If you're lucky enough to draft a second-round point guard who puts up 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 57.4 percent and player efficiency rating of 20.5 by his third NBA season, you should strongly consider doing everything in your power to retain that value.
Unless you're the Sacramento Kings, apparently.
In one of the most unexpected moves of the 2014 free-agency period, the Phoenix Suns acquired former King Isaiah Thomas in a sneaky sign-and-trade that will pay the plucky point guard $27 million over four years.
The Kings, meanwhile, received a $7 million trade exception and the rights to Alex Oriakhi, who has yet to log a single second in the NBA.
In Thomas, the Suns didn’t just get one of the best young point guards in the league—they snagged the steal of the summer.
Even now, it’s not exactly clear what, if anything, Sacramento saw as a red flag in Thomas’ game. That he’s undersized for an NBA point guard goes without saying—second-year man Ray McCallum (6’3”) and newly acquired Darren Collison (6’0”) both have the edge in that respect.
Was there an element of heightism to Sacramento’s decision? Thomas certainly thinks so. Here’s what he had to say in a recent interview with Slam's Brett Weisband:
If I was 6-foot, I would be signing for $90 million contract, just like him [Kyrie Irving]. ...
I'm 5-foot-9 and that's why I was the 60th pick. That's why the Kings keep bringing new guys in. That's the reason why. And I understand and you can't put it past that. If I was 6-foot, I would be a max player. I think a lot of people feel that way, too.
Whatever the Kings’ underlying motivation, it’s clear Phoenix saw something in the numbers—to say nothing of the man himself—well worth the risk.
Skeptics argue the addition of Thomas will only further complicate Phoenix’s delicate backcourt balance, bolstered as it was last season by the potent one-two punch of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
With no fewer than three starting-caliber point guards now in the mix, how exactly is head coach Jeff Hornacek supposed to make everyone happy?
For his part, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told Paul Coro of AZCentral.com he thinks it’s a pretty good problem to have:
We were very good when Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were on the court, and we think Isaiah Thomas is that caliber of player where if you can have one or two of those guys on the court at all times, you really don't have any dropoff scoring-wise. You always have multiple weapons. You have guys who can run pick-and-rolls from either side of the floor and can push the floor in transition.
There’s certainly merit to McDonough’s reasoning. With the NBA becoming more and more perimeter-oriented, having depth at the game’s most important position isn’t simply a welcome luxury—it’s virtually a necessity.
All the same, it’s impossible to ignore the secondary ploy at play in Phoenix’s latest Moneyball move.
By signing Thomas, the Suns are hedging against the possibility of not matching whatever max offer sheet Bledsoe, a restricted free agent, ultimately signs.
Indeed, with Dragic due his own payday come next summer, Phoenix simply can’t afford to sink $25-30 million a year on its point guard depth alone.
Assuming Dragic declines his forthcoming $7.5 million player option, thereby making him an unrestricted free agent (per HoopsHype), the Suns would at least have a backup plan in the event the Serbian veteran decides to bolt.
Still, with the free-agent market cooled down somewhat, there’s a good chance Phoenix will be able to retain Bledsoe, thereby focusing its efforts on retaining Dragic for a reasonable price next summer.
According to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, the Suns have offered Bledsoe a four-year, $48 million deal—right on par with what Stephen Curry ($44 million), Ty Lawson ($48 million) and Jrue Holiday ($41 million) all reaped on their first big extensions.
Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley emphasizes an important point. From a purely strategic perspective, the Suns pretty much hold all the leverage:
Eventually, Bledsoe is going to relent and accept Phoenix's offer. Maybe the slow pace of these negotiations will help him pick up a couple extra dollars in the process, but that's only if the Suns are feeling generous.
They are offering him more than money.
They can keep him on the ground floor of a rising franchise that could make major noise in the Western Conference as soon as next season. After picking up 48 wins in 2013-14, the Suns have since added veteran scorer Isaiah Thomas and promising rookies T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis. Sophomores Archie Goodwin and Alex Len could both take on bigger roles after seeing limited action as rookies. ...
Bledsoe would have a hard time finding many better basketball situations than the one he currently has. The few that do exist don't have the money to pry him away from Phoenix.
Should the Suns start next season with all three guards at their disposal, managing the trio’s minutes will be one of Hornacek’s foremost diplomatic challenges.
One doesn’t have to look too far back to find an optimistic comparison for how the balancing act might work.
During the 2011-12 season, the Dallas Mavericks employed a similar approach with Jason Kidd, Jason Terry—the team’s backcourt staples—and J.J. Barea each averaging more than 20 minutes per game during the regular season.
Thanks in large part to Barea’s change-of-pace exploits, the Mavs went on to capture the franchise’s first championship later that spring, dispatching LeBron James and the Miami Heat in six games.
Like Barea, Thomas’ speed and quickness more than make up for his lack of size, allowing Phoenix to mix and match tempos and styles based on the opposing personnel.
Owing to his superior shooting efficiency and playmaking ability, Thomas stands to garner much more playing time than even Barea—particularly since both Bledsoe and Dragic are more than capable of playing off the ball.
“I feel wanted. That’s all I wanted,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy shortly after signing with the Suns.
Not guaranteed minutes, not a starting spot, not his name alone on the marquee. To be wanted.
If Thomas is indeed one to beef over who comes off the bench, he sure doesn't sound like it.
The Kings might've had their reasons for parting ways with their fiery floor general. Just don’t be surprised if it’s the Suns' reasons for bringing him in—borne out as they’ve increasingly been by numbers over notions—that prove the smarter strategy.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.