The Phoenix Suns weren't supposed to be here.
Pegged by just about everyone as a sure lottery team, Phoenix has shaken up the NBA by playing an exciting brand of ball that has it in playoff position well after the halfway point of the 2013-14 season. And now the Suns are poised to be the most influential market-mover at the trade deadline.
As momentum gathers for the NBA's Feb. 20 trade deadline, the Phoenix Suns hold one of the league's most valuable assets for deal partners wanting to save themselves several millions of dollars: the expiring—and insured—contract of injured center Emeka Okafor.
The irony is the Suns are currently in this position because of a move that was supposed to help keep them out of playoff contention.
A Happy Accident?
Dealing Marcin Gortat to the Washington Wizards before the season began was a clear signal that Phoenix was more focused on accumulating assets than fielding a capable roster on the court. The Suns knew full well that Emeka Okafor's neck injury might keep him out for the entire season (and beyond), but they wanted his hefty expiring contract and the top-12 protected pick the Wizards sent over much more than they wanted the able-bodied Gortat.
There's no question the Suns recognized the value of acquiring an expiring deal as big as Okafor's. At $14.5 million, that's exactly the kind of contract that could return a useful, high-priced rental at the deadline. But that wasn't what this deal was primarily about.
The Suns wanted another first-round pick to add to their growing collection. Getting Okafor was just gravy.
The latest rumors have the Suns pursuing talks with the Los Angeles Lakers about Pau Gasol. The veteran big man appeals to Phoenix as an experienced frontcourt presence who could provide a scoring boost and slick inside-out passing.
It's worth noting here that Gasol doesn't represent a great fit with the Suns. We know he can't play in an uptempo system effectively, and his presence could stunt the development of younger bigs like Miles Plumlee and the Morris twins.
Plus, the Lakers are holding out for more than Okafor's contract in the bargain, according to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times. To this point, Phoenix has been unwilling to part with a draft pick that satisfies L.A.
The odd fit between Gasol and the Suns, as well as the parties' disparate feelings on compensation, points to the conclusion that Phoenix might only be entertaining talks with the Lakers to create leverage elsewhere. Teams do this all the time: chatting up a deal with one team in hopes of drawing a better offer from another one.
It's a testament to how far the Suns have come that they can even pretend to be buyers at the deadline.
Even if Phoenix can't (or doesn't want to) land Gasol in this particular deal, it's equipped with the kinds of assets that will draw interest from just about every other team in the league.
The Suns could wind up with as many as four first-round picks in the upcoming draft, per RealGM.com. That means they've got more deal-sweeteners than anybody. If Phoenix wants to pry a veteran from a rebuilding team, it has the first-rounders to do it.
Plus, Phoenix is a team devoid of bad contracts. Everybody on the roster is either underpaid or on a rookie deal with years of team control ahead. With insurance covering up to 80 percent of Okafor's salary, Goran Dragic—who should have been named an All-Star reserve—is the highest paid player on the Suns with a ridiculously reasonable annual salary of $7.5 million.
That combination of attractive, affordable players and a stockpile of draft picks gives the Suns flexibility to move in either direction. If they want to pry a veteran away from a team going nowhere, they can ship out picks. If they'd rather collect more assets for the future, they can offer up their own collection of intriguing players.
With all the success they've had so far, it's tough to imagine the Suns turning into sellers. But if they slip up over the next two weeks or get some bad news about Eric Bledsoe's recovery, it'd be incredibly easy to pare away veterans from their roster.
Channing Frye could be a hugely valuable acquisition for contenders in need of frontcourt shooting (Houston Rockets, anyone?), and either Markieff or Marcus Morris could help a playoff team.
Best of all, Suns fans probably wouldn't be upset if general manager Ryan McDonough went that route. Phoenix is way ahead of schedule at this point; it has given its supporters far more entertainment and hope for the future than any of them could have dreamed.
There's more faith in the front office than there's been in years. So there won't be any sort of revolt if McDonough, in his infinite wisdom, steers the Suns in whatever direction he pleases.
Nobody's saying Phoenix is likely to become a seller at the deadline. In fact, the opposite seems more plausible. But the fact that the Suns can so easily select either of two disparate courses illustrates the bevy of options at their disposal.
And let's not rule out a third option: standing pat.
The Suns are in terrific position right now. They can simply wait around for Bledsoe to return, watch their young talent develop and allow insurance to pay for most of Okafor's salary until he comes off the books. There'd be no harm in adopting that strategy if the right deal doesn't come along.
Per Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com, McDonough says he's prepared to do just that: "If we don't do anything, that would be fine as well. We don't feel any immediate pressure to do something."
The fact that Phoenix can so comfortably sit back and do nothing is perhaps its most valuable asset. No gambler is more dangerous or unpredictable than the one playing with house money. These Suns have built up a pile of chips whose height and value are exceeded only by the mountain of goodwill they've amassed with fans.
If the right offer doesn't come along, the Suns won't feel any pressure to force a play. That's an extremely powerful position and one that will allow them to make the best move possible.
Ultimately, the Suns have everything necessary to be the biggest players in a trade market that figures to be extremely busy. Their assets, flexibility and freedom to act or abstain put them in a truly unique spot.
They're primed to take advantage of 29 other teams who don't have the same clean books and treasure trove of options.
Of course, there's one thing that could stand in the way of the Suns making a brilliant deadline move: Franchises around the league might be afraid to deal with a team that has rapidly built a reputation as being smarter than everyone else.
The Suns are about to be a kid in a candy store and nobody wants to look like a sucker.