Around this time in the NBA calendar we would normally be looking at the upcoming free agency period which typically starts on July 1. Think back to this time last year when Summer of LeBron (and Amare) was just getting warmed up in preparation for a desperate mad rush that ended with Stoudemire taking his talents to Broadway and James making a very poor Decision.
This year, however, our attention is on the labor negotiations between the owners and players that is almost certainly going to end in a lock out once the current CBA expires on Thursday this week. While the Phoenix Suns have been instructed not to talk about the lock out or even acknowledge that it might happen, it's clearly part of the thinking as we enter what should be the free agency period.
Summer League in Las Vegas has already been cancelled and many teams are scrambling to hold free agent mini-camps as an alternative. But all that does is give a look at some possible end-of-the-bench guys. The Phoenix Suns have much bigger needs in their rotation.
Phoenix Suns Salary Situation
The key to free agency is understanding the team's salary situation. Obviously, we don't know what the rules of the new CBA will hold so we can only go by the current structure and make some guesses. It doesn't look like anything radical like a hard cap will be implemented in Year One of the new CBA anyway and it's safe to say the Suns aren't going to spend over last year's luxury tax line of about $70 million.
Probably the biggest unknown is the Mid-Level Exception which allows every team over the salary cap ($58 million last year) to spend an extra amount ($5.8 million last year) on one or more players.
We do know that the Suns salary will range from about $52 million to about $60 million depending on how a few things play out.
The Suns have nine players under contract ($52m including $4m Vince Carter buyout) and then several small non-guaranteed deals (Garret Siler, Gani Lawal, Zabian Dowdell) and restricted free agent Aaron Brooks. If all those players come back and Brooks is signed for something close to his qualifying offer ($2.9m) the total is about $57 million.
Not on the list of signed players is Grant Hill who's an unrestricted free agent. If you assume Hill's coming back and you allow for the small contracts at the end of the bench and you assume Brooks at about the QO amount of $2.9m than the number is really right around $60 million which one would guess is just about where the salary cap line would be in a normal year.
That gives the Suns room to sign a free agent to the MLE (if there is an MLE) and it gives them room to use their remaining trade exceptions (about $7.6 million) to take back more salary than they give up in a deal. For example, they could trade Robin Lopez ($2.8 million) for Michael Beasley ($6.2 million) without having to worry about making the salaries match.
Again, all that's under the old rules and there's no guarantee that a large portion of that trade exception won't expire in mid-July during the lock out (or it could be extended for the amount of time the NBA is locked out).
Bottom line, the Suns aren't in a horrible place salary-wise but they don't have a ton of cap space either. In 2012 however, Nash and Carter are fully off the books and they are projected to only have around $30 million in contracts.
Most people believe the Suns strategy is to play out next season and wait for the summer of 2012 to try and make any big contract acquisitions. They certainly don't want to tie themselves up with any more long-term middling type deals like they did last summer with Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress.
If the Suns sign any free agents this offseason they will likely be on cheap, short term deals unless there's a guy they really, really like and think is part of the long term plans in a major role. The quickest way to ensure long-term mediocrity is to overpay the wrong guy.
2011 NBA Free Agent List
The 2011 NBA Free Agent list isn't nearly as sexy as last summer and doesn't include 2012's big names stars like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Dwight Howard. There are, however, quality players available at every position. The problem right now is having any idea what their market will be for these guys and how the new CBA will impact their contracts.
Last summer we saw David Lee get $80 million over six years and closer to home, Channing Frye got $30 million over five years. How does that apply this summer to free agents like Nene and Carl Landry? We just don't know.
Here's a list of 2011 NBA Free Agents by position. It at least gives you an idea of who's available, but remember, a lot of these guys aren't going anywhere. Just as Grant Hill is likely to return to the Suns, Nene and Aaron Afflalo are likely returning to the Nuggets.
For the Suns, the place to look isn't at the top of the lists but down towards the bottom. The Suns will be looking for guys like Channing Frye who didn't get much run with their current team but could be a good fit for the Suns' needs. That kind of value signing is where GMs really make their money.
Phoenix Suns Position Needs
The Phoenix Suns love Marcin Gortat and he will be the team's starting center. From there they have Channing Frye who can take minutes at the five and Robin Lopez and Garret Siler. Lopez is widely expected to be traded but if he is, they will have a big hole to fill backing up Gortat. Siler could step into that role if the team thinks he's going to make a lot of improvement in the offseason, but nothing he's shown us so far makes me think he's got the mobility to defend at the NBA level.
Free Agent options include Jeff Foster and Hilton Armstrong among a list of other names that are going to be highly prized. There's a lot of teams out there looking for depth at this position which is why the Suns need to be very sure they can value back before moving Lopez.
The most intriguing name to me on this list is Alexis Ajinca. Ajinca was drafted 20th overall in 2008 and has bounced around to three teams since. He's a seven-footer from France who's just 23-years-old. He's got some range on his shot and some skill with the ball but is a big defensive liability so far in his career. But there's enough young raw talent and potential there that I would seriously look at him as a possible low-risk value signing.
In all likelihood, Channing Frye will start the season as the Suns power forward. There's a lot of hope around rookie Markieff Morris but there's always a lot of hope around rookies before they play their first game. It's optimistic to think that Morris is going to be more than a 10-12 minute bench guy his first season and then hopefully develop over a couple of years into a capable NBA starting power forward.
