Taking an early look at the Phoenix Suns offseason
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
Barring a miracle, the Phoenix Suns, for the second year in a row, will be turned around just short of entering the NBA playoffs club and will presumably slink back to their apartments to binge watch The Wire on HBO GO. If they're anything like me, that is.
Considering the Suns are three-and-a-half games back of the eight spot in the West -- with their five games remaining against a brutal slate of opponents (Hawks, Mavericks, Pelicans, Spurs and Clippers), with four of those being road contests where they are 17-20 this season -- a miracle is putting it lightly.
While that's disheartening for the few Suns fans who still have hope, maybe the Phoenix front office wasn't exactly dying to make the playoffs this season. After all, they did deal away Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline and received Brandon Knight and some spare parts. Dragic, though clearly unhappy with his role on the team, was the best player on the roster and Thomas has since flourished as the sixth-man Boston, the same role he had in Phoenix.
The three-point-guards experiment with Dragic, Thomas and Eric Bledsoe was a miserable failure and played a huge part in Dragic bellyaching his way out of Phoenix. Injuries to key starters and way too many last-second losses also sank the Suns' season. There are alternate universes where Phoenix could have comfortably made the playoffs this year.
But they won't, and now there's nothing to do but take stock and see what the Suns can do to improve and finally get over the hump in the brutal Western Conference.
The most interesting storyline for Phoenix during the offseason will be how much they will have to pay Knight.
The 2011 lottery pick seemed due for a juicy contract after this season when he was averaging 17.8 points and 5.4 assists with the Bucks in the first half of this season. However, since he was shipped to Phoenix his shooting numbers have dipped and his scoring has gone down to 13.4 a night, as well a drop in his assist numbers.
He's only played 11 games in a Suns uniform, so it's obviously a very small sample size, but the inactivity is due to ankle and heel injuries that have sidelined him for 11 of Phoenix's last 12 games.
That's another problem. Knight has had problems with his ankle before, going back to his days as a Piston, and he's yet to play a full NBA season in four tries.
That's bad news for Knight as he probably won't be getting the max deal he wanted in restricted free agency. Teams certainly won't pay him max money to play shooting guard, the position he has struggled to adjust to in Phoenix. He shows more promise as a point guard at this point, but that's the deepest position in the league.
That's good news for the Suns, who basically had no choice but to re-sign Knight after trading the Lakers' first-round pick to get him. The pick is top-five protected this year and top-three protected the next season and the season after that. The Suns trading a potential lottery pick for half a season of a struggling, injured Knight is the basketball equivalent of the losing horn from The Price is Right.
Phoenix has to bring back Knight for their sake, unless a team comes out of nowhere and offers him the max. Knight is still just 23 years old and plenty of teams are in need of a point guard, so it wouldn't be the craziest thing ever.
One player who is surely out the door is Gerald Green.
Unfortunately for Green, last season was not his contract year, this one was. After shooting 40 percent from deep and nearly 50 percent from the field and scoring a career-high 15.8 points per game last season, Green has seen his minutes slashed.
Green was playing just over 20 minutes a game before the All-Star break, which was still significantly less than the 28.5 he played last season, but since All-Star Weekend his playing time has gone down to 15 minutes a game and he's racked up several "DNP-Coach's Decision"s along the way.
The Suns have leaned towards developing their young wing players -- T.J. Warren and Archie Goodwin -- and Green's 24 point outburst against the Jazz on Saturday notwithstanding, the 29-year-old former high school transplant doesn't look to be a part of the long-term plans.
Speaking of those long-term plans, the Suns will have some cap space to play with during the offseason. Marcus Thornton, whom they got in the Thomas deal, and Josh Childress, who was amnestied in 2012, will be a combined $16 million off the books. Letting go of Green will free up another $3.5 million and the Suns will have to make a decision on re-signing Brandan Wright, who is owed $5 million this season.
A good chunk of that cap space will go towards re-signing Knight, who will surely command over $10 million a season, but there might be some extra room to play with.
The only set-in-stone starters next season are Knight (if he re-signs) and Bledsoe. The current starting small forward, P.J. Tucker, is basically the Phoenix equivalent of Tony Allen in that he's the offensively-challenged defensive stalwart. Tucker is owed close to $11 million over the next two seasons and he turns 30 in May.
It's nice to have a defensive-minded player on a team that's known only for scoring, but the Suns should think about finding an upgrade. The Bledsoe-Knight-Alex Len-Markieff Morris-Tucker starting five is 4-5 this season and the combination doesn't exactly blow the doors off offensively.
Those five score 76.1 points per 36 minutes, according to NBA.com, which ranks 107th out of the 250 most-used five-man lineups this season. Obviously the same five players never share the court for 36 minutes in a game, but it speaks to the level of concern we should have about the Suns' projected starting five next season.
Of course, the Suns could be a better team next season if only because of the magic of natural player development. As stated before, Knight isn't even in his prime yet. Bledsoe is younger than Russell Westbrook, the Morris twins are 25, and Len will turn 22 in September. A lot of teams would love to have this kind of youth and already be knocking at the door of the playoffs, in the Western Conference no less.
There are a number of mid-level free agents who the Suns should be interesting in bringing aboard if the price is right. All the top-level players will likely stay put this season, the three unknowns being Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan and Dragic (who burned his bridges anyway).
Suns GM Ryan McDonough said back in January that his team will be in play for the top free-agents, but it's hard to see any of those guys being readily available for the Suns to snatch up. LaMarcus Aldridge and Jordan are both unrestricted free agents, but both are already on playoff teams in the West with great point guards feeding them the ball. If it comes down to money, the Suns could have enough to make it interesting.
Assuming Warren will be the small forward of the future for the Suns, Phoenix could do well to grab a one year stop-gap sort of player who will give the team a nice season as Warren develops his game and still allows him to play a healthy number of minutes. Luol Deng and Paul Pierce are interesting options. Yeah, they're no spring chickens, but the Suns' medical staff are miracle workers (see: Shaquille O'Neal '08-'09 season).
To get back to being a perennial playoff team, the Suns will have to match the noise they made at the trade deadline by being equally loud in free agency.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo