There are a number of point guards available as either unrestricted or restricted free agents this summer with varying degrees of experience and pedigree. If the Suns are forced (or choose) to move on without Steve Nash next season, many options exist to take over the starting duties for the Suns.
Let's get a couple things out of the way first:
- Steve Nash is the best free agent point guard on the market, but we're not talking about him in this article
- Sebastian Telfair will return to the Suns next season, but is no one's Plan A as the Suns' starting point guard
- Aaron Brooks will likely not return, but who knows. I don't think the Suns want him back though, because they are leaning toward defensive talent lately and Brooks has none.
Assuming the Suns have to move on, which free agent point guard is best equipped to lead an Alvin Gentry-for-now-but-probably-eventually-Elston-Turner-or-some-other-defensive-minded-head-coach team. Once Nash is gone, the Suns have the opportunity to completely change the way they play the game.
However, many of the returning parts (and signed somewhat long-term) around Nash are pick-and-roll type players. Marcin Gortat is really good at setting picks and rolling to the basket, but otherwise his offensive bag of tricks is limited. Channing Frye is a really good three-point shooter as long as he's wide open as an outlet off the pick-and-roll. Jared Dudley is expanding his game, but has proven value in the same offensive role as Channing Frye. None of the Suns are prolific scorers in their own right.
With that consideration, it is easiest to pick up a point guard who can run the show, feed some pick-and-roll and - to match the Suns' latest leanings - play some defense. Ideally, if the Suns sign a point guard in free agency it would be a younger player with upside and long-term starting potential.
Two such players come to mind: unrestricted free agent Goran Dragic and restricted free agent Jeremy Lin. I delve further into each player after the jump. Dragic has ties to the Suns and really stepped into his own this past season with Houston, but will likely leave Houston for a starting gig. Lin fits the Suns' style and has a big upside, but his pedigree is really small. Both are young (Lin is 23, Dragic is 25), justifying an affordable, long-term deal.
Before going too far, it's only fair to mention the other notable free agent point guards:
- Deron Williams - definitely the best, and deserving the max contract the Suns could offer. But there has been no indication of mutual interest, so it's not worth talking about now.
- Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd: No way. Too old. Not the right fit for either side.
- Kirk Hinrich, Andre Miller, Raymond Felton, Jameer Nelson: all would be okay as Plan C or D or Z, if younger or more-talented prospects sign elsewhere. They could each start and play starter's minutes ahead of Telfair and keep the Suns competitive.
- George Hill: fits the mold of young and defense-oriented, but is not a floor leader destined to play 35 minutes a game at point guard for a contender.
No, the most intriguing options on the free agent market outside of Steve Nash are former-Sun Goran Dragic and Nash-play-alike Jeremy Lin. Each has his pluses and minuses.
Goran Dragic set the world on fire in the playoffs of 2010, especially with his huge fourth quarter against the Spurs in Game 3. All Suns fans still smile at that thought. Then in 2011, he regressed and many of us (not all, but many) questioned his long-term potential as a starter. In 2012, he put those concerns to rest. When Kyle Lowry went down, Dragic played huge minutes and led his team to the brink of the playoffs until an unexpected team-wide collapse in the last two weeks.
In 28 starts last season, Dragic averaged 18 points, 8.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 35 minutes a game. Dragic seems to thrive on minutes, making several clutch plays at the end of many pivotal games. And this on a Rockets team with no all-stars to make his life easier. Our little Dragon grew up last year!
Now he is an unrestricted free agent who will have many suitors who wants a starting gig. He won't get that gig in Houston, simply because a healthy Kyle Lowry is better than him and is already under contract. Because of Goran's rare "youth + unrestricted" status, expect Dragic to get more money that he rightfully deserves this summer. Don't be surprised to see offers in the $10-million/year range.
Jeremy Lin is a much lesser-known quantity and on a much-lower price tag, despite his restricted free agent status. Due to the "Gilbert Arenas rule", no one in the league can offer more Lin more than the midlevel: $5.25 million per year, starting in 2012. A team CAN offer a big jump in pay in years 3 and 4, but the starting value is equal to the midlevel exception. Every team in the league except the Lakers and a few others who are over the "apron" (4 million over the lux tax level) can offer Lin the same deal, including the Knicks.
So Lin just needs to pick the best fit for him. Long-time NBA trainer David Thorpe thinks that "best fit" is with the Phoenix Suns.
"This is my favorite landing spot for Lin if not New York," Thorpe wrote about the Suns. "He would certainly be a starter if Steve Nash leaves, in an offense that is very similar to what he successfully ran as a Knick. Center Marcin Gortat becomes an excellent ball screen partner, and they play at a speed with which Lin is very comfortable.
"Even if Nash returns, the Suns would possibly have not only his long-term replacement but someone who can provide a scoring punch off the bench as well as an energy guy with the second unit. It's not hard to remember the impact Leandro Barbosa had as Nash's backup. If the Suns offered enough money, Lin will have to give that opportunity serious consideration regardless of what Nash does."
There are no rumors on this though. In fact, it's widely asusmed that Lin will return to the Knicks because they can match any offer to Lin on the market since the max he can BE offered is the midlevel exception.
However, the question is whether the Knicks would have to use their midlevel exception for Lin, or if they can just match the offer via Bird Rights and retain their midlevel for use in other areas. This is an important distinction, and one currently up for arbitration. Since Lin was picked up on waivers last season, the league argues that he lost his Bird Rights while the union argues the opposite. If the league wins, then the Knicks just might lose Lin because they would have to use their midlevel exception to sign Lin. Since another team can offer a big jump in salary in years 3 and 4, the Knicks won't be able to match it. It all depends on how an arbiter rules on Lin's status. The league argues that Bird rights are lost in the waiver process, while the union argues that they stay with the player.
Of course, that assumes the Suns think Lin is a long-term starter. They aren't handing out long contracts like candy anymore. Lin was on two other rosters last year and didn't get a sniff, but all of a sudden he became a sensation in New York.
As a starter for 25 games, Lin averaged 18 points and 7.7 assists in 34 minutes. He shot 34% on 3-pointers and ran the pick-and-roll extremely well. League insiders called Lin a current and future star. Many articles were written on Lin's long-term viability and the consensus was that he could definitely be a starter throughout his career.
However, it's only 25 games. Prior to that, he couldn't even beat out other roster players and was waived twice in 2 years (Warriors and Rockets). Is he just a gamer? Or was he unfairly pigeonholed because of his background and race? Who knows. But any team paying him big bucks is definitely taking a gamble.
Who would you rather have?