Hakim Warrick is still on the roster and will likely also get some minutes. On occasion he can give a nice scoring punch but his defense and rebounding effort are too inconsistent. Gani Lawal should be fully recovered from his knee injury and could be an option for some energy minutes off the bench.
Free agent options here include a lot of very interesting names that could potentially buy the Suns some time to develop Morris. If the Suns do move Lopez, they could use Frye in rotation at the five and add another power forward to fill in the gaps. There are certainly more names here than at the five.
Guys like DeMarre Carroll, Craig Smith, Dante Cunningham, Joey Dorsey, and Josh Powell are all at the lower end. Moving up the ladder a bit you see names like Josh McRoberts, Chuck Hayes, Luc Mbah a Moute, Reggie Evans and then a little higher you get Carl Landry, Glen Davis, and Kris Humphries. At the top are David West and Kenyon Martin and Jeff Green (restricted) but I don't see the Suns wanting to pay those guys too much.
This is definitely a position where there's some value depth to be had. Power forward is by far the deepest position in the 2011 NBA Free Agent pool.
Small Forward / Shooting Guard
It's safe to assume that Grant Hill will be back starting as the Suns small forward. He wants to be back and the team wants him back. Behind Hill the Suns have swingmen Josh Childress, Jared Dudley and Mickael Pietrus.
At shooting guard with the departure of Vince Carter, there's a lot of time open available so those guys will all see time there as well with Jared Dudley as the incumbent starting two guard.
In other words, the logjam the Suns had last year on the wing isn't nearly as bad. The problem now is lack of top-flight perimeter talent. Pietrus is on a $5.3 million expiring contract and could be moved. Childress is likely untradable until the Suns rebuild his value and that means playing time.
Free agent options include Josh Howard, Jason Richardson, Caron Butler, and Thaddeus Young at the top of the heap. Young is a guy I would love to see in a Suns uniform but he's a restricted free agent and the Suns would have to really love him a lot to make a big play to out-bid Philadelphia and the rest of the league. He's exactly the kind of guy that's a huge risk to sign since he will get a long-term deal but is still an unknown in many ways.
Richardson would obviously be a great fit since he was a great fit here before. He loved this team and the team loved him. The real question is how much is he worth considering he would need to get big minutes and a long-term deal. At 30-years-old JRich still has a lot of great basketball left but given his lack of defense and where the Suns are, it just doesn't make a ton of sense. JRich to the Bulls is a perfect fit if they can pull it off.
Down the list there's not much else that's an upgrade over what the Suns already have. If they wanted to try and get a scoring punch they could make a play for Jamal Crawford but his stock is very high right now after a great playoff run in Atlanta and Marcus Thorton is a restricted free agent in Sacramento (although he's probably redundant there).
Michael Redd would be an interesting option if he were willing to come on a cheap enough deal to try and revive his career and access the Suns training staff. It would have to be a very low-risk contract but he might be willing to do that. Earl Clark would be an ironic choice and Anthony Parker is a known commodity for Lance Blanks but doesn't add anything different than Pietrus.
Overall, I don't see the Suns doing much here. They will want to try and get Josh Childress more time next season and take advantage of that big contract they gave him. The key to Josh playing well is having him on the floor with bigs who can create space.
The Sun and the Moon and the Stars will be back and starting at point guard for the Suns. Steve Nash had an incredible season last year, leading the league in assists despite battling injuries for at least half the season that took away his scoring threat.
Behind Nash the Suns will have to decide what to do with Aaron Brooks. He played poorly with the Suns after the trade and poorly with Houston before the trade. His attitude is a big issue which is why it seems unlikely that he'll be back at much more than the qualifying offer of $2.9 million.
If another team wants to offer Brooks a three-year deal, I don't see where the Suns match, even if that means admitting total defeat on the Dragic trade that sent Goran and the 23rd pick to Houston.
Zabian Dowdell has shown that he's a capable enough third-string point guard but given Nash's health concerns, he's hardly the only guy you want on the bench at this position. Dowdell runs the offense and defends well but unless his outside and mid-range game takes huge steps forward this offseason, he's just too easy to ignore.
Free agent options here are very limited. Brooks is actually at the top of the list. Ronnie Price, Patty Mills, and Carlos Arroyo are serviceable names and J.J. Barea would be fun but is going to be in high demand coming off that playoff run with the Mavericks.
The better options are on the trade market. Houston is reportedly already shopping Jonny Flynn who they acquired from Minnesota with the Suns' 23rd pick (ironic) and Brad Miller. Cleveland might be willing to part with Ramon Sessions as well now that they have Kyrie Irving and are stuck with Baron Davis.
The problem is the Suns don't have much to offer beyond Robin Lopez. Maybe trading Lopez for a backup point guard like Flynn or Sessions is the best option for the Suns and then adding cheap free agent power forward for front court depth. You would hope the Suns would also get a pick in the deal but it's hard to say what Robin's value around the league is right now. He's in a very similar situation as Flynn, coming off an injury-plagued poor season but still holding a lot of promise at a high-demand position.
Here's a recap of the Suns depth in a more visually appealing form:
Center: Gortat / Lopez (?) / Frye / Siler
Power Forward: Frye / Morris / Warrick / Lawal
Small Forward: Hill / Childress / Pietrus
Shooting Guard: Dudley / Childress / Pietrus
Point Guard: Nash / Brooks (?) / Dowdell
The biggest needs are at point guard and perimeter scoring and up-front if Lopez is moved.