Luis Scola converted into more assets for efficient Suns


When an amnesty provision allowing teams to eliminate one salary from their cap emerged from the muck of the 2011 lockout, we knew it would provide teams under the cap with a means to add veteran talent on the cheap.

As the Phoenix Suns discovered today when they traded amnesty acquisition Luis Scola to Indiana for Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and a coveted but lottery-protected first-round pick, the amnesty auction can aid in rebuilding as well after the Suns got tipped with the aforementioned assets to convey Scola to  the kind of team that can actually use him.

“The trade is consistent with our stated plan to continue to acquire young assets,” said Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby in a release.

All along it made little sense for the Suns to acquire Scola from a pure basketball standpoint considering his age (32 at the time) for a rebuilding team that had just lost its franchise point guard and was set to go young. When the Suns won that Scola bidding, I lauded the move because the Suns acquired an attractive player for nothing other than cap space on a trade-friendly contract for about $13.5 million over three years, including little guaranteed money in the final year to make him a de facto expiring contract this offseason.

This was a delayed transaction with Scola spending one year on the Phoenix roster before he could be moved on to his final destination due to amnesty rules that prohibit such a deal until the following July 1 after the amnesty bidding.

Babby has long talked about there being many uses for cap space beyond its traditional usage of signing high-profile free agents, and after using cap space to finish off the Eric Bledsoe deal by taking on Caron Butler’s contract to make the cap math work, the Suns have now struck once again by turning last offseason’s excess cap space into a future first-rounder and a recent first-rounder while rostering Scola for a season.

In sum, Scola was acquired to be traded, as he provided the Suns with the kind of veteran asset that’s very appealing to contenders, which is a piece the Suns lacked in the immediate aftermath of Nash’s departure. The quality of that amnesty bid was always going to be predicated on what the Suns could get for Scola, and the draft pick alone makes the Scola amnesty claim a major success since Phoenix essentially turned excess cap space into a first-rounder in a loaded draft assuming the loaded Pacers don’t flop (if they do it is lottery-protected through the 2019 draft, per Paul Coro).

It’s easy to see why Indiana would want Scola. Their lack of bench punch hamstrung them time and time again during the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami, and Scola is the kind of player who can carry a bench offense for stretches. He also provides insurance for David West, since he can do many of the things West does although perhaps not as well.

Scola is the kind of gritty veteran that can push a team like the Pacers over the top, whereas they do not have much use for the assets they sent Phoenix. Like the Bledsoe/Dudley trade, this deal works for both sides considering where they are in their franchise’s development.

Financially, the deal is essentially a wash this season with the Suns’ cap number going up by about $113K, a negligible amount so long as you aren’t actually paying the bill. Because Scola was guaranteed $940K next season, the Suns add about $3.7 million to next year’s books since Green is owed $3.5 million each of the next two years and Plumlee has a rookie contract team option that is likely to be exercised at $1.7 million.

It’s far too early to start projecting cap numbers for 2014-15 before we know which rookie team options the Suns will decline as well as what kind of contract Bledsoe might command, but I have the Suns a bit over $34 million without Bledsoe if the options are exercised. Keep in mind the Suns will also have up to three first-rounders that will cut into that cap space as well.

By taking on non-expiring contracts for Scola, I continue to believe the Suns plan to make their big free agency splash during the 2015 offseason. Goran Dragic’s $7.5 million player option (that I bet he declines for a big pay day) is the only contract on the books at this point aside from rookie deals and the likely Bledsoe extension. The Suns could fill the roster with five more first-rounders by then to develop the kind of core that would attract a max contract player to be that final piece.

Such a plan would also provide the Suns flexibility in future trades this season whereby they could offer expiring contracts for deals expiring in two years to coincide with their period of major cap space. Remember, they still have over $19 million in expirings in Gortat, Butler and Brown and could add more if they decline team options on any of their rookie contract players.

The Scola trade signals that the Suns aren’t going to be too subtle in their tanking after a season in which he put up a 16.8 PER (second best on the team behind Dragic) and figures to contribute much more than Plumlee or Green can. In that way this trade helps the Suns by making them even more likely to land a top draft pick with more Beasley and now Gerald Green time.

I don’t believe Green will be helpful in anything more than losing in exciting fashion, and I’ve never been particularly high on Plumlee. Clearly he’s athletic, so perhaps he can develop into a cheap backup center one day. However, his addition on the roster makes it easier to trade Gortat. With Channing Frye’s status still uncertain, the Suns could not have wanted to leave Alex Len as their only true center. The addition of Plumlee, another lesser brother, will make it easier to cushion that blow.

Since Gortat theoretically at least possesses more trade value than Dudley and Scola, I imagine McDonough will wait until he has more leverage to make that deal, perhaps when a contender’s center gets hurt. With the direction the Suns are heading it makes no sense not to eventually move him.

The Suns now have 16 guaranteed contracts on their roster (with a whopping seven being cheap rookie deals) and enough mediocre talent to make playing decisions very interesting. Scola’s departure would seem to leave the power forward spot to the Morri with potentially a side of Beasley since he’s always been better at the four than the three. With Dragic, Bledsoe and Gortat until he’s traded seeming to be the only players guaranteed major PT, Jeff Hornacek will have some tough decisions on his hands.

The big takeaway from this trade is that the Suns now will have three first-round draft picks if Minnesota and Indiana both make the playoffs. Considering the Lakers’ pick owed in 2015, the Suns could have access to seven first-round picks during the 2013-15 drafts, and perhaps another could be coming for Gortat. If both picks hit next year, the Suns will be in a very enviable position in advance of one of the most anticipated drafts in history.

It’s doubtful that the Suns will actually use all of these picks, but owning them allows them to potentially package them to move up or trade them down the line for other players that fit their rebuilding plan. Last year only one first-rounder was dealt at the trade deadline despite 2013 being widely panned as a weak draft, so even likely later selections hold major value under the new CBA.

Suddenly a roster devoid of impact young talent might be teeming with it in a few years as once again Babby, McDonough and their staff have continued to stockpile assets in an efficient manner after turning excess cap space last offseason into a likely 2014 draft pick through the acquisition and eventual trade of Luis Scola.