For a team that entered the 2014 offseason with high hopes and boatloads of cap space, the Phoenix Suns looked, for a time, like a team more interested in shedding players than acquiring them.
Rather than sign him to an extension, Phoenix instead parted ways with longtime forward Channing Frye, who signed a fresh, four-year, $32 million tender with the Orlando Magic on July 8 (per Paul Coro of AZCentral.com).
What a difference a week makes.
Just days after completing a sign-and-trade for Sacramento Kings whirling-dervish point guard Isaiah Thomas (per Coro), the Suns followed it up by spearheading one of the summer’s sneakiest signings, inking Anthony Tolliver to a two-year, $6 million deal.
Like Frye, Tolliver is a prototypical stretch 4 whose three-point prowess should lend valuable spacing to Jeff Hornacek’s high-octane offense.
Unlike Frye, Tolliver’s contract keeps Phoenix in good position to make yet another summer splash.
Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that—despite Tolliver’s superior three-point shooting—the Suns will most certainly see something of an overall production drop-off from last season.
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The disparities might not jump off the page, until you consider Frye started all 82 games for Phoenix a year ago. Tolliver, meanwhile, started only nine.
This naturally invites the question: Does Hornacek intend on merely shoehorning Tolliver into Frye’s starting slot, or will he use the former Charlotte Hornet more as a role-focused bench player?
Judging by the numbers, it could be the latter.
According to NBA.com (stats subscription only), of the six five-man units that registered at least 50 minutes for the Suns last season, three of them featured Frye at either the 4 or the 5.
Meanwhile, five of the lineups included versatile third-year forward (and burgeoning three-point marksmen) Markieff Morris.
Of the six listed lineups, the most productive (in terms of net rating) was the unit of Ish Smith, Gerald Green, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Frye, charting a 41.
The catch: That lineup logged only 57 minutes.
It’s difficult to read anything permanent into a one-year sample size. At the same time, perhaps Phoenix sees in Morris—and to a similar extent, his brother as well (Marcus shot 38 percent from downtown last season)—its stretch 4 of the future.
Between the Morris twins and Tolliver, the Suns boast a trio of players more than capable of making up for Frye’s long-distance production.
In fact, in an April interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Burns and Gambo, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough dropped a not-so-subtle hint that Markieff could, in fact, be a starter in waiting (via ArizonaSports.com’s Adam Green):
I'd imagine that he will want to start eventually. I think from a team perspective we want all our guys to be unselfish, but we want them to be starters or think they're starters…If Markieff keeps progressing like this I'd imagine he'd be a starter at some point in his NBA career. I think it'd be hard to envision him not being a starter if he keeps putting up these numbers and playing so well.
And that’s before we even get to T.J. Warren, the 6’8” rookie out of North Carolina State who’s taken the Las Vegas Summer league by storm. Warren doesn’t have a reliable three-ball yet, but his offensive repertoire alone is sure to make him a viable rotational option.
For as productive as Frye has been during his nine-year NBA career, perhaps the Suns saw in keeping him a risk of strategic atrophy—the idea that, for as valuable as the stretch 4 has become, Frye’s version lacks the versatility necessary to thrive in what’s proving to be, under Hornacek, quite the dynamic offensive system.
Tolliver is basically the same player, just at a much, much cheaper price. Even if he’s not replacing Frye’s productivity line by line, having an effective stretch 4 is something any team could use, regardless of where that player fits in the overall rotational scheme.
Still, Frye isn’t without his staunch defenders. Shortly after his departure, Bright Side of the Sun's Jacob Padilla, in his impassioned defense of the Frye Effect, cites this passage from Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland:
Frye has a gravitational pull that forces bigs away from the rim, creating attacking corridors for Dragic, who excels at "turning the corner," attacking the basket, and making plays. In turn, Dragic's attacking abilities create wide-open looks for Frye or other perimeter shooters. This symbiosis is the heart of the Suns' offensive ecosystem, and it is by no means an accident.
Padilla and Goldsberry are right to acknowledge the crucial role that Frye’s floor-spacing ability played in Phoenix’s dynamic, slash-and-kick attack.
To which there’s but one logical response: What’s better, someone who fulfills this skill set at $8 million per year, or three players—all of them younger—at a little over $9 million?
Frye, who spent his last four full seasons with the Suns, will surely be missed, not only for the basketball, sure, but also for another, more human reason: Frye missed the entire 2012-13 season with a previously undiagnosed heart condition.
Frye was eventually cleared to play. And play he did, proving a pivotal piece to Phoenix’s surprising 48-win season, a campaign that very nearly saw the plucky upstarts—whom many predicted would finish in the Western Conference basement—run and fun their way into the postseason.
That kind of back story is bound to make the parting a briefly bitter sorrow. As for the basketball? For the first time in what seems like eons, these Suns have a plan.
By renouncing Frye and signing Tolliver, the Suns aren’t simply hoping the latter mirrors the former’s role and does so at less than half the price; they’re banking on something that served them so well a season ago: the promise of youth and upside.
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