Editor’s Note: The following is a free-flowing conversation between Michael Schwartz and Kevin Zimmerman on the Phoenix Suns’ options this offseason.
Michael Schwartz: Two seasons ago the Phoenix Suns faced a franchise-altering summer and came away with a slew of overpriced role players after Amare Stoudemire departed.
The Suns are embarking on another critical offseason in which they may lose another franchise icon and be left with a few banks worth of cash to start the rebuilding process. Or Steve Nash could return and they could try to put the best team out there while getting younger at the same time. Or maybe Nash returns along with a stud free agent like Eric Gordon and the Suns are good again. Or maybe the first scenario occurs and the Suns keep their powder dry until next offseason.
This offseason could go in many different ways and whichever way it does will color the direction of this proud franchise.
At a lunch with the media on Wednesday, Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby hammered home the point that the Suns will not spend just to spend with just over $30 million in commitments for next season. They will be disciplined in their approach and will not just fling around money because they have it as seemed to be the case two years ago.
The counter-argument (which I do not subscribe to) is that Babby is just setting up the Suns to be cheap if they don’t re-sign Nash.
Kevin Zimmerman, are you with me that this is the right approach to rebuilding the Suns back into the “elite” team Babby proclaimed he wants them to soon be?
Kevin Zimmerman: I’m with you in that the philosophy Babby was trying to sell is a good one. Now we get to find out if that’s an honest plan from the man at the top in Robert Sarver, or if it is indeed the counterargument of Phoenix being cheap.
Look, at some point all those sold draft picks has to culminate in something.
To Babby’s credit, he did mention those sold draft picks this week, saying the Suns really need to do better in developing young talent. So I think that while spending money on free agents — and wisely at that — is important, watching the amount of activity on draft day will also lend evidence as to whether or not Phoenix is really trying to work toward building an elite team.
Before the trading deadline, I thought it would be a good sign if the Suns made some small moves to free up more cap space/acquire young players, or even if they were rumored to trade a guy like Robin Lopez. In that, we could at least see that the Suns were really trying hard to go in a new direction. We didn’t hear so much as a peep.
This summer, there had better be a little more action between the draft and free agency. While it’s not the worst thing if they hold off and sign some one-year contracts to look to next summer, they at least need to show the fans that they’re active in change, because the status quo isn’t working.
Home run signings aside, what would you consider a positive offseason?
Schwartz: Very interesting question that’s difficult to answer before we know what choices they have, but if they avoid any and all dumb moves I would consider it a positive offseason. Making a smart draft pick should also be part of this equation, but coming from the guy who thought Earl Clark was a smart pick it might take time to judge that part of the summer.
I understand to some that could be seen as a fairly low bar to set, but I just hope we’ve seen our last mid-level contract for a role player for some time. The reason I’m grading this on a scale is because there just isn’t very much of that top-shelf talent available, so if they don’t get the big fish what else can they really do?
For it truly to be considered successful, I’ll add that they need to make one savvy, Sam Presti-style move. That could be making a lopsided trade, winning an amnesty auction or whatever else. Just something to give hope that the Suns are going about things the right way.
If Nash leaves, bringing back The Dragon would qualify as a good move in my book and taking a shot at a talented but thus far underwhelming young gun like O.J. Mayo or Jerryd Bayless could be interesting as well. Just as long as they don’t overpay.
So two questions for you. How do you think this Nash thing plays out and who are some under the radar free agents you think the Suns should go after?
Zimmerman: I think it’s evident that this early into the process Nash has no clue what he’ll do, but I do think that he’s a unique beast in how he will handle this process.
Everyone agrees that Nash, more than most, deserves to sign with a championship contender, but even some of Nash’s teammates had gut feelings that he’d stay. That’s important to note. Those guys know Nash as a person better than anymore, and it’s proof that his Canadian-bred loyalty will go a long way in the potential for Phoenix re-signing him. In the end, I believe the Suns have a realistic shot at re-signing the two-time MVP if they have a solid plan going into the offseason and into the next few seasons. Then again, if the free agent market is as dry as it appears, maybe he’ll have to jet if he doesn’t think Phoenix is a playoff contender.
I think what we’ve heard on every front is true; the Suns want Nash back and he’ll look for a good reason to stay. But that doesn’t mean he will. The front office will have to give him reasons to stay early in the free agency signing period.
As for other signings, I think we’ve all agreed that Eric Gordon is the main get after Deron Williams. After that, there are some interesting names that might fit what the Suns need.
Especially if Grant Hill doesn’t return to Phoenix, adding a player like Mayo can go a long way. He’s a do-it-all guard that fits with or without Nash. He can be another lockdown defender alongside Jared Dudley, he can shoot the ball, and he can act as a primary ballhandler capable of shouldering some of that workload.
And this might just be me, but J.R. Smith in a Suns uniform would be exciting in the system that won’t hinder a player of his ability from putting up shots.
I’m not jumping on the Nic Batum or Jamal Crawford trains. How about you?
