in order to analyze its future opportunities for success.
The Phoenix Suns are currently in the midst of a very important transition period. The Suns' roster already looks significantly different that it did just a couple months ago, thanks in large part to new GM Ryan McDonough. As the team looks to continue and accelerate the rebuilding process, it hopes that the final result will yield a squad that can compete at an elite level for several years. Therefore, effective salary cap management is not just necessary, but crucial to the future success of this Suns team. A look at current and future Suns salaries reveals that the team will have many options to optimize future financial flexibility (for further information on the NBA salary cap, check out the CBA Salary Cap FAQ and my recent piece on how the 2013-14 salary cap affects the Suns).
In an effort to play the role of resident "capologist" here at Bright Side of the Sun, I compiled the spreadsheet above of the Suns' salary situation, which I will update and maintain as the team makes personnel changes (a link to the full spreadsheet can be found here). Most of the salary data was obtained from ShamSports and Hoopsworld.
As can be seen above, the Suns currently have 15 players on their roster with a total salary amount of $58,290,564, which leaves them just a hair short of the 2013-14 NBA salary cap. This means that as things currently stand, the Suns have very little room to maneuver in terms of team salaries or free agency. The team does have the "Room Exception" at its disposal, which would allow them to use a $2.652 million exception to sign a free agent. However, there's really no reason for them to go beyond the salary cap to sign an additional player. The Suns essentially lack the cap room AND the roster space to add any player without first getting rid of a player or two.
The prime suspects to be included in any possible Suns trades throughout the course of this season are Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola, and possibly Shannon Brown. Gortat is one of the team's most valuable yet tradeable assets due to the simple fact that he's probably more valuable to a team that is currently better than the Suns are right now. Scola is in the same boat as Gortat, though his value is lower. Brown currently has no place on this team and his expiring contract could prove to be useful to a contending team that might value his services off the bench (or he could be included as trade filler). Caron Butler (expiring) could also potentially be moved at some point in this upcoming season.
In any trade, the Suns would have to take back equal or less salary than they send out. After the Bledsoe and Butler for Dudley trade (which added about $6 million to the Suns' payroll), the team can no longer afford to take back additional salary in lopsided trades. The team also doesn't have the roster space to execute another two-for-one trade (like the Bledsoe trade, once again). The best bet for the Suns is to package two or more of the team's players for one player or expiring contract (and/or draft picks). A deal like that would free up cap space for this year and beyond and it would create a roster spot or two for the Suns to sign an additional player if need be (one of the member of the Summer League squad, for example).
Looking at the Suns' salaries in future years, several things stand out. The team currently has three major expiring contracts in Caron Butler, Marcin Gortat, and Shannon Brown. Furthermore, Michael Beasley and Luis Scola's contracts are only partially guaranteed for the 2014-15 season. Although the absolute guaranteed total salary figure for the 2014-15 season is $15,594,880, we can assume that Channing Frye will pick up his player option for that season and that the team will pick up the team option on at least one or more of Kendall Marshall and the Morris twins.
Once you factor in the extension that Eric Bledsoe will receive from the team, the Suns will be looking at anywhere between $15-25 million in cap room in 2014 (depending on trades, 2014 draft picks, and decisions regarding the team options). If the Suns elect to retain their cap room next year and head towards a 2015 reset, the team could potentially have more than $40 milion in cap room the following year if Eric Bledsoe, Alex Len, and Archie Goodwin are the only players with contracts through that year.
Even though much of this is largely hypothetical (anything can happen between now and 2014 to dramatically alter the team's cap situation), one can see that the Suns are well-equipped to optimize cap flexibility in the future. Although they are capped out for this NBA year, they will have significant cap space over the next couple offseasons to accelerate the rebuild. The team will probably be looking at a high 2014 draft pick and cap space for one max contract that year or multiple max contracts the following year.
