After Amare Stoudemire departed as a free agent during the 2010 offseason, the Phoenix Suns spent two seasons wandering in the desert stuck between being a veteran team fighting for a playoff spot and a young team rebuilding.
They ultimately were neither as they failed to reach the playoffs in either of those campaigns and never acquired the kind of young assets that could jumpstart the rebuilding process.
After a holding steady kind of post-lockout 2011 offseason, the Suns finally started rebuilding during the 2012 summer by trading Steve Nash yet there was still an in-between sense by targeting young vets like Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley and making an attempt at a big splash with Eric Gordon that would have tied up cap space but perhaps made them a contender for a playoff spot with health. Last summer we heard the team’s GM talking about building a team that could make the playoffs while still thinking about the future.
This summer, finally, there is no debating whatsoever the franchise’s direction. The team is rebuilding with first-round draft picks, youth and cap space, and the final piece in that offseason plan finally came together Friday as the Suns dealt Marcin Gortat after trading Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Caron Butler earlier in the offseason. Even Gortat knew he would be gone once GM Ryan McDonough caught a whiff of another first-round draft pick to add to his collection.
In McDonough’s latest conquest, he traded Gortat’s expiring deal along with the expiring contracts of Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee in return for Emeka Okafor’s massive $14.488 million expiring contract and a top-12 protected first rounder in 2014. The pick will be top-10 protected from 2015-19 and then have no protection thereafter.
This was the final stroke in a stunning offseason for McDonough in which he has turned Dudley, Gortat and Scola along with a slew of expirings and a second-round pick into Eric Bledsoe, two first-rounders, Miles Plumlee, a massive expiring contract and a few end of the bench guys while taking on just over a million dollars in 2013-14 cap space, with Green’s $3.5 million 2014-15 salary the closest thing to an albatross moving forward. That’s particularly impressive considering taking on excess money was a key component of the Bledsoe deal, but they were able to shed much of that in moving Butler.
The Suns added about $370K in the Gortat trade while dealing away at least two players (Marshall and Lee) they may have waived anyway. That’s pretty negligible with the Suns’ cap number now a hair under $53 million, which puts them about $5.7 million below the 2013-14 cap. Considering their cap status, the Suns only needed to include any one of the expiring players with Gortat to stay below the cap but were able to get Washington to take back all four to make this a wash financially. In other words, they could have kept Marshall if they wanted to.
The addition of Okafor’s massive expiring deal plus all that cap space gives the Suns further flexibility to make perhaps another move or two despite getting rid of their three most attractive veterans already. Along with Philadelphia, the Suns will be one of the first calls for any organization needing to get under the luxury tax or requiring a third team to facilitate a deal. It’s perhaps a long shot to think the Suns could squeeze another first-round pick for those services, yet with the majority of the league over the cap or just below that line, teams won’t have many options when they need another team to take on salary. The Suns have proven this offseason they will do everything possible to get in the middle of those negotiations. Assuming they pick up all of their young players’ options, Okafor will be their only expiring contract making more than $1.5 million.
Okafor and his contract can be attractive in a few senses. First of all, if he’s able to return from his neck injury later in the season, he could become a valuable interior defender and rebounder for a playoff team. If the return is good enough, the Suns could always help a team cut 2014-15 money by taking on a longer-term contract or two in return for his expiring deal in advance of another Summer of LeBron, and he could be the necessary trade ballast if the Suns are able to find a team willing to part with a stud on a big-money contract in return for a slew of picks. His veteran presence, particularly for a Suns team with so many young bigs, should be valued as well, although perhaps not at nearly $14.5 million.
The trade now gives the Suns access to as many as six first-round picks in the next two drafts, and four in the much-hyped 2014 draft, if they all convey in that time. Combined with their 2013 output, that could mean eight first-round picks in a three-year span. In addition, without Gortat manning the middle, the Suns figure to improve their chances at landing one of the uber-elite prospects at the top of next year’s draft while clearing playing time for rookie center Alex Len. Offseason trades that landed Miles Plumlee and Viacheslav Kravtsov give the Suns enough center depth to withstand Gortat’s loss without rushing Len’s development.
Even if they all convey in that time it’s unlikely that the Suns will make all of those picks, as how many rookies can one roster handle? Instead now the Suns have the necessary currency to insert themselves in any conversation for a star player who needs to be dealt. In other words, they are a year too late for James Harden, because if Sam Presti needed to make that trade today, the Suns surely could beat Houston’s offer. They will also have the ability to maneuver around the draft, trading up or trading down as they please like the Rockets have done in prior years. With a landmark draft coming up, that’s a great spot to be in.
With no guaranteed money involved in the deal past 2013-14, the Suns are in the same situation they were for 2014-15 except we know Kendall Marshall won’t be part of that future. It’s impossible to start thinking about next summer before knowing if they extend Bledsoe and pick up the options on the Morris twins and Plumlee, not to mention the fact that their number of first-round cap holds is unknown at this point as well. If they keep everyone and all the picks, they won’t have many roster spots and possibly not even max cap space. We will have a better handle on what 2014-15 will look like come Halloween.
The deal also clears up their roster glut, putting the Suns one below the league roster maximum with 14 players. They will have plenty of cap space to sign a vet if they so choose or they have the roster spot to do another Dionte Christmas-type deal with a young prospect whose rights they could obtain for multiple years at minimum salaries with non-guaranteed future years. It also means Ish Smith and Christmas will both make the team, barring any further moves.
As for the trade itself, the Suns got about as good of value as they could have hoped for in return for Gortat. Consider the fact that last year only one first-round pick changed hands at the deadline, and that was for a draft few thought was that excellent. I wasn’t sure that a first-rounder would even materialize for Gortat, and yet they got one that Kevin Pelton projects to be in the 15-16 range. Not many teams possessed a need at center, matching expiring contracts and a first-round pick they would be willing to give up, and although demand may have increased with injuries later on, the kind of teams interested in Gortat likely would have been better than Washington.
The trade ends the Kendall Marshall era in Phoenix before it began although he was likely days away from being cut anyway. His No. 13 overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft will go down as one of the worst moves of the Lance Blanks era, with the Suns coming up with nothing to show for a lottery pick just one year later. Yet with eight picks over these next few drafts, the sting from the Marshall bust will be greatly mitigated.
The Suns have aced these past two offseasons of asset acquisition, as they are set up well to take advantage of one of the best drafts this decade. Now they have their work cut out for them scouting all areas of the first round to turn all these first-round picks into building blocks for the franchise going forward.