Buyer beware when doling out long-term max deals

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It’s kind of funny how much salary skews your perception of a player.

This offseason, many Suns fans called for the head of Jason Richardson. Although he’s limited defensively, J-Rich is a dynamic offensive player, a perfect two guard in the run-and-gun system the Suns will be playing this year.

But is he the perfect player at $13.3 mil this year and $14.4 next year when the Suns would theoretically like to have a little cap room for free agents?

One name down on the depth chart you’ll find a very similar player in Leandro Barbosa. Barbosa, like J-Rich, is an explosive offensive player who struggles at times defensively. His stats even look fairly similar to Richardson’s considering J-Rich played more minutes, but nobody was calling for LB’s head because he’s only owed $6.6 mil this year and $7.1 mil next year, about half of Richardson’s salaries.

It’s kind of sad that in this day and age in the NBA we look at a player’s price tag before we even think about his basketball value.

Case in point, the Shaq trade in which the Suns shed $18.5 million for this upcoming season, an impressive feat considering most contracts are guaranteed, but they did not get a SINGLE basketball asset in return. Oh, unless you count that 2010 second-round pick Cleveland is sending the Suns that was practically canceled out by Phoenix selling a second-rounder to the Cavs this year.

So for a player who earned co-All-Star Game MVP honors, the Suns got a big wad of cash, and they’re OK with it.

Instead of turning around and dealing the contract of either Ben Wallace or Sasha Pavlovic, they chose to take the cash and walk off the show because any such deal would have cost them dearly in long-term financial commitments.

The Suns speak of “financial flexibility” all the time, but thus far this offseason aside from the $5 mil spent on Grant Hill and Channing Frye, they haven’t taken advantage of that. Hopefully they will next offseason.

That brings us to the biggest looming financial decision that will impact the next decade of Phoenix Suns basketball: Amare Stoudemire.

Although the Suns have said they don’t want to negotiate until they see him return to the floor, there will come a point in time in the next few months in which they should be ready to at least return to the table. At that point they will have to answer the $80-$100 million question: Is Amare Stoudemire worth max money?

It’s a legitimate concern when you look at the list of players ranked among the top 10 in salary the past few years.

Last year, six of the top 10-salaried players did not come close to earning their meaty salary (J-Kidd, Jermaine O’Neal, Shaq, AI, Marbury and T-Mac) and a seventh in Kevin Garnett made $25 mil only to be injured for the entirety of the playoffs and a good chunk of the regular season as well. The only top 10 members who deserved to be there were Kobe, Duncan and Ray Allen if you want to stretch it a bit.

The next 10 included players like Matrix, Michael Redd, Kirilenko and Mike Bibby who didn’t earn their money, as well as an overpaid Rashard Lewis who you can’t knock so much because he just played in the Finals.

The Marbury deal, which expired last season at $20 million, was an especially huge joke, and the Suns wouldn’t have been laughing if they hadn’t jettisoned him to the Big Apple while the ink was still fresh.

That’s the kind of deal that can cripple a team like the Suns, and it’s the same thing this year as Houston will watch a former star in Tracy McGrady make more money than anyone else in the league with a salary of over $23 mil. He could end up being of most value to Houston this year in a deal involving his mega-expiring contract.

This year’s top five list includes five guys making at least $20 mil, and the three not named Kobe or Duncan don’t deserve it. Along with T-Mac, those guys both go by the surname “O’Neal.”

It’s becoming a fact of life that NBA teams these days dole out huge contracts to superstars who deserve it at the time but who you know in advance will be making an embarrassing amount of undeserved dough before the deal ends. The only upside is they possess enticing expiring contracts, and you can net you some major assets with expiring deals if you’re willing to take on long-term salary (See Jefferson, Richard for a lesson on what expiring deals can get you).

If Amare would accept a reasonable deal in the $15 mil or so range, I bet it would get done. And honestly, considering his lack of improvement at the defensive end, I think such a deal is fair.

But we live in a day and age in which Jermaine O’Neal will be making almost $23 million although we still aren’t sure if he can even walk anymore.

A guy like Amare must consider that kind of contract and be licking his lips, while the Suns must look at all these overpaid former stars as a huge caution sign.

Yes, Amare is only 26 years old and should have another lengthy contract in him after this one, but in an era in which trades are made for purely financial purposes as we saw in June, handing out max extensions isn’t what it used to be.

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