PHOENIX — Even heading into the summer of 2012, Suns president of basketball ops Lon Babby thought Phoenix was a prime free agent landing spot. Then, there was little to sell.
Now, the Suns can sell themselves, regardless of the intangibles.
“Great history, great infrastructure, great weather – never to be underestimated in the free agent process,” Babby said on Friday. “We have a better team. We have a coach that I think every player in the league wants to play for. We have one of the brightest young executives as our general manager. Free agents, when they come here, will have faith that what we say will come true. Sure, we’re in a better place than we were. If I put my former agent hat on, where else would you rather go than the Phoenix Suns right now?”
These days, the sell is especially more important for dealing within the organization.
Two summers ago, the Suns could only aggressively chase a player nobody else wanted (Michael Beasley), a player who was unproven but already had loyalties in Phoenix (Goran Dragic) and a guy nobody else had their eye upon (P.J. Tucker). In July 2014, it’ll be about re-signing Tucker and fellow restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe.
Bledsoe could earn a max contract while Tucker is looking for a pay-raise that could earn him the mid-level exception. According to ESPN Insider’s Amin Elhassan, Bledsoe’s projected annual average value as of February sits around $11.5 million including incentives, while Tucker’s is at $3 million, which is a solid chunk of a taypayer’s mid-level exception that sits at $3.278 million for 2014-15.
Bledsoe raised eyebrows when meeting the media for exit interviews by ducking questions about his future, only going as far as saying his only focus this offseason is getting to 100 percent. He wouldn’t even address whether he’d want to return to Phoenix.
“He’s well-represented and well-advised,” Babby said. “If I were representing him and advising him, he would say the exact same thing he said yesterday. We don’t read too much into that. We have every reason to believe he likes it here. We know we like him. I wouldn’t read anything more into his comments than that. He’s just being appropriately cautious and strategic. I admire that in his representation and accept it accordingly.”
The Suns have been adamant about retaining Bledsoe, and general manager Ryan McDonough said there isn’t much difference in attacking Bledsoe’s free agency as there is when it comes to Tucker.
“His emotion and spirit and energy was really infectious and helped us out this year,” McDonough said.
All this could, like Bledsoe, be simply a part of the negotiating strategy.
It’s not the worst thing for players’ values to be high as restricted free agents. At worst Phoenix could force a team into a sign-and-trade deal if the front office doesn’t agree with the market price.
“Restricted free agency is a beautiful thing for teams,” Babby said, addressing Tucker’s free agency. “We place a value on him. The market will place a value on him. If there’s a disconnect, it’s something we have to address at the time. But we have those rights and we’d be foolhardy not to utilize them.
“Ryan’s made the essential point, which is, we recognize that in many ways he’s the heart and soul of our team, and beloved by his teammates and an important part of this organization.”
Of course, if the Suns really want Bledsoe and Tucker back, they will ideally negotiate contracts before other teams can get the free agents to lean another way. But if that does happen, Phoenix still holds the cards and can match.
Cap space becomes more clear
ESPN’s Marc Stein reported that the NBA salary cap will increase by about $5 million this year, to $63.2 million in 2014-15. The Suns could sit at about $21 million under the cap at around $42 million in salaries and cap holds (including draft pick cap holds) heading into the free agency period once Emeka Okafor’s rights are renounced. Of course, the Suns could open up even more cap room by renouncing the Bird Rights of Bledsoe and Tucker, who will both likely make more than their current cap holds.
The Suns enter the postseason with a majority of players having surpassed any previous career year, and as such, the NBA’s Most Improved Player award could be headed to Phoenix.
Leave it to Babby to conjure up a fitting metaphor.
“We have numerous candidates for most improved,” Babby said. “It’s a little bit like a political convention where you have too many candidates from one party, I think we’re going to split the vote. But we have Goran and Miles Plumlee, and Bledsoe … any one of those could really win most improved and maybe even some others should be candidates.”