Suns fans were justifiably bewildered when the team elected not to waive Shannon Brown and his partially guaranteed salary for the 2013-14 season. I was one of the many people who had hopes that the team would choose to waive Shannon Brown and only have to pay him $1.75 million instead of the full $3.5 million the team now owes him.
However, there are definitely several reasons why keeping Brown is possibly better for the Suns' situation. Had the team waived him, they would essentially have paid half of his guaranteed salary just to get rid of him. Instead, they are now paying his full salary not necessarily just for his on-court services, but also for the right of control over him and his contract. The Suns now have the entirety of Brown's $3.5 million expiring contract on their books, which, believe it or not, could actually be an attractive asset to several teams. Moreover, they can now include Brown as part of a bigger deal in order to package multiple players and match salaries in a potential trade (like a 2-for-1 deal I referred to earlier). Furthermore, Shannon Brown is still an NBA rotation player. He may be of no use to this particular Suns team, but several other teams could find his skills (and his contract) useful.
Basically, there is almost always more value in paying a guy $3.5 million and having control over him than paying him $1.75 million just to get rid of him.
Just a short year ago, many Suns fans were filled with excitement and hope that the enigmatic Michael Beasley would perhaps find a way to effectively and consistently unleash his "talent" and finally find a home in Phoenix. Fast forward to today and a large population of Suns fans are eager to chase him out of town, calling for the team to cut ties with him immediately. Although I agree that Beasley most likely doesn't have a future with this team, I argue that it makes more sense for the Suns to hold onto him for another year.
If the Suns waived Beasley today, they would take a cap hit of $6 million for the 2013-14 season and $3 million for the 2014-15 season (Beasley's 14-15 salary is only guaranteed for $3 million). If the team elected to use the stretch provision on him, his remaining guaranteed salary of $9 million would be paid in installments over the next five years, resulting in a cap hit of $1.8 million every year through the 2017-18 season.
If the Suns instead kept Beasley through this season, they could waive him outright in the 2014 offseason and only incur the $3 million cap hit resulting from his remaining guaranteed salary. They could also stretch his salary next year, which would result in the $3 million being paid over the course of three years, meaning that the team would take a cap hit of $1 million every year through the 2016-17. This means that the Suns would take a smaller cap hit per year AND for fewer years if they just keep Beasley through this season.
As can be seen, retaining Michael Beasley for one more year is actually much more beneficial to the Suns' financial future than it would be to waive or stretch him during this offseason. There is also the (incredibly small) chance that Beasley, in limited minutes, enjoys success on the court as a stretch four off the bench. Regardless of how the Suns plan to use him (or even if they don't want to play him at all), it makes more sense for the team to keep him around for another year. Sorry, Suns fans.
Luis Scola's contractual situation is a bit different from the previous two examples. Claimed off amnesty waivers by the Suns last year, Scola finds himself as a 33 year old veteran stuck on a rebuilding squad. Scola's contract is a bit trickier than Brown's or Beasley's. He is set to make $4.5 million this season and although his full salary for the 2014-15 season is about $4.9 million, only $941K is guaranteed, with potential to increase to $1.441 million based on number of games played.
This means that Scola is essentially almost an expiring contract this year since he's only due less than $1 million next year. That makes him a much more attractive option to contending teams that might want to trade for him this season, knowing that they wouldn't have to pay the full $4.9 million salary to a 34 year old Scola in 2014. If the Suns hang onto him for this entire season, he could also be a very interesting trade chip during the next offseason due to his non-guaranteed salary. This useful caveat of his contract makes Scola a somewhat valuable asset to have in possible trades. Due to this fact (as well as the fact that this Suns squad really doesn't need someone like him), I think Scola is the most likely Suns player to be traded.
Although the team is set up to have significant cap room in the future to go along with some solid pieces in Dragic, Bledsoe, Len, Goodwin, and a high 2014 pick, the trick lies in effective management of that cap space. Ample cap room can be a a double-edged sword: just as proper salary management can turn a rebuilding team into a contender, irresponsible use of cap space can set a team back for several years. Suns fans can remember the malaise we felt in the summer of 2010 when the team used up significant cap space on the likes of Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress, and Hakim Warrick.
