The most dangerous time in the NBA season is upon us next week and fans all across the country especially here in Phoenix should be afraid. Be very afraid!
Free agency is fool's gold in this league, always has been, always will be. Outside of Shaq to the Lakers (before the current rules were put in place) and LeBron and Chris Bosh taking their talent to South Beach, it is almost impossible to build a championship team through free agency. You can add pieces to a solid core, but more often than not, teams overpay marginal players and place high expectations on them only to see them fail.
This year, we'll see a lot more of the same as the free agent class, outside of Deron Williams, is garbage. There are a lot of role players looking to be paid like stars and teams willing to give them that chance to be a star. Like I said -- fool's gold.
The Suns need not be reminded of the offseason that was Josh Childress, Hakeem Warrick and a trade for Hedo Turkoglu. This year it will be wise for the Suns to sit on their money, sign players to one-year contracts and maintain cap space while improving their draft position. The worst thing to do in this league is to try and remain mediocre. You become not good enough to compete for a title and not bad enough to get a top-five pick. The Suns are one of many teams in that boat right now.
Take Oklahoma City for instance. They drafted Kevin Durant when they were still in Seattle, but instead of trying to win with a veteran roster and maintain mediocrity, they got rid of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Durant wasn't ready to be a star at that time; his shot selection was poor and his defense was atrocious. So they sucked -- and it got them Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Now they are the top team in the Western Conference. By being bad for a few years they put themselves in a position to be good. It's common sense, really.
But too often, teams are unwilling to suck it up. Unwilling to be a bad basketball team and take their lumps. Unwilling to hit rock bottom. The worst thing you can do is spend cap space on marginal role players, but it happens all the time.
Just a few years ago, with $20 million in cap space, the Detroit Pistons spent it all on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and they have been regretting it ever since.
The Chicago Bulls, when they couldn't sign Tracy McGrady, wasted money on Brad Miller. When they couldn't get LeBron James or Dwyane Wade they wasted money on Carlos Boozer and are stuck with his bad contract.
How quickly do you think the Knicks would give back Amaré Stoudemire if they had a do-over? They'd do it in a New York second. They got a good half season out of STAT on a five-year contract. Not that Stoudemire was a marginal role player. He was a very good player, but not a superstar and injuries had taken their toll to the point where the Suns had no interest in guaranteeing anything more than three years on a deal.
One year the Knicks spent a fortune on Larry Johnson, Allan Houston and Chris Childs. End result -- no title.
Good teams are built through the draft and solid trades. See Duncan, Parker, Ginobili in San Antonio. See Durant, Westbrook and Harden in OKC. See Kobe, Bynum and Gasol (trade) in Los Angeles. Even the Celtics won a title through the draft. They drafted Al Jefferson and Delonte West and used those picks to net them Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. If West and Jefferson had not panned out and weren't so highly-coveted, they could have never gotten Seattle and Minnesota to make deals with them. Plus, by going 24-58 in 2006-07, they had the fifth pick in the draft which they used along with West to get them Allen. So having high draft picks gives you a much better chance of drafting an impact player or parlaying that pick into a good player via trade.
The message to the Suns this year is simple: be careful. There are some decent players in free agency, but none outside of Williams worth spending big dollars on.
Carl Landry is a good player, big, strong, tough. But he has knee problems and is best suited to be the sixth man on a good team; not a starter on a bad team. Chris Kaman is a mid-range shooting big man who can't play defense and is as soft as tissue paper. Randy Foye is a nice role player off the bench. Lou Williams is that typical combo guard who can score but he doesn't get anyone else involved in the offense, doesn't make anyone around him better. Even their own Robin Lopez isn't worth the mid-level exception and anyone who signs him will end up regretting it -- I promise!
Ramon Sessions disappeared in the playoffs for the Lakers. Raymond Felton is a disaster waiting to happen. He's rarely in shape and single-handedly ruined the Portland Trail Blazers and caused Nate McMillan to get fired. O.J. Mayo will get $8 million plus per year from someone, but let's hope it's not Phoenix. He came off the bench in Memphis for a reason, and is not worth the big dollars he is seeking.
Even a guy I really like -- Ersan Ilyasova, a 25-year old power forward who can rebound -- is not going to be worth the money he will get (likely in the $8 to $10 million range.) Ilyasova needs to be the fifth-best player on a team. But at $10 million per year, he will be expected to be the first, second or third-best. He is an average shooter who can't create his own shot and struggles defending in the low post. I love him at $5 million a year because he has a knack for rebounding. But double that salary, and it's double trouble.
The object for the Suns isn't to reward middle-of-the road players with undeserved contracts. That only leads to winning enough games to prevent you from getting into position to draft a franchise-changing player with a top- five pick.
The goal is not to be mediocre. So resist the temptation to sign marginal role players and instead save the cap space until a gem comes along. Sign players to one-year deals like they did with Shannon Brown last year. Bite the bullet for a few years, take your lumps, but in the process, put yourself in position to draft high in the lottery -- or trade those high lottery picks for some real talent.
If things are going to change around here, that is the way it is going to happen. It's not going to happen by fielding a team of overpaid role players.