Phoenix Suns face many crucial decisions with rookie contracts

Rookie contracts are affordable enough that usually the decision to pick up a third- or fourth-year team option is merely a clerical matter. Yet this season the Suns face a number of decisions that must be made by Halloween that could end up being a trick or a treat.

By Oct. 31 the Suns must decide whether to pick up the fourth-year team options for Markieff and Marcus Morris as well as the third-year options for Miles Plumlee and Kendall Marshall. Perhaps most important of all, the Suns must choose whether to extend Eric Bledsoe by agreeing on a lucrative long-term deal or enter the offseason with Bledsoe as a looming restricted free agency.

The following breaks down the factors the Suns must consider when making these decisions:

Eric Bledsoe – $3,726,966 qualifying offer

The Suns face a different dilemma with Bledsoe than the other four players. They have until Halloween to sign him to a long-term contract extension to keep him in purple and orange for the next five seasons (or six if they make him their designated played, including the upcoming season he is already under contract for). If the two sides do not come to an agreement and the Suns don’t flip him for more assets, they will extend him a $3.7 million qualifying offer next offseason that will make him a restricted free agent.

That, of course, means the Suns could match any offer that comes Bledsoe’s way, and it’s a much better position than the one the Suns were in a few years ago when they watched New Orleans match a mini-max offer to Eric Gordon (although in hindsight, maybe that was a good thing for Phoenix). The bad news is another team could throw a crazy offer to Bledsoe to dissuade Phoenix from matching, and at that point the Suns would be stuck between between the unenviable positions of taking on a bad contract and losing Bledsoe for nothing. They would also still hold his rights in the event of a sign-and-trade, but such a scenario seems unlikely at this point.

If the Suns and Bledsoe don’t agree on an extension there will be plenty of time to sort out potential endgame scenarios for him. What’s difficult is figuring out what exactly Bledsoe is worth since he’s one of the most talented players in the league that has never really gotten a chance to start. We still don’t know whether he can run an offense, whether he will develop a jump shot and whether he is a future star or merely an ace defender.

There’s lots of risk on both sides since we’re likely going to find all that out this year. Bledsoe’s camp must weigh the guard’s ability to turn into a mini-max player as well as the possibility that his game is exposed as one of the Suns’ best players. The Suns carry the same risk, as they will be paying for Bledsoe’s potential without fully understanding what it is. It could be difficult for Bledsoe to pass up a large guaranteed payday, but it may depend on how much of that potential the Suns are willing to pay for. The Suns failed to lock up Joe Johnson at a reasonable rate before the 2004-05 season and paid for it by ultimately losing the player in a sign-and-trade when he broke out that year and commanded a much heftier salary.

Although they play different positions, this week’s Derrick Favors contract offers a reasonable comparison in terms of paying for potential. Favors averaged 9.4 points and 7.1 boards in 23.2 minutes per game last season, all career highs, as the former No. 3 overall pick has not yet  received major playing time in his first three NBA seasons. Yet the Jazz guaranteed him over $12 million a year on a four-year deal because of the player they think he will be these next five seasons.

That’s a scary number, because when the Suns first acquired Bledsoe I was thinking something like the four-year, $32 million deal Jeff Teague signed this offseason. Now I’d be surprised if it’s below $9 million a year, and perhaps that’s low.

Working in the Suns’ favor, Brandon Jennings signed a mere three-year, $24 million deal this offseason despite being a relatively heralded point guard, yet that may be more a function of the way the free agency market played out with few opportunities available for the restricted free agent once he failed to agree to a long-term deal with Milwaukee. In recent years, Ty Lawson has gotten 4/$48, Stephen Curry 4/$44, Tyreke Evans 4/$44 and Jrue Holiday 4/$41. However, all of those players were much more proven than Bledsoe when they hit the market.

Overpaying for Bledsoe is a risk the Suns must weigh because if they fail to do so they might have to overpay in a bigger way to keep him next offseason.

What they should do: Sign him for four years, $36 million if possible, but no more than $40 million

Markieff Morris – $2,989,239 team option

As things stand today, Markieff Morris is the Phoenix Suns’ starting power forward. That may not be the case heading into the 2014-15 season with a bumper crop of power forwards set to become available in the 2014 NBA Draft, especially since Keef has never flashed the consistency of an NBA power forward. It may not even be the case once Channing Frye gets his NBA sea legs back since that was a position the former Wildcat owned not long ago.

