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.
Roughly 2,076 miles of distance between Philadelphia and Phoenix, yet they have more in common than most teams in the NBA. They are both re-building, positioned to be at or near the top of the 2014 NBA Draft, and and feature a lot of young talent.
So that begs the question: Who deserves the top pick in the draft?
We are here to give the people what they want, or at the very least, to give the people email conversations about bad teams. Here is the raw, uncut transcript of my email conversation with Michael Levin of Liberty Ballers:
So, how are things out in Philly? -- Kris Habbas
Things are excellent. You guys seem to be doing everything you can to out-tank us, but I'm confident in our ineptitude and lack of depth. Though Phoenix playing in the West makes a difference.
How's all the decimation on your end? -- Michael Levin
I am not the biggest fan of the word "tanking," because that implies an intention to lose and be bad. That, to me, does not describe the Suns to me. I get why one would get that impression, but what they are doing is acquiring young talent and building to the future. They could have stayed in basketball purgatory like they have been for the past few years, but that is the worst place you can be in sports. That middle ground of being the 13th-20th best team in the NBA is not a fun place. So, they are not "tanking" just trying to become relevant again by building from the ground up.
Then again, a horse of a different name is still a horse, right?
How are you enjoying Brett Brown so far? -- KH
I think that's just skirting around the truth. They didn't acquire Emeka Okafor to be good. Whether it's "tanking" or "rebuilding" or "sucking really hard," it all means the same thing. Wins don't matter. Development does. High draft picks do. There's a stigma to tanking because of the old people that think it's impure, but I sorta don't give a crap about that. It is what it is. The Sixers and Suns are playing the system and they're committed to it. It's admirable. And it's not their fault the NBA is built the way it is.
Brett Brown's a stud. I hope he doesn't get addicted to PCP this year because of how depressing it'll be, but I feel really good about him as the coach of this team for a number of years. It seemed like he got enough of a guarantee from the front office that no matter how many losses they pile onto his face, he won't be thrown under the bus for the team's failures. Excited to see what the future holds for Brett's coaching style. He's got a heck of a grace period to try out whatever he'd like.
How soon do you think Sarver gets in the way and ruins your rebuilding project with a 4 year deal for Drew Gooden? -- ML
I think Sarver is hand-cuffed somewhere in U.S. Airways with duck tape over his mouth. Or, he is living the life of a multi-millionaire, finally. He seems to be out of the shuffle and has placed his trust in the basketball acumen of Ryan McDonough and the business savvy of Lon Babby. For some reason I do not forecast any long-term contracts for middling veterans any time soon.
PCP is a dangerous thing man, we have a trio pf Philly natives on the roster out here so I will ask them to have their boys keep an eye on Brown for you.
Coach Jeff Hornacek is giving off the impression of being a stud as well. He is engaging, intelligent, and seems to enjoy coaching the young players. Love his honesty with the media as well. Seems like the top free-agent for both of us is our head coach. I am obviously going to be partial, but Ryan McDonough is a rockstar. How is Sam Hinkie doing so far? -- KH
The further you can get away from Sarver, the better. I can't imagine he doesn't throw a wrench into this thing after you start 3-18.
Hinkie is our savior. He's been on my podcast, we've emailed and texted, and I've never felt more confident in any organizational figure in sports. Actually trusting the guys running your basketball team is remarkably fun. -- ML
It is a weird concept to trust a front office, at least as of late, for me as well. There is no man in basketball I trust more than Ryan McDonough, which leads me to the point of this pow wow...
Are you satisfied with the approach to this current season by the 76ers? -- KH
Absolutely. Like I'm not willing to say I'm more satisfied than I am after sex, but like maybe some sex. Like mediocre sex, this is more satisfying than that. If the Sixers get the talent to contend and things start really happening, we'll cross that good sex satisfaction bridge when we get to it.
For now, yes. Mediocrity was crippling. We drowned in it. I'm positively goosed about tearing it down and starting over.
You? -- ML
Let's run with that analogy... As an outsider looking in the 76ers seem to be like a guy traveling across the country to meet up with model-esque girl, but along the way makes frequent stops, because, well, he has to, and settles for whatever he can get. He has to stay active, but has no standards. That is all well and good because the end result will be the same regardless of standards; he is getting his model.
Like the 76ers, the Suns are getting a very high lottery pick and will get a potential long-term franchise savior.
Unlike the 76ers though, the Suns have standards and at every bar on their road trip they are looking for specifics. In order to maintain my job here I am going to break this analogy and say that the standards are draft picks, young athletes, and short-term contracts.
One would say both teams are putting on a clinic in "tanking," however I much hate that word, what do you think? -- KH
I think you think the Suns are doing something different than the Sixers. They're not. It's all about short-term contracts, young players with upside, and draft picks. For both teams. And maybe even moreso for the Sixers -- they have more cap space than the Suns next year. The Sixers have 10 guys under 25. The Suns have 5.
You're the second Phoenix person I've spoken to that things the Suns are doing something noble but the Sixers are just crashing a car into a house and killing children and farm animals.
That's some BS, bro. -- ML
Not suggesting that the 76ers are harming animals, if so I would have to notify P.E.T.A. out of the pure goodness of my heart. No animal harm is happening here in Phoenix either.
Let's move this over to some more positive channels.
A young, franchise talent has escaped the Suns since 2002 (much of that is there fault) and the 76ers have had what amounts to 10 lottery picks in that same time frame. With that, how much do the 76ers deserve this lottery win? -- KH
Deserve? I dunno. It's luck. Get the best odds you can and see what happens. If the Sixers end up with a Top 4 lottery pick, I'll be thrilled. And if that New Orleans pick turns into something decent, even better. Not sure about deserving anything, especially when you make fanbase suffrage into a pissing contest.