Schwartz: Crawford, definitely not, at least on a multi-year deal. The only scenario in which I would like him is if Nash returns but they want to save the rest of the powder and go with one-year deals. He could fit in the Shannon Brown instant offense off the bench role, but other than that I’m not feeling him at all.
I do actually like Batum quite a bit, but not for how much he will cost. Really first of all I don’t think there’s any way Portland lets him go shy of a just stupid deal. They dumped all those contracts and certainly have more than enough money to keep a player they really like.
I think Batum would be a great piece on a contender but not necessarily a first or second banana. He defends and can shoot threes and would be a great star role player, but his cost will be much higher than you can bear when the words “role player” are involved in the least bit. If he could be had for a reasonable price, I would be on board.
Now to shift the conversation a bit, one of the most interesting points Lon Babby made on Wednesday was that he hates tanking.
He said, “I’m adamantly opposed to this concept of tanking. I don’t think it’s the right way to go about things. I don’t think it’s good for our franchise, I don’t think it’s good for our fan base, it’s not good for our city. Quite often what it does is I think allows you to mask bad decisions year after year claiming that you’re in this idea that you’re trying to get bad to get good.”
What should we make of that in light of the possibility that Nash leaves and this team needs to rebuild? Do you believe in tanking if this team has no choice but to be bad? Or is it admirable that the Suns could be the one team unwilling to tank?
Zimmerman: I think it’s admirable for Babby and company to be against the mindset of tanking at this point, if simply because you never go into a season expecting to be downright awful.
I mean, do you think the Bobcats planned this season to go as it has? No, but at a certain point in the season where it’s not worth it to win games, I think the philosophy of tanking can begin to be discussed. So whatever Babby says now, I think you absolutely can’t be ready to tank before the year begins, even if Nash isn’t re-signed and the team doesn’t have a big free agent signed in the offseason.
If that’s the case, the Suns still need to put enough of the best one-year contracts together and attempt to win. It’s not fair to the fans to do otherwise. And that’s especially true because this roster isn’t composed of very many young players where the team can use the excuse of player development as a synonym for tanking.
As for later in the year if it all goes downhill and Phoenix is already looking toward next year, then Babby’s anti-tanking comments can be further criticized. And that will have to be later in the year, because I’d argue that the late-season playoff push this year was good for fans’ attitude toward the team as well as business.
Now, I don’t see any other path than to swing for the best basketball team possible.
From your point of view, what should the Suns do if Nash splits town and they aren’t in line for the likes of an Eric Gordon?
Schwartz: It’s funny you bring up the Bobcats. I actually do think the Bobcats went into the season knowing they were going to be at the bottom of the league. Maybe they didn’t set out and make it a goal to be the worst team in NBA history during training camp, but when they traded Stephen Jackson around the draft and dealt Gerald Wallace at the previous trade deadline, they were going for the all-out tank, especially with two lottery picks in their back pocket from the 2011 draft.
As for your question, if Nash leaves and they aren’t in line for a Gordon I would go into all-out savvy move mode. That means I would save my flexibility for next offseason and be disciplined unless I could use the cap space for valuable future assets.
That could mean making the Kurt Thomas trade in reverse whereby the Suns could pick up future picks to take on a bad contract, it could be a lopsided trade to acquire a talented player for nothing, it could involve winning an amnesty auction, any of that kind of stuff. I’d even be willing to take a chance on a guy like Mayo if his deal is reasonable and you feel he can become an important part of your future.
Quality youth and picks would be the mantra, and all mid-level deals would be avoided.
Add it all up, and that would signal the start of the Suns’ rebuilding process. That’s inevitable if Nash leaves, so all moves I would make would revolve around getting solid young players that can help you build a team that can contend once you land that superstar.
OK, time for final thoughts. What do you think goes down this summer in the Valley?
Zimmerman: Oof, way to put me on the spot. If I’d have to guess as an optimist I’d say Phoenix can’t get enough help for Nash to consider returning. That’s not so optimistic but at the end of the day, the free agent class isn’t worth spending all their money upon. Phoenix makes a pickup or two of solid role players, but the Suns hold off on spending this offseason in hopes of hitting the jackpot next offseason.
Oh, and they also make a good draft of a future All-Star despite being at the end of the lottery.
Schwartz: My official stance is that it’s 60/40 Nash returns. In his heart of hearts I think he wants to come back, he just doesn’t want to spend the twilight of his career competing for the eighth seed year in and year out. If the Suns show any signs of being able to put a competitive team around him I think he’s back.
So I’ll predict that the Suns chase Gordon but New Orleans doesn’t let him get away. They will sign an upside guy like Mayo to take some of the creating pressure off Nash and Two Time returns.
But I wouldn’t exactly be willing to go to Vegas to bet on that. It’s such a tough situation to judge and I’m sure variables will emerge as we get closer to July that we haven’t even considered yet. To throw out a wild one, what if the Suns win the Anthony Davis lottery?
If Nash leaves, I think they will make a run at a guy like Gordon and then go into powder-saving mode while investigating the trade market.
So many possibilities exist that I’m entirely unconfident about all those predictions, but I do know that the Phoenix Suns are in for a franchise-shaping offseason no matter how it goes down.