Offseason In Review: Phoenix Suns

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

Trades

  • Acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Kings in exchange for the rights to Alex Oriakhi. Thomas was signed-and-traded for four years, $27MM.

Waiver Claims

  • None

Draft Picks

  • T.J. Warren (Round 1, 14th overall). Signed via rookie scale exception to rookie scale contract.
  • Tyler Ennis (Round 1, 18th overall). Signed via rookie scale exception to rookie scale contract.
  • Bogdan Bogdanovic (Round 1, 27th overall). Playing overseas
  • Alec Brown (Round 2, 50th overall). Unsigned.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

When last season began, many around the league reportedly expected the Suns would trade Goran Dragic before the 2014 trade deadline, in part because the Suns had acquired Eric Bledsoe to play point guard and in part because the team appeared to be rebuilding. Dragic instead enjoyed a career year and Phoenix never came close to letting him go during a 48-win season. Unbowed, Suns GM Ryan McDonough tripled down on point guards to team with Dragic for 2014/15, re-signing Bledsoe, signing-and-trading for Isaiah Thomas, and drafting Tyler Ennis, a collection of moves that few would have predicted.

Eric Bledsoe (vertical)The Suns made it clear long before the offseason began that they intended to keep Bledsoe in restricted free agency, threatening to match any offers for the Rich Paul client. That, coupled with a knee injury that limited him to just 43 games last year in his first season as a full-time starter, appeared to have the effect of scaring away would-be suitors, and Phoenix took advantage, holding the line on a four-year, $48MM offer through much of the summer. Bledsoe’s camp stewed, and he even put pen to paper on a qualifying offer that would have allowed him to hit unrestricted free agency in 2015 had he ever sent that signed QO back to the Suns. Phoenix explored all of its options, including a proposal to the Wolves that would have sent Bledsoe to Minnesota in a sign-and-trade in exchange for Kevin Love. Minnesota, already on the verge of closing on its deal to send Love to the Cavs, didn’t bite, but the Wolves later tried to engage the Suns on a different sign-and-trade idea that would have given Bledsoe the max he was seeking. This time, Phoenix was the team saying no, and soon thereafter, the Suns finally said yes on a deal to re-sign the 24-year-old, who shelved the qualifying offer for good.

The sides met roughly in the middle, with Phoenix granting Bledsoe a five-year, $70MM deal with average annual salaries of $14MM, or $2MM greater than their initial offer but almost $3MM less than Bledsoe would have received in a five-year max deal. The Suns absorbed the risks that the small sample size of Bledsoe as a starter wasn’t misleading and that his knee trouble won’t become a long-term issue in exchange for cost certainty as the salary cap escalates drastically in the years to come. There are no options in the arrangement, meaning Bledsoe is locked in through 2018/19. The Suns will have an elite point guard at a relative discount if he continues to develop.

They’ll also have another potent force at the position through 2017/18 thanks to their deal with Thomas, who felt jilted after the Kings refused to make him an integral part of their plans even after he put up 20.3 points per game for Sacramento last season. Thomas isn’t seeing nearly as many opportunities to score in Phoenix, and he won’t as long as the Suns backcourt is as crowded as it is. He’ll nonetheless make an average of about $6.75MM a year, better than mid-level money, to play in tandem with Bledsoe, Dragic and others, and that amount was enough for Phoenix to ward off a handful of other teams with interest, reportedly including the Mavs, Pistons, Heat and Lakers.

The Thomas deal went down nearly three months before the Suns re-signed Bledsoe, suggesting that perhaps the Suns viewed Thomas as insurance in case they couldn’t come to an agreement with Bledsoe. Thomas would have been wading into cluttered waters either way, given the presence of Dragic and Ennis, but as it is, the ex-King is an odd fit whose salary could become a complication if the Suns intend to lure other free agents to the warmth of the desert in the next few years.

Still, the Suns demonstrated plenty of times this past summer that they’re not averse to paying the sort of middle-tier salaries that other front offices avoid in favor of maximum-salary stars and minimum-salary role players. They committed money in the neighborhood of the mid-level exception to re-sign P.J. Tucker, who proved his worth as an outside shooter and strong rebounder for his size. They also handed out average annual values of $8MM and $4MM, respectively, to twins Markieff and Marcus Morris in rookie scale extensions, ensuring the former lottery picks who present matchup problems along the front line continue to do so for Phoenix. Their games don’t resemble each other’s as much as their faces do, as Markieff provides the rebounding and Marcus the three-point shooting. Neither is an elite talent, though both thrived in reserve roles last season that will change with the absence of Channing Frye, who bolted for Orlando.

It’s somewhat difficult to see why the Suns were willing to spend so liberally for mid-tier players but weren’t able to bring back Frye, who reeled in $32MM over four years from the Magic. That sort of salary wouldn’t have been particularly troublesome for a player whose inside-out game proved as effective as ever last season, even if the Magic turned a few heads when they shelled out that much for him. That’s particularly so in light of Phoenix’s willingness to shell out an average of $12MM annually for the Morrises.

Anthony Tolliver came in as a much cheaper alternative, and while he fits the profile of a stretch four, he hasn’t been able to stay on the floor much for the Suns, who’ve given him just 11.4 minutes per game so far. Still, at $3MM this season and with the vast majority of his salary for next season non-guaranteed, Tolliver represents a trade chip if coach Jeff Hornacek can’t carve out a more consistent role for him.

Playing time has been difficult to come by for the team’s 2014 lottery pick, too. Combo forward T.J. Warren has seen action in only seven games so far, rarely getting the chance to display the knack for scoring he honed at N.C. State. He was a bit of a stretch as a lottery pick, as Eddie Scarito of Hoops Rumors noted in his Prospect Profile, but at No. 18, the Suns came away with a point guard who for much of last season seemed destined to become a top 10 pick. The fortunes of Ennis stumbled down the stretch just as his Syracuse team did, but he was nonetheless a coveted prospect, and the Raptors were particularly keen on drafting the native of Ontario before the Suns got in the way. Phoenix used its third first-round pick on draft-and-stash prospect Bogdan Bogdanovic, who probably won’t be coming stateside until 2016, at the earliest.

The draft isn’t the only way the Suns used a European player to prepare for the future. The Suns brought Zoran Dragic from his Spanish team with a two-year guaranteed contract that will no doubt play on brother Goran Dragic’s mind next summer, when Goran has a $7.5MM player option. Goran Dragic unsurprisingly intends to turn that option down, and he seems prepared to test the market even though he’ll reportedly give the Suns the first swipe at him. The Rockets and Lakers have already been linked to him, and it appears that for a second straight summer, there will be some uncertainty about one of Phoenix’s elite point guards.

It’s nonetheless unlikely that those negotiations will drag on nearly as long as Bledsoe’s did, and the hard part of keeping the core of the roster intact is probably over for McDonough. Now, the even more difficult task of taking a playoff contender and turning it into a title contender looms. Regardless of how or whether the Suns get to that point under his leadership, this past offseason is further evidence that the GM is unafraid to cut an unconventional path to make it there.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.

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