The Phoenix Suns are notorious for overpays backfiring in free agency, but a look at their recent history suggests Ricky Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. might buck the trend.
Abstract art is a visual language that is lost on many, this writer included. While the connoisseur may see beautiful, striking composition that ventures beyond the constructs and typical depictions of reality, the uninitiated may simply see a clutter of shapes and colors, splashed across the page devoid of rhyme or reason.
The art of the overpay is similarly elusive in the NBA, especially for a team like the Phoenix Suns. For every Jackson Pollock or Golden State Warriors that establishes a new standard within the art form, there’s another jumbled mess of nonsense that serves to dismiss it entirely in the eyes of its critics.
In that vein, the Suns have been less “Pablo Picasso” and more “kindergarten finger painters” in the post-Steve Nash era when it comes to their skill in overpaying free agents.
By and large, overpays in the NBA are deemed as mistakes. Offering more money than a player is worth is just bad principle on paper, it’s a surefire way to aggravate a fanbase — even if it’s not their money or livelihood at stake.
In some cases, however, it’s a necessary evil that can even absolve itself over time. For contenders adding that final piece to the puzzle, for on-the-rise teams seeking the perfect complement to take the next step or for bottom-feeders acquiring established talents, a slight overextension on the cap sheet can reach beyond the numbers and vindicate the front office’s decision-making.
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So how does one derive meaning from a medium that inherently resides outside the normal confines of what is acceptable?
As is the case with all art, it’s open to interpretation, but studying its history can at least provide context for the beauty — or in the Suns’ case, ugliness — in the eye of the beholder.
While no one would ever defend Timofey Mozgov’s four-year, $72 million deal in 2016, or many of the deals struck in that infamous summer of overspending, for that matter, there are a few recent examples that serve as a beacon for teams looking to make a splash without flooding the cap sheet.
The Warriors rewarded Andre Iguodala with a handsome extension worth $48 million over three years back in 2017, and although that kind of inflated salary for a 33-year-old with diminishing numbers and athleticism was easy to spot, it was also reasonable. The Dubs had just won a championship, they were already well into the luxury tax and they went on to win another title with Iggy onboard in 2018 (and could’ve done so again in 2019 if not for a string of bad injury luck).
The Suns, unfortunately, do not fit the category of contenders who need to overpay to keep a championship core together, so this example isn’t entirely helpful.
Another recent illustration of overpaying done right is the New Orleans Pelicans’ five-year, $126 million extension for Jrue Holiday in 2017. Two consecutive career years make it easier to be swept away by revisionist history now, but at the time, it was almost universally condemned as excessive.
The Pelicans have obviously lost Anthony Davis and completely restructured since then, but Holiday and his contract may have been the biggest argument for the Brow staying in New Orleans. It was assuredly an overpay, but he wound up living up to it.
Like Iguodala, Holiday was an extension rather than an outside acquisition, so perhaps former Sun P.J. Tucker is a more suitable example. His four-year, $32 million pact with the Houston Rockets in 2017 was mostly seen as an overpay by those caught up in his raw averages, but two years later, he’s proved himself as nothing less than one of the NBA’s best bargain contracts.
So what about the category where the Suns currently reside, with the bottom-feeders who are forced to overpay established talent in order to take the next step?
One example of hope is the Philadelphia 76ers’ hefty one-year commitment to J.J. Redick back in 2017. While the potential of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons was unquestionable, the Sixers’ rise to prominence — jumping from 28 wins to 52 — never would’ve happened without that one-year, $23 million splurge on Redick in 2017, which regressed to a more reasonable $12.5 million extension in 2018.
Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton are no Simmons and Embiid, nor is Ricky Rubio the idyllic complement to Phoenix’s offense and locker room Redick was in Philly, but those differences matter when evaluating the Suns’ new point guard signing, or any of the team’s new arrivals this summer.
Bad teams are cornered into overpays time and time again, but turning the page traces back to good drafting and young stars making the leap far more often than it does to the overpaid vets meant to guide them.
Through that lens, one’s opinion of the Suns’ offseason additions might be a better litmus test for that person’s view on Booker and Ayton’s trajectory rather than the actual new faces themselves. They should be seen as catalysts to the young core’s growth, rather than the driving force pushing them over the top.
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The team’s recent, troubled history with overpaying outside free agents cannot be ignored, but also outlines some key differences between the ugly past and this summer’s deals for Rubio and Kelly Oubre Jr. Under general manager Ryan McDonough, shooting for the stars often led to glorified detonation among them; what looked to be beautiful, shining lights of hope from the ground were revealed to be burning balls of hot gas only a year later.
His prized acquisition in an ill-fated, three-team trade back in 2015, Brandon Knight, was rewarded with a five-year, $70 million leap of faith after just 11 games with the team. That wound up plummeting into inefficient shot selection, injury woes and glaring awkwardness when it became evident that Devin Booker was simply better. Following his gaudy extension, Knight played 106 games over three years with the team before being dumped in a deal with the Rockets.
That same summer, when teams were flush with cap space, McDonough had aimed for the one of the league’s top free agents, surprising LaMarcus Aldridge in their pitch meeting with his friend Tyson Chandler, who had agreed to a four-year, $52 million contract. Aldridge eventually signed with the San Antonio Spurs, leaving the Suns holding the bag of a 33-year-old center on the decline to essentially babysit the kids for four years.
Jared Dudley’s three-year, $30 million reunion in 2016 was an overstep the moment the deal was struck but looked even worse when the 31-year-old started sporting a dad bod and could rarely contribute outside of joint babysitting duties with Chandler.
Phoenix clearly needed established vets who could do more than just provide mentorship in the locker room, which was the thinking behind the most egregious one-year overpay of 2018, Trevor Ariza.
Coming off a season of instrumental importance to the Houston Rockets, the best regular season team in the NBA that nearly dethroned the Warriors the year prior, Ariza wasn’t over the hill like Chandler and Dudley, nor was his Suns tenure doomed by injuries like Knight.
Unfortunately, his one-year, $15 million contract made it extremely difficult for him to care when the team’s fortunes turned south and the reality of his uphill challenge sunk in. His body language was poor, his effort was called into question, his efficiency waned and his status warped to “Keep Gettin’ Dem Checks” territory.
By mid-December, a mere two months after the season began and two days after he became trade-eligible, he was shipped off