The Sixers will be bad. The Suns will be bad. Together, they have about a 33% chance of getting the top pick. Weird. -- ML
Yeah, the good thing about finishing with the worst record is that the team is guaranteed a Top 4 Pick and the second worst record gets a Top 5 Pick guaranteed. So you are the kind of guy that just rolls with the punches? I know that the majority of people are on the other side of the spectrum with intense emotional attachments to how their team "deserves" something more than others. To be honest, it is refreshing to not have a lunatic on the other side of this email (even though you are on the other side of the country.
With the talent in this class having a shot at a Top 5 pick is net win for any team.
What would the fan base vibe be in Philly if, say, the team finished with the fifth overall pick in the draft and missed out on Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, or Jabari Parker who could all be centerpieces for the future of a franchise? -- KH
I think at this point, Gordon and Exum and Smart and Hezonja and Embiid have just as good a chance of being up there as those three. I don't think we're dealing with a 3-player draft. I'm sure people will curse the heavens if the Sixers don't pull the #1 pick, but the odds are heavily against that. We'll end up with a very good potential superstar. That's thrilling. You think Phoenix deserves it?
Also, there's not much of a Sixers fanbase. The people that care tend to care a lot, but most people are lethargic apathizers. The Sixers are wayyyy behind the Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers (and even Big 5 college bball) in Philly. People won't really care until they're good or, at the very least, exciting. Nabbing one of those great young players will go a ways towards that.
Double also, I live in LA, sooooooooo west coast best coast. -- ML
Man, you are detached from the 76ers scene! I am in Phoenix, native born and raised, but ironically never a Suns fan. Was always a huge hoops fan, but never fell for the logic of "root for the home team because this is where you happened to come to be..."
I am on board with this not being a 1-3 player draft with nothing but hot garbage after those big three names, then again most fan bases will only know those names because of unintelligent/irresponsible media people force feeding them down our throats. There will likely be a Victor Oladipo and a Bismack Biyombo in this draft just like every year.
The Suns are relevant and top dog out here on days that do not begin with Sunday. hockey exists out here for some reason and the football Cardinals and Diamondbacks are good 1/5 years so the fans are typically able to immerse themselves in the team.
After the team "fell" down to No. 5 last year and the general sense of disappointment from the fans and media I think it is safe to say folks will be jilted a little if they do not get the top pick. I have a feeling the fans and media will be disappointed if the Suns did not collect all four potential first rounders they are scheduled to get this year.
So for Philly it is basically; Look, I'll take what I can get. Can I get the legs? I'll take the legs. You can have the top part.
http://youtu.be/sI_-cbZ35E4 (1:40 mark) -- KH
Check back in tomorrow for Part Two where Michael and I talk about the Michael Carter Williams Era and continue to disagree on just about everything again.
There was some irony that tonight's game came down to the two players, Eric Bledsoe and Gordon Hayward, making plays late in the game that in broad strokes are big time statements going forward past tonight. After Hayward nailed a step-back three to tie the game Bledsoe followed it up (with Hayward guarding him) on a game winning three-pointer leaving only 0.7 seconds on the clock.
"I didn't think he was going to shoot a three," Coach Hornacek said after the game. " I thought he was going to attack, but he saw Hayward playing off of him."
For the most part the first three quarters were largely forgettable as the both teams started off slow and played with very little energy. In fact the first three quarters were very similar to what last years team did consistently with low scoring, sloppy play leading to a tight race to the finish. That should not be confused with good, exciting close basketball, but rather the ladder. More often than not the Suns lost those games last year, but last year they did not have a player like Bledsoe.
"This one was uglier," Coach Hornacek after the game on comparing this to the first game of the season.
Through those first two quarters Bledsoe was 0-3 from the field with more combined turnovers and fouls (6) than points and assists (3). It was not his best performance early on, but the team hung in there behind P.J. Tucker and Miles Plumlee overall energy.
Those two shouldered the load early and then passed the torch to the newest member of the "Great Debut Club," Dionte Christmas.
After not seeing any action in the season opener it was trial by fire for Christmas in the third quarter as the team needed energy, and more importantly, a healthy guard.
In the waning minutes of the second quarter Goran Dragic collided with Tucker and a few Jazz players causing him to leave the game. He did return after the injury, but in an effort to protect Dragic the team sent him to the back for more tests which led to the official diagnosis of "right facial contusion."
Christmas stepped in not only admirably, but effectively. He scored 7 points in the third quarter sparking the team that, without him, would have finished with 13 points (on 6-19 shooting) and a six point hole.
"Dionte is a guy that brings the energy everyday in practice," Coach Hornacek on trusting Christmas in a crucial spot. "He can shoot the ball, and the way we were shooting the ball I figured, lets put him in and see if he can make some shots for us, and he did."
The confidence that Christmas had rubbed off on Bledsoe as he came in and proved that it is not about the amount of shots you make, but when you make them. For Bledsoe his first field goal came at the 10:28 mark in the fourth quarter. Drive, finish, and-1, putting the Suns up five points.
Here is a chronology of Bledsoe's fourth quarter points after that:
Between the stellar debut of Christmas and the heroics of Bledsoe the 2013-2014 Phoenix Suns are 2-0 to start the season. More important, they are exciting to watch and developing before our eyes.
It is early on, but if this is any indication of what kind of coach Jeff Hornacek is and what kind of talent evaluator Ryan McDonough is, this is just the appetizer to what might become a very good team in the near future. This is just a taste, a sampling, and so far it is leaving most people wanting more.