It’s theoretically possible — the Phoenix Suns have some of the best flexibility in the NBA this offseason, and in free agency LeBron James is a prize they can land.
Nothing to this point hints that James would be interested in the Suns — first he must decide to leave Miami of course — and the only stretch that can be made to say otherwise is the MVP’s friendship, agent connection and well-timed free agency with Eric Bledsoe.
The Suns reportedly have a pitch ready for LeBron James, and they hope to at least share it with the best player in the free agent market. According to Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski and the Arizona Republic’s Paul Coro, the Suns will tell James that he not only will be able to partner with another max player of his choice, but can team with a young group of players on the current roster.
Wojnarowski points to Carmelo Anthony as a likely partner for James, as the two are privately intrigued by the opportunity of playing with one another. It sounds as if Phoenix will hedge toward giving James a say in any other signing, be it Chris Bosh instead of Anthony or Kevin Love.
But that Phoenix has ridiculous amounts of cap space, enough for two max players that aren’t Bledsoe, is a major leap.
In realistic terms and without making trades, Phoenix is closer to having $28 million — not the $30-35 million being reported — to spend at the start of free agency, assuming the salary cap is set at $63.2, as projected (all these salary projections, by the way, are making that assumption). That’s enough to where the Suns could comfortably re-sign one of Frye or Tucker, re-sign Bledsoe and add James to a max deal while slipping under the cap.
But to sign James and Anthony to max deals, the Suns would need close to $44 million in cap space, or around 70 percent of the total cap.
Phoenix would have to gut the roster of around $16 million in contracts, making the likelihood extremely difficult. On top of allowing Frye to walk, the Suns would need to completely shed the salaries of, say, Alex Len ($3.6 million), Gerald Green ($3.5 million), the Morris twins (just less than $3 million each) just to get within sniffing the room for another max deal. Trading those players doesn’t account for the $507,336 in roster charges that would be added to the cap for the difference between 12 roster spots and whatever players are left.
That’s forgetting that making deals without taking salary in return would be difficult. And future picks might need to be included just to entice teams to take on players without giving up salary themselves. Perhaps a more likely scenario would be trading contracts for Kevin Love, but that is quite obviously a long-shot itself.
The guess as to the Suns’ actual guaranteed salaries and cap holds heading into free agency — as it stands with qualifying offers out to Tucker and Bledsoe — puts their salary total around the $35 million mark (subtract $35 million from $63.2 and you get the $28 million in space) this offseason, if the Suns renounce the Frye’s rights. That is assuming Phoenix doesn’t pick up the options to Ish Smith, Shavlik Randolph and Dionte Christmas.
Bird rights give the Suns the ability to re-sign a player regardless of the cap space if a player is on the squad for at least three seasons (or in Bledsoe’s case, the rights were traded over from the Clippers).
Frye turned down $6.8 million but by doing so put the Suns in worse financial shape. His cap hold of $9.6 million, or 150 percent of his prior salary, is weighing down the books and would have to be renounced for Phoenix to have approximately $28 million in space rather than around $18 million.
Technically, Frye returning for a deal (for a longer period) at the original $6.8 million annual rate he could have taken next season could give the Suns the possibility to sign James to the contract of approximately $22 million minimum he’ll see if he leaves South Beach, and that would make the Suns able to slip under the salary cap.
Adding James and James only to the roster is financially possible without making major moves, though James would still have to be willing to give up a lot of money in such a deal. Because of annual escalators and the extra year he’d have in staying with the Heat for a fifth year, James would be giving up more than $33 million by leaving Miami.
To add both James and Anthony, perhaps the more obvious possibility is that they each take reasonable pay cuts. As crazy as this all sounds, it’s fair to say Phoenix could get this pipe dream done with the least amount of sacrifice on the part of James and Anthony. But it still includes a lot of sacrifice, on the part of the players and the Suns.
The news that is good enough for a cynic to agree upon circles us back to Bledsoe.
Phoenix retains his Bird rights and thus can sign him to an expected $15 million max deal for players in their first six seasons in the league. Perhaps that makes this summer, and not next, the perfect time to spend on another max player, because the Suns could overshoot the $63.2 million cap thanks to those Bird rights, which were acquired when the Suns brought in Bledsoe from Los Angeles.
With a more broad perspective, the interesting storyline in these rumors has been Phoenix’s repeated insistence that it stacks up with big-market cities as a free agent landing spot. The Suns, whose media market value doesn’t rank in the NBA’s top-10, believe they’re among the big boys of the NBA. Their franchise winning percentage would say that is true, and perhaps with power moves like this will help suggest to other free agents that the Suns have a lot more league-wide clout, even if James doesn’t bite.
At the end of the day, the cap space doesn’t sell the free agents. The fit does, and in that regard James obviously measures well with any future Suns roster (or any roster period).
Add in the lack of cold — yes, that’s a real thing — the training staff that could prolong James’ career, and the city as a whole, and perhaps it’s not farfetched for the Suns to at least try.
Wojnarowski confirmed the only connection between James and the Suns to this point — the friendship with Bledsoe and, even more importantly, the two players’ agent, Rich Paul. The Suns believe Paul knows how flexible the roster is, and according to Wojnarowski, the team would have to bank on selling James on a situation that in theory makes sense. Phoenix’s past season shows there can be viable, long-term success. That and the freedom in making changes to the roster, the Suns hope, would help them woo James over Houston, Cleveland or a return to Miami.
Enough teams have the space to woo James, who reportedly could be asking for an extension with the Miami Heat that pays him a full, five-year max extension worth around $127 million. The issue for the Suns will be getting a meeting with James, who is already going head-first into discussions with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that could keep the Heat in the lead for his services.
For the Suns to bring in James and another max player? It’s hard to see it working out.