Phoenix Suns complete offseason of asset acquisition

PHOENIX — The Phoenix Suns entered the summer short on assets and talented young players.

After an offseason that saw them say goodbye to franchise legends Steve Nash and Grant Hill, that has completely changed.

The Suns have come out of July with three quality players in their early-to-mid 20’s with varying degrees of potential, not to mention first-round pick Kendall Marshall, and they nearly bagged a 23-year-old star in Eric Gordon as well.

They have also replenished their draft pick war chest by adding three-first rounders to give them a total of six firsts and four seconds the next three seasons (assuming the Minnesota pick conveys in that time, which is a likely assumption).

“I think what we’re trying to do is two things, we’re trying to get younger and we’re trying to accumulate assets and we had the opportunity to do both,” said PBO Lon Babby, speaking about the recent three-way trade in particular but a statement that could go for the offseason in general. “We wouldn’t have done it unless we got both things.”

Just like the Suns got “both things” (the player, Wes Johnson, and the protected first), the Suns seemed to follow that same pattern all offseason long.

Although they certainly tried with the Gordon offer sheet, the Suns knew they were not likely going to completely rebuild in one offseason. It was likely going to take time — potentially with a losing season or two in between — for the Suns to fully transition from the Nash era to the Dragic/Gortat/Beasley (if you can even call it that) era.

The Suns at long last now possess young pieces and assets. Every Sun except Scola is in his 20’s, and Phoenix has a bevy of draft picks to use as trade sweeteners. It’s highly unlikely the Suns actually use that many picks, but possessing them provides extreme flexibility.

The Suns are also flexible because they have a little over $7 million in cap space remaining after dumping the final guaranteed year of Hakim Warrick’s contract and eliminating Robin Lopez’s cap hold for assets. They do plan on signing a backup center, but I don’t believe they will spend much more than the minimum for that acquisition.

That will make Phoenix a team that GMs call during the season if they need a third or fourth team to take on salary for a draft pick in a complicated trade or if they are desperate to drop a contract to stay under the luxury tax. Being in an advantageous position like this is how Oklahoma City extorted two first-round picks from the Suns in the infamous Kurt Thomas trade years ago.

The Suns also have access to Brad Miller’s non-guaranteed contract until they waive him. Because only $848,000 of his $5.1 million salary is guaranteed, the Suns have the option of immediately eliminating a good chunk of money from a team’s cap. And as we learned on Friday, the Suns could even aggregate Miller’s salary with another player’s since he was traded into cap space, perhaps for a talented but well-paid player a team wants to dump.

Miller’s contract was the key to everybody getting what they wanted in the three-team trade: the Suns received a first and a young player at a position of need, the Hornets got a center and the Wolves got cap relief. If the Suns were on the hook for the entirety of Miller’s contract, I doubt the deal would have happened.

Because the Suns were able to acquire expiring assets for Lopez (Johnson has a team option), they maintained enough cap space to be close enough to find the room to make a max offer next summer if need be. By my projections the Suns will have somewhere around $42 million in committed salaries for 2013-14. Now that doesn’t count the two-first rounders they will have (they should take up about $3 mil in cap holds) nor does it include the potential first-rounder from Minnesota, Shannon Brown’s non-guaranteed $1.75 mil or Johnson’s option.

Basically, it’s way too early to get a clear picture of next summer, but suffice it to say if the Suns wanted to they could probably create max room, especially if they moved a first-rounder to get a player like Channing Frye off the books, and they will most certainly be able to offer the max for a young player like James Harden.

We know the Thunder won’t let him go without a fight, and personally I don’t think they ever will, but at least now the Suns will be in position to make a sign-and-trade deal with their assets and cap space (I bet it would need to be a three-way deal for OKC to get them more established talent).

“So we had tremendous flexibility this year, we will have significant cap space probably around $7 million to use as we might need it as we go through the season for any opportunity that might come along,” Babby said. “Then we also maintain tremendous cap flexibility going forward into next season and the offseason again. So to come out of all these transactions and maintain tremendous flexibility I think was a goal of ours. We’re not going to get everything done in one fell swoop.”

No they weren’t, but after being a franchise trying to accomplish the disparate goals of winning with an aging core and getting younger at the same time, this summer the Suns have finally established their youthful direction.

Suns in search of a backup center

After adding Johnson, the Suns’ depth chart looks complete aside from the backup center position.

“Right now that is the most significant place of need, our backup center position,” said Suns GM Lance Blanks. “Unfortunately Robin filled that role great, we just didn’t have the minutes to offer him. You look at the roster it might have even been a bigger struggle this year with the guys that we brought in and the way the coach wants to play. That will be a position that we’re combing through names just to finish putting this puzzle together, trying to put all the pieces together. Center is definitely the position of need, backup center I should say.”

If I were head coach Alvin Gentry, I would use Channing Frye as the backup center and give some time to Luis Scola while the UA product is hurt. Michael Beasley could log some time at the four when Frye’s out, and then the big man rotation should consist of Gortat/Frye at the five and Scola/Morris at the four going forward.

However, it would be nice to have some insurance at the five in case Gortat gets hurt, too, and for the rare cases when the Suns battle a huge, bruising center who would be too big for Frye or Scola.

That’s why I like giving massive Kyrylo Fesenko a chance. NBA.com lists him at 7-1 and 280, and that even seems small for him. Fesenko has only averaged 8.2 minutes a game for his career so he presumably would be OK with limited court time, and he could be a guy the Suns use only when they need a different look at center. Coming off a season in when he went for 2.7 and 3.0, he should come cheap as well.

Suns in no hurry to pick up Johnson’s option

The Phoenix Suns will need to decide whether to pick up Wes Johnson’s $5.4 million option for 2013-14 on the day of his Phoenix Suns debut, Oct. 31.

It figures to be an easy decision considering how much the Suns value cap space and flexibility and how poorly Johnson has performed thus far in his career, yet they are not in a hurry to make it.

“I’m a big believer in using every second available to you to make judgments like that,” Babby said. “It’s totally within our control as to when and if we exercise that option. We need to get to know the player, and he needs to get to know us. We will probably take all of that time before we make a decision. There’s really no benefit in doing it earlier one way or another.”

This is true, there is no benefit to making an early decision, but I doubt anything Johnson shows in preseason will really impact this decision.

The bottom line is that Johnson has been a below average NBA player thus far, and although I am as optimistic as anyone that he will be better in Phoenix, it seems crazy to guarantee that much to a player who has proven so little when it would take such a significant bite out of the Suns’ available cap space for the summer of 2013.

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