Yet it makes sense for the Suns to pick up Morris’ team option after his improvement shown in Summer League and with the player owning a skill set that should make him a valuable rotation player the next two years. This is especially the case for a Suns franchise planning on building around youth. It’s worth the nearly $3 million price to have Keef locked up for the next two years as the organization figures out whether he fits into their long-terms plans.

What they should do: Pick it up

Marcus Morris – $2,943,221 team option

Nor surprisingly, Marcus Morris is in nearly the exact same situation as his brother. With only a few months as a Phoenix Sun, the organization knows even less about Marcus and may as well spend the next two years figuring out whether he belongs in their future nucleus or not.

With such a cheap contract for a usable player, the twins could become useful trade ballast as the Suns seek out bigger deals this season and next summer. Retaining their rights as assets gives the team two more trade chips that would lose their luster if the Suns decline their 2014-15 options, and based on how close the twins are the Suns almost can’t pick up one player’s option and decline the other’s based on how it would impact his brother.

What they should do: Pick it up

Kendall Marshall – $2,091,840 team option

The question with Kendall Marshall is whether the Suns feel he can carve out a nice role as an eventual backup point guard. If they plan on re-signing Bledsoe and keeping Goran Dragic for the bulk of his contract, there might not be any room for Kendall to begin with. That’s especially the case with Archie Goodwin able to play the one in a pinch.

If the rest of Marshall’s game becomes passable enough for his playmaking skills to make him an asset, the option should be picked up. He would be valuable insurance in case of point guard injury, and if he proves himself as an adequate floor general, he could eventually become attractive to another team even if just as an addition to a bigger trade.

Unless you’re dealing with a total bust at the top of the draft set to make a large salary such as a Michael Beasley or Wes Johnson, it’s almost always worth it to pick up a young player’s contract so long as he shows even the slightest bit of potential and you aren’t in a salary cap crunch.

With the Suns unlikely to make a max contract splash that changes the fate of the organization next summer, it’s doubtful the opportunity cost of Marshall’s $2 million contract will prevent them from making any kind of big move. This one should come down to whether the Suns feel like Marshall can become a decent NBA player either for their organization or another through a trade.

What they should do: Pick it up, unless they feel he has no NBA potential

Miles Plumlee – $1,169,880 team option

This is the easiest decision of the bunch. The Suns didn’t insist on Plumlee’s inclusion into this summer’s Luis Scola trade for one year of service, especially when his 2014-15 team option is as cheap as it is at $1.17 million. At that price, it’s well worth the risk to see if Plumlee can build on his strong summer and training camp to become a productive role player. Heck, energy, rebounding and a few putbacks is probably worth that price for a backup big even if Plumlee becomes nothing more.

If Plumlee does develop into a rotational big man, they have him under team control for the next three years at very team-friendly prices, which will be useful once the Suns start dipping into free agency to add to their young core in the coming years.

What they should do: Pick it up

In sum, I recommend re-signing Bledsoe for no more than $10 million a year (and hopefully less) and picking up all the team options, with the potential exception of Kendall Marshall’s depending on how the team feels about the second-year guard coming out of the preseason. Aside from max contracts for top-10 players (and the Suns don’t have too many shots at those kind of guys), rookie contracts are the best deals in basketball, and with the Suns likely a couple seasons away from playoff contention it makes sense to keep their rookie deals on the books either for cheap labor or trade fodder even if none of the four option players become part of their long-term core.

And 1

As expected, the Suns are a long shot to win much of anything this season. According to the NBA Futures at Top Bet, they are +30,000 to win the championship (win $3,000 from a $10 bet), with only the Magic and Bobcats facing longer odds at +50,000. They are also +20,000 to win the West, with the Kings at +6,000 giving the next best odds in the West, and +50,000 to win the Pacific Division, with only the Magic and Bobcats laying those kind of odds within their division that includes the Miami Heat.

Tags: Eric Bledsoe Kendall Marshall Marcus Morris Markieff Morris Miles Plumlee

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