The Suns are definitely in a better place now as a franchise than they have been at any point in the last couple years. Ryan McDonough has the team heading in a great direction in this rebuilding period. It all starts with adding a couple major pieces through the draft (Alex Len and Archie Goodwin this year, ? next year), is accelerated by acquiring undervalued young talent through shrewd trades (Eric Bledsoe), and will ultimately be "capped" off by effective management of the team's future cap space. Although patience is definitely required, the future looks to be bright, and that is something that Suns fans haven't been able to say since 2010.
During the fourth quarter of Thursday's Summer League game, where the Suns were holding a big lead to go 4-0 and qualify for the quarterfinals of the SL tourney, new Suns GM Ryan McDonough laid out the blueprint for the Phoenix Suns going forward.
"When you think of the Phoenix Suns," he said to Rick Kamla and Sam Mitchell of NBATV. "You think of fast-paced offensive basketball, aggressive, putting a lot of pressure on the defense. And we're trying to bring that back."
Over the past
few forty years, the Phoenix Suns have wanted to play fast, exciting offense with enough defense sprinkled in to close out games. When the Suns acquired players, it was always with an eye toward scoring. And if they could play defense as well that was a bonus.
With an offense-first, defense-second mentality, the Suns were always a pleasure to watch and the eventual purveyors of heartbreak in the playoffs. But at least the fans were happy and the players loved the scheme.
Occasionally, the Suns would put together the right lineup to score the ball like crazy yet boast just enough two-way players to keep the other team from scoring even more.
In the late 80s, it was Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle on the wings who could both score and defend with defense-only Mark West guarding the paint. In the early 90s, during the Finals run, Majerle still offered two-way play while Westphal rotated in offensive and defensive players often enough to approximate enough defense to win a ton of games.
In the late 90s, the Suns went too heavy on defense, too light on offense and began to lose the interest of the fan base while scraping into the playoffs for early exits.
In the mid-2000s, the offense returned with a vengeance. The Nash era boasted league-leading offense with elite-ish wing defenders Shawn Marion and Raja Bell who provided enough defense to keep the other team in check while defensive specialists (ie. Kurt Thomas) dotted the lineup as needed.
As always before, the offense-first, defense-second mentality was a pleasure to watch but eventually broke hearts in the playoffs. So the Suns briefly tried to morph into a defensive team (without having the necessary defensive players) without losing a lot on offense. It did not work.
The offense, win totals and fanbase suffered as the team lost its identity.
Enter a new era with a Back to the Future theme.
"We're trying to play with effort, pushing the ball and trying to play uptempo," McDonough said of the plan for the Suns going forward.
He brought in one of the Suns' two-way players from yesteryear, Jeff Hornacek, to show these guys the right way to play. When pre-SL practices started, Hornacek spent time on three major things:
The immediate results are encouraging. The Suns incumbent players - Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Kendall Marshall, Diante Garrett, and P.J. Tucker - are all in great shape and moving at a faster clip than at any point last season.
Hornacek says he had to spend time last week making these guys pick up the pace - no walking it up the court, no loafing - and it's worked to the tune of a 4-0 start in SL with three of them convincing wins (and one buzzer-beater after a 24-point comeback). You've seen it yourself. These Summer Suns are running on every possession, and they are playing very efficient basketball. High field goal percentage and SL-leading offense.
It helped that Hornacek knew what he was walking into.
"He knew every single player on our roster, their strengths and weaknesses," McDonough said of Hornacek's job interview.
Since taking over, McDonough has shown that he knows how to formulate a roster to execute his vision. He has drafted and/or acquired three two-way players - C Alex Len, G Eric Bledsoe and G Archie Goodwin - who can move the ball with speed. Goodwin is already showing flashes of this in Summer League. The other acquisition - Caron Butler - offers shooting on the wing and a leadership presence for the young locker room.
