Eric Bledsoe trade the best use of Phoenix Suns’ flexibility

After striking out in their attempt to acquire Eric Gordon last offseason, the Phoenix Suns have maintained excess cap space waiting for a day like today.

No, this had nothing to do with being cheap, instead it was an asset management technique whereby the Suns saved their cap room for a time when it would be most valuable, as PBO Lon Babby spoke about last year at this time.

With the Clippers seeking a pair of swingmen plus a team to take Caron Butler off their hands to make the salary cap math work, the Suns were waiting, and their reward’s name is Eric Bledsoe.

When looking at the trade as merely Jared Dudley and a second-rounder for Bledsoe and Butler’s $8 million expiring contract, this trade looks excellent for the Suns. There’s no better use of their cap room than the acquisition of a dynamic 23-year-old guard that seemingly half the league coveted.

The reason it’s a great trade for the Clippers as well is because they were able to turn their prospect into two quality wings who seem to be great fits, and that could only happen because the Suns took back about $6.35 million more in salary than they traded, which is the additional trade piece that sealed the deal for Phoenix. The Suns’ ability to absorb Butler’s contract allowed the Clippers to take back as much salary as they did from two separate teams despite operating over the cap, whereas a team without that cap flexibility would not have been able to take advantage of such a deal.

This is exactly the kind of trade I’ve been hoping the Suns would make for some time now, whereby they were able to use excessive cap space in the smartest way possible rather than throwing it at a restricted free agent who is inherently getting overpaid. With a guy like Tyreke Evans potentially getting $11-$12 million a season on the open market, the Suns were able to use their cap space to make a sneaky move to acquire a player they can potentially lock up before the bidding war starts.

The Suns now have several choices as to how to handle the situation they find themselves in with their two most promising players (with the potential exception of Alex Len) being point guards. Henry Abbott recently wrote on teams utilizing “sneaky tanking” by playing guys out of position, and such a tactic could work to the Suns’ advantage this season. It’s a win-win because if Dragic and Bledsoe thrive together, then the Suns just found their backcourt of the future, and if they don’t work then they get a better draft pick and can trade one of them next offseason.

That’s predicated on signing Bledsoe to a reasonable extension (hopefully at no more than $8 mil a season since he’s still largely an unknown quantity, although I figure he could get more as a restricted free agent on the open market next offseason). Dragic is owed just $7.5 mil a year each of the next three years including a player option in the final season, so he should bring value if the Suns decide to trade him.

As for this season, this move eats up the rest of the Suns’ salary cap room if the cap does not move off the $58.044 figure of the past few years. Depending on whether the rookies deviate a bit from their slotted salaries, the Suns have now committed about $58.1 million to 15 players since P.J. Tucker’s minimum deal became guaranteed on Monday. If the Suns cut a player and want to sign somebody else, they could utilize the room mid-level exception to start a free agent’s salary at $2.652 mil as this exception is for teams that previously had cap space but then went over the cap.

In terms of 2014-15, the Suns have about $34 mil committed to eight players, assuming they eat the $3 million of Michael Beasley’s salary that is guaranteed (they could further reduce that 2014-15 number via the stretch provision through which they would pay $1 million for three years). Adding in another first-rounder or two (if the Minny pick hits) and the potential Bledsoe extension (which will cause the Suns to take on more 2014-15 salary in this deal than they gave up if it happens), and Phoenix should be in the range of a mini-max salary. Of course, there will likely be many moves made in the meantime to change all that in either direction.

With Dudley having three years left on his contract (including an early termination option in the final year), his exclusion from the 2015-16 cap means the Suns only have Dragic and their current picks accounted for there along with Kendall Marshall. Even along with a Bledsoe extension, that means no deadweight or overpaid contracts and the possibility of having cultivated a young, exciting core around which they could make a big free-agency splash (a la the core Nash walked into).

So the bad news is the Suns might not be major players in free agency for two more seasons, but the good news is this roster that was so devoid of quality young talent last season could be brimming with that on (mainly) rookie contracts in a few years.

As for the present, Butler immediately becomes the Suns’ highest-paid player at $8 million and joins Marcin Gortat and Shannon Brown to form over $19 million worth of expiring contracts. McDonough has already showcased an ability to use an integrative negotiating style to finalize a win-win deal with a team trying to win now. These veterans along with Luis Scola’s reasonable contract ($9.4 mil total for the next two seasons with the final year largely non-guaranteed) will provide him with plenty of options.

Since the Suns won’t have serious cap space for two seasons perhaps he could flip an expiring for a player with an extra year on his contract plus a pick/young player. Although doubtful, the Suns could combine some of these expiring contracts if a team wants to dump a talented but overpaid player to make their big splash now (like if the Hornets wanted to get out from under Gordon for some reason if they acquire Evans). In addition, the Suns have plenty of players on rookie contracts such as the Morris twins and  Marshall who could be sweeteners in such a trade.

In short, although the Suns have largely used up their cap space, there are still plenty of moves to be made as McDonough continues the rebuilding process.

Perhaps the biggest thing this trade brings is hope. Sure, the Suns officially started rebuilding post-Nash last summer, but now in the last week with the drafting of Alex Len and Archie Goodwin as well as the trade for Bledsoe the Suns have finally made some major moves in that direction. Some of the assets that have been accumulated have been turned into promising young players of which the Suns have so badly been lacking.

Rebuilding is clearly the priority over immediate success now, and I don’t expect their general manager to sit down at a media lunch and proclaim that this is a playoff team. The agenda has been squarely set, and it’s going to be exciting to watch this young team grow, rather than grow old.

This trade also speaks to the value of Jared Dudley, both as a player and a contract. Dudley signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract extension that kicked in two years ago and immediately became something of a bargain that Dudley agreed to for the long-term security. That’s a great price for a glue guy like Dudley, and he fits well into the Clippers’ salary structure as well as their team. It’s amazing to see how much more valuable a good contract like this is worth than if Dudley were paid closer to Butler’s salary.

I’ve always felt Dudley was best-served as a top bench player for a contending team, and even if he ends up starting for the Clippers he will hold that kind of role as a glue guy who can provide lethal outside shooting, solid defense and all the intangibles for an elite team. He will be a perfect fit and must enjoy his reunion with the coach who first gave him a chance, Clippers’ new associate head coach Alvin Gentry.

From a value perspective, the Suns did quite well turning a throw-in to the Jason Richardson deal into the centerpiece of a trade for a promising prospect. Dudley must be pleased as well since his contract calls for $125,000 bonuses for both reaching the second round and the conference finals, bonuses that are much more likely in LA.

Rebuilding will still be a long and arduous process that will likely include many more losses in the Suns’ future. Yet today’s trade represents a ray of hope that Ryan McDonough really gets rebuilding and extracting as much value as possible from his assets by consummating an under-the-radar trade for a player many teams coveted, and according to Yahoo! he was the driving force behind this deal that came together in a day.

With Bledsoe acquired along with Len and Goodwin from last week’s draft, the Suns are finally starting to turn their long stockpiled assets into quality young players that may become the pillars of this rebuilding plan.