Why a hard salary cap would benefit the Phoenix Suns

The best-case scenario concerning the lockout for any NBA fan is just for it to end.

But with the business of the NBA potentially set to undergo a seismic change once a deal (hopefully) is hammered out in the coming weeks or months, it’s quite clear that fans of the Suns should be rooting for a much different outcome than fans of the Lakers.

The most divisive issue between players and owners for good reason centers around the concept of a hard cap versus a soft cap. The two sides will eventually agree on the percentage of basketball related income the players will be guaranteed, but players vehemently oppose a hard cap because it will end the days of guaranteed contracts and further restrict salaries.

As most NBA fans know, the league currently operates with a soft cap that provides a variety of exceptions through which teams can go over the salary cap. That’s how a team like the Lakers could go more than 50 percent over last season’s $58 million salary with a roster owed over $90 million, according to ShamSports.com.

Of course, there is a luxury tax that requires teams to pay a dollar to the league for every dollar they exceed the luxury limit, which last year was set at $70.307 million.

According to Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ, the Suns paid a $3.9 million luxury tax in 2007-08, a $4.9 tax in 2008-09 and a $5.0 tax in 2009-10. However, during those years the Suns made moves to lower their luxury tax number (think Kurt Thomas trade) that a team like the Lakers never would consider.

Overall, the ability of teams like the Knicks and Lakers to completely ignore the fiscal constraints imposed on teams like the Kings (whose payroll was half the Lakers’ total last season) is plain unfair. How can Sacramento compete with that kind of financial disadvantage?

Although the players would likely point to revenue sharing among owners as a solution to bridge this gap, it’s clear something must be done.

For a team like the Phoenix Suns that can’t compete on the same financial field as the Lakers, a hard salary cap would be in their best interests both short term and long term.

First off, it’s unfair for teams to be playing by different rules, which is essentially what the luxury tax and plethora of cap exceptions create.

When the Suns’ luxury cap figure starts creeping into double digits they have to dump Kurt Thomas at a king’s ransom. When the same thing happens to Los Angeles, they re-sign Lamar Odom to a sizable extension.

A hard cap prevents a team like the Lakers from loading up on talent or a squad like Miami from being able to supplement its Big Three with any free agent looking for even a mid-level payday. It allows teams like Milwaukee and Charlotte to become relevant if they find the right star and manage their cap well. Markets like that will never have the inherent advantages a Los Angeles or New York does, but at least they will be able to spend the same amount of greenbacks for their roster.

If big market teams can no longer ignore the soft salary cap with their multitude of cap exceptions, the onus will be placed on which markets players want to play in. Although it may not be the same with Sarver signing the checks rather than Jerry Colangelo, the warm weather of Phoenix has always been a desirable destination for free agent basketball players over the years.

In the short term, the Suns’ future salary situation puts them in position to take advantage of a hard salary cap. If they let Steve Nash walk and decline Robin Lopez’s $4 million option they would only have $24 million of commitments entering the summer of 2012 (plus unknown rookie commitments).

In addition, if The Oregonian’s John Canzano is to be believed, there will be an amnesty clause in the new CBA “that would give NBA teams the ability to release one player, pay his salary, take no luxury tax liability, and also, not have that player count against the season salary cap.”

The two candidates for the Suns would be the four years and $27 million Josh Childress has left and the two years and $8 million (plus a team option) Hakim Warrick has on his deal. If Sarver is willing to bite the bullet on $27 million, Childress is the obvious play since losing Warrick would only provide an additional $4 million of cap space post-2012 whereas the team would save $21 million from 2012-15 without Childress.

Such a move would mean Phoenix would have just four current players on the books for $17.5 million (Gortat, Dudley, Frye and Warrick) with cheap deals for Markieff Morris and next year’s rookie likely added to that mix.

The Suns would thus be well-positioned to make a splash next offseason with a loaded free agent class that could be augmented by amnesty victims who take one-year deals in 2011-12 to prepare themselves for the 2012 deluge.

Phoenix could also find a taker for Vince Carter’s contract (which, of course, has an $18.3 million cap figure with only $4 million guaranteed) for a quality player with a long-term deal if a desirable option opens in that realm. That future flexibility could be more valuable (or necessary to get under a certain threshold) in a new CBA world.

The kicker for Phoenix is that Lon Babby was hired as president of basketball operations in part due to his proficiency at reading contracts and finding loopholes after a long career as a lawyer and an agent. In theory at least, any system that dramatically alters the current landscape could put the Suns in an advantageous position because of Babby’s legal smarts.

It’s impossible for Babby and his team to plot a future course for this Phoenix Suns franchise before they can dissect the rules they will be playing by, but to me a hard cap would give the Suns their best chance to succeed in the short-term and long-term because it would level the financial playing field and allow the Suns to take advantage of their low 2012-13 cap number.

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