Those new guys supplement a host of players that just might not be as bad as they played last year. The Morrii and Marshall, in particular, are proving that they are not the worst collection of young talent in the NBA. They have led an SL team that's 4-0 and has barely broken a sweat doing it.
Folks question how all these parts will fit next season. When Bledsoe was acquired, folks wondered about incumbent PG Goran Dragic. McDonough and Hornacek have no such qualms.
"It's not Goran or Eric, it's Goran and Eric," McDonough said without hesitation or contrived confidence. "The way Jeff and I would like to play is whoever gets the ball outlets it to the guard on that side. Goran and Eric are both very aggressive, very athletic, they get in the paint well and they play defense well."
These Suns are going to be blinding fast. And with Dragic, Goodwin and Bledsoe on the perimeter they can also defend at a high level and create offense with turnovers and fast-breaks.
But before you start getting excited about the Suns win totals, McDonough wants to preach patience. He knows the Suns haven't arrived anywhere yet.
"This year, I think the process is more important than the results," he said. "If we can get these guys to buy in, they play hard, they play unselfishly, they're not worried about shots or minutes. If they're just worried about winning and playing the right way, I think we'll do some great things."
Certainly, the Suns are not going to win many games without more talent. Winning requires top-end talent that can close out games. The Suns don't have any top-end talent.
But they can play fast. And maybe they can get the fans a little more excited about their future while coming up short in the win column.
"We still have a ways to go," McDonough warns us.
McDonough riffed a bit on his background, and the mistaken notion that he's all about analytics over traditional methods of scouting.
It's a supplement (analytics). I came up as more of a traditional scout. For me, analytics help complement what my eyes can see. I try to watch as many games as I can in person or on film. I try to study the players and get to know everything about them. And you hope what the analytics show confirms what your eyes tell you. Sometimes it confirms it, sometimes it refutes it.
There are a few guys in the draft model, for example, that I didn't like as much or didn't spend as much time on, so then I'll go back and spend more time on those guys to see if I'm missing something. But for me it always is traditional scouting first and foremost, and I know Jeff's the same way. He goes by his eyes, but also understands the analytics, understands the effective field goal percentage, the value of 2-for-1s.
The good news is that the Summer Suns played a really great second quarter, outscoring the Blazers 33-13. It was spectacular. Diante Garrett made all five second-quarter shots for a total of 12 points and a +23 point differential while he was on the floor.
The bad news is that all that wonderful play was superceded by an NBA press conference that no one watching this game cared about. So I missed it. Bah.
Instead, we got to see the Blazers win the first period 24-19, and then hang tough in the third quarter making it a close-enough game that Suns fans must have been wondering how their team even had a big lead.
But a big lead it was. The Suns held strong in the third by playing with resolve and energy despite the Blazers playing desperate and getting some opportunistic scores.
The most interesting thing about the late-third period was Markieff Morris' foul trouble. He was collecting fouls like it was regular summer league (max of 10), but suddenly Morris found himself with 4 before he knew what hit him. Luckily the Suns were up 16 at that point.
This was also when Keef had a solid 15 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a blocked shot, while at the same time the NBATV announcer was comparing Portland's Thomas Robinson to Reggie Evans. It's never good when a top-5 pick is compared to Reggie Evans in only his second NBA season.
The fourth was a slopfest while the Suns lost their edge with the second unit, and Portland at one point cut the lead to 9 with 5 minutes left. Will Barton put the Blazers on his back with several drives for scores and free throws.
Luckily, Chris Babb hit a three pointer late in the shot clock just before C.J. McCollum hit one of his own.
When the Blazers came up just short of a steal that resulted in an easy dunk by the Suns, they seemed to lose energy with a couple of quick-shot misses and soon enough the game was over without the Suns starters breaking a sweat.
The Blazers made one more little run while the Suns thought the game was over, but eventually it really was and the Suns were on to the quarter finals on Saturday.