After a thrilling 2013-14, the Phoenix Suns have had a lot of moving parts to their offseason. Experiencing similar or better success and excitement next year involves navigating some complicated player movement paths.
The latest news involves the team extending qualifying offers to restricted free agents Eric Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker. Those offers are for around $3.7 million and $1.1 million per year, respectively, but no one expects either player to sign these sheets. "Bledsoe is looking at a max contract projected to be around $15 million per season," says Kevin Zimmerman of Valley of the Suns. "While Tucker could make anywhere from $3-5 million annually." Most likely, both will test the market and drive their values up.
Bledsoe is the single most disruptive point guard defender in the league, as evidenced by his 3.96 defensive real-plus minus, courtesy of ESPN. He’s also just 24 years old and a captivating rim-attacker, especially in tandem with Goran Dragic. Dragic plays like a more traditional point guard, giving the versatile and amorphous Bledsoe ample opportunity to freelance with his amazing athleticism—some like to call Bledsoe "Mini LeBron."
And Bledsoe’s potential is still not fully tapped. If he doesn’t find a team to offer him a maximum contract, he’ll see a deal somewhere close to it. The Suns' commitment to Bledsoe has been strong in the past, but more recently owner Robert Sarver suggested a certain ambivalence about keeping him.
Tucker similarly earned himself a good deal of money this season. The 29-year-old had his best season as a pro and established himself as a coveted “three-and-D” guy, shooting 39 percent from deep while typically guarding the opponent’s best wing. Tucker isn’t a potential max contract player like Bledsoe, but the market should drive his price up.
Channing Frye is also now a free agent, having opted out of the final year of his contract, which would have paid him $6.8 million next season. Frye already has one suitor in the Golden State Warriors. Former college teammate Andre Iguodala is especially a fan of the concept.
"I've talked to Channing a few times," Iguodala told Sirius XM. "I told him how great the Bay was. I told him how his family would enjoy it. I know his family well. My family knows his family, so it wouldn't be strangers. I would take care of him. If he needed a room, I got an extra room for him.”
Frye could be a kind of insurance policy for the Warriors in the event that a trade for Kevin Love doesn’t go through. He's by no means the same playmaker or scorer in the post, but he's 6'11" and shot 39 percent from behind the arc last year, so he’s the kind of defense-stretching big man every team wants. And he'd be particularly useful next to either David Lee or Andrew Bogut, neither of whom has his kind of shooting range.
The Suns’ cap commitment next year is minimal. They can afford to re-sign any and all of their free agents, but who they bring back is a question of direction. Tucker, Bledsoe and Frye will each take advantage of the reality that free agency is a player’s market, and bringing back all three will prove costly and mean that Phoenix is all but set with their core for the next few years.
Their new draft picks might tell us something about their future intents—but they also may have just been taken as the best players available. Tyler Ennis is a dynamic point guard who could be seen as in line behind Bledsoe. T.J. Warren is a big man with NBA scoring potential who could fill at least parts of holes left by either Tucker or Frye.
But the sign from on high suggests a more ambitious prerogative than that. Sarver wants to spend money this summer. Despite just missing the playoffs in a vaunted Western Conference this year, the Suns have momentum, and Sarver is hungry for more.
Fans should naturally be weary of this. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have not signaled interest in Phoenix, and neither has Kevin Love. Their resistance to joining the Suns is not for necessarily for basketball reasons; Sarver’s hard-line approach during the 2011 lockout did not go unnoticed. And the last time Sarver rushed toward wins, it netted the Suns an oblong, overpaid roster featuring Michael Beasley, Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola.
The Suns were largely expected to stumble through 2013-14, an ostensible reset year, but lightning was caught in rookie coach Jeff Hornacek’s bottle. General manager Ryan McDonough’s challenge lies in managing Sarver’s thirst, maintaining just the right balance of continuity and fresh blood while keeping the Suns’ financial situation flexible going forward. McDonough's been great so far, but the hurdles only get higher from here.
If one of Bledsoe, Tucker or Frye leaves because the Suns don’t want to overpay them, any free-agent replacement they may get will probably also have to be overpaid. That’s the nature of free agency.
Some sensible matches for the Suns in free agency? Luol Deng is a veteran defensive glue guy. Trevor Ariza is a similar player, but with less playmaking and better shooting. And former Sun Shawn Marion, ironically enough, could exert a seasoned influence and fill in gaps defensively, too.
After a startlingly effective campaign from young players thrown hastily together, it's hard to believe the Suns need to change much. If they bring everyone back and add one or two supplementary players, they should be noisemakers in the Western Conference yet again.