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Phoenix Suns proposed trade of Robin Lopez, Hakim Warrick for Wesley Johnson, pick a brilliant maneuver


The proposed Robin Lopez trade is a slam dunk for the Phoenix Suns. (AP Photo/Matt York)

At the beginning of the free agency period, Robin Lopez was a priority for the Phoenix Suns.

In May, PBO Lon Babby said, “It is quite likely if not certain that we’re going to match because he’s an important asset for us.”

The Suns backed that up by meeting with Lopez on the first day of free agency to convince him that “every hero has a home,” playing off his love of comic books and the roots he has developed in the Valley to pitch him on re-signing.

Yet even when Babby made that first comment it seemed to me more like a statement meant to scare off other teams from throwing a fat offer sheet at Robin than a genuine desire to match at almost any cost. Now the way the offseason has gone, the Suns would be crazy to lock him up to anything past this season.

After all, the Suns have already committed over $42 million in 2013-14 salary and if they keep Shannon Brown and their two first-rounders it could be closer to $47 mil for 11 players. Add $5 million for Lopez and you are essentially locking in this core for two years.

On top of that, the Suns already possess a crowded frontcourt wtih Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye, Luis Scola and Markieff Morris (not to mention the possibility of Michael Beasley playing the four), which makes it questionable how Lopez would ever find more than a few minutes of playing time. That’s especially true since Frye almost must play backup center minutes to get everybody close to the minutes they deserve, and head coach Alvin Gentry said Scola could be used there as well.

In comparison to what the rest of the young 7-footers received, $5 mil a year for Lopez isn’t terrible on a three-year deal. When considering how it would lock the Suns into this roster for two years with a squad loaded (depth-wise at least) upfront, bringing back Robin Lopez for more than one season just does not make sense.

And even then, with no intention of signing him long term, he would largely be brought back as trade bait, at least if I were the general manager of the Phoenix Suns.

This is why I love the proposed three-team trade between the Suns, New Orleans Hornets and Minnesota Timberwolves. Signing Lopez long term makes no sense for the Suns and he was never going to sign for one year realistically, so any asset obtained for him should be seen as a bonus. Instead the Suns received two and shipped out a useless expiring contract to boot.

Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, who first broke the news, is reporting that the Suns will trade Lopez and Hakim Warrick and receive former No. 4 overall pick Wesley Johnson, a lottery-protected first-rounder and the retiring Brad Miller’s contract for cap purposes.

The Hornets will get Lopez and sign him to a three-year, $15 million deal as well as Warrick’s expiring $4 mil deal (with the 2013-14 team option that will be declined). Minnesota will get two future second-rounders from New Orleans, giving them the cap space to sign Andrei Kirilenko.

Nothing is official yet, and if the Kirilenko deal falls through it’s doubtful Minnesota would be willing to take the short end of this stick just to clear cap space, so AK is the key to the Suns getting this much out of a Lopez trade.

As for how this would affect the Suns’ cap situation, Johnson ($4,285,560) makes slightly more than Warrick this season ($4 mil even), and the retiring Miller will count for the $848K guaranteed portion of his salary.

Overall, by my calculations (which might be slightly off), the Suns’ cap number for 2012-13 would be a hair over $50 mil for 12 players, which would give them just under $8 mil to fill out their final roster spot and then take on money in lopsided trades for either a talent upgrade or more picks. Presumably they will be looking for a true center with that final roster spot as Gortat insurance, especially with Frye expected to miss the beginning of the season.

In 2013-14 when Warrick comes off the books, the Suns would be looking at a $5,421,233 team option for Johnson. As stated previously with Lopez in the equation, keeping Johnson at that price would essentially lock in this roster for two seasons as they would be at $52.5 mil for 12 players or $51 for 11 without Brown.

Johnson has yet to do a thing to justify such a salary, and considering how valuable that cap space could be the Suns would be wise to decline it and make this a one-year trial for Johnson.

Unfortunately, the Suns only have until Oct. 31 to exercise Johnson’s 2013-14 option, and there’s really nothing he can do in preseason that would justify tying up that much cap space in a player who has been a bust thus far. Of course, the Suns could always re-sign him next summer once he becomes an unrestricted free agent if they so choose even after declining the option.

As for the potential protected pick, Minnesota did trade its first-rounder to New Orleans via the Clippers last season, but the Wolves can deal a first-rounder this season because they are owed a lottery-protected Memphis pick. That pick from the Grizzlies via Houston is top-14 protected in each of the next four drafts, but considering how good Memphis is that should be out of the lottery this season. That pick would seem to make sense for the purpose of this trade.

ESPN’s Chris Broussard reported that the Suns pulled out of a four-team deal with New Orleans involving Lopez that also included Boston and Houston before finding Minnesota as a potentially willing trade facilitator.

Of course, this isn’t the move that will bring the Suns back to glory, but like the Scola acquisition it’s a smart, savvy move in which the Suns are turning an asset they no longer need into more valuable future assets.

Johnson has been bad thus far in his NBA career, but with just two years on his resume he still could be a valuable NBA rotation player even if he never lives up to the hype of a player drafted ahead of DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe and Paul George.

The Suns badly needed another wing, particularly one with the length and athleticism to defend small forwards, and thus Johnson becomes a needed rotation player. I see him as the backup three behind Beasley in a role whereby he will no longer feel the pressure of being a top-five pick.

Assuming the Suns decline his option before the season begins, 2012-13 will be a year for Johnson to rebuild value and for the Suns to take a long look at whether he could be part of their future. They could even trade him if such a deal makes sense.

With the draft pick the Suns will own six first-rounders in the next three drafts and potentially three firsts next season. They could have five picks overall next year and 11 in the next three. That should give them plenty of ammo to eventually trade for that next star they so desperately need and/or continue to replenish the organization’s youth.

Yes, this Suns team is starting to feel an awful lot like the Rockets of the past few years, and eventually they will need to make a big move if they want to be anything better than one of the final playoff teams in.

But if this trade comes to fruition rather than clogging their cap with an underachieving big man they don’t really need, the Suns will have flipped him for assets that could come in handy this season and beyond.

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Woj’s original report included the Hornets sending Miller’s contract back to Minnesota, but that is not possible because a team cannot reacquire a player it dealt that season (meaning until the next July 1).