With James Harden off the table, where should the Phoenix Suns turn next?

It has been widely thought that the Phoenix Suns would make a major play this offseason for James Harden considering his star power, ties to the Valley and potential fit as a go-to scorer.

Daryl Morey had other plans, as the Houston Rockets swooped in with a blockbuster offer that looks brilliant so far considering Harden has filled up the cup for a combined 82 points in his first two games as a Rocket.

Last week after the deal was announced, I speculated on what the Suns could have offered for Harden. PBO Lon Babby told reporters that he did speak with OKC GM Sam Presti about a potential Harden deal but it never got close.

This past week a few more potential Suns restricted free agent targets signed extensions to take themselves off the board, including Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday and Ty Lawson. Although it’s unknown whether the Suns would have taken a shot at any of those studs to pair with Dragic in a smallish backcourt (Dragic can play the two, remember), their removal from the market further weakens an already soft 2013 free agency class.

ESPN’s John Hollinger painted that bleak picture in a recent ESPN Insider article:

The free-agency market is only going to exacerbate a team’s willingness to take chances. Don’t look now, but I count a whopping 13 teams that are looking at max salary cap space or close to it next summer — Dallas, Milwaukee, Orlando, Charlotte, Houston, Portland, Sacramento, Atlanta, Utah, Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans and Phoenix. (A 14th team, Toronto, was on this list 24 hours ago before firing a $40-million bullet into its own plantar fascia).

On the demand side, we’re overloaded. On the supply side? Not so much. It’s difficult to find a single player who is both willing to relocate and worthy of a max contract.

I’m often asked by people who the Suns should target with their potential max cap space, and right now it’s very tough to say.

Josh Smith should be the top player on the market unless Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Andrew Bynum don’t re-sign with their teams (and if they don’t, they aren’t coming to Phoenix anyway), but based on how many teams will have the money to chase a stud like him, it seems like quite the long shot to even mention him in relation to the Suns.

His versatile game would surely boost Phoenix, but he will be 28 early next season and thus I’m not sure he would be the best player to lead the Suns into this new era, especially since his game might overlap with Beasley’s a bit anyway as combo forwards who sometimes take too many mid-range shots.

At best, he would probably make the Suns the Atlanta Hawks of the West, and why would he leave his home state for that?

The Suns could turn to a former Buck, as the combination of Brandon Jennings (restricted) and Monta Ellis (ETO) both would bring at least psuedo-star power. Jennings signed to play basketball in Arizona once before, but he seems to long for a big city and might not be the best backcourt partner for Dragic.

If he opts out, Ellis’ scoring would certainly help, but anybody who signs him is asking to add a bad contract to their books. With Ellis as a high-salaried player, the Suns’ ceiling would immediately shoot to “fun team that would be lucky to get to the second round of the playoffs.” No thanks, I’ll pass.

Tyreke Evans is perhaps the most intriguing talent available on the market. Evans will be a restricted free agent after the Kings declined to extend him, and presumably the right offer can land him. At the very least, one would have to think the Kings would be more open to a sign-and-trade than the Hornets were with Gordon last season.

The question, though, is what is Evans and do you really want to be relying on Michael Beasley and Tyreke Evans to be the dominant offensive forces on your squad?

The guy can blow by anybody, but entering his fourth year in the league he still can’t shoot, and he’s not exactly what anybody would call a cornerstone guy. Also, based on the dearth of available talent, it figures any team that signs Evans will have to overpay, and that’s the last thing the Suns should do. I consider Evans interesting but would probably pass depending on the circumstances.

Finally, I’ll give you one more player to consider: Paul Millsap. Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this summer who is guaranteed to make more money than he’s worth based on the supply and demand of this market. He’s a bruising power forward who has spent some time at the three with all of Utah’s depth upfront and would be a nice fit despite being the same age as Smith.

Perhaps the Suns’ best option would be to make an in-season trade for a stud. After all, a few years back that’s the method by which Robert Sarver expected his franchise to acquire its next big star.

The Suns can take back about $7 million in salaries (a huge advantage this time of year) and can offer an expiring contract in Wes Johnson and/or Sebastian Telfair and some of their trove of picks (10 the next three years).

Perhaps they could make a play for Millsap in that manner as it seems like Utah might be smart to trade one of its free-agent big men (Millsap or Jefferson) with Favors and Kanter behind them.

With such questionable options available on the free-agency market, the Suns would be wise to leverage their extra cap space into a smart deal rather than to overpay a second-tier option that might not be the best fit in their long-term rebuilding plans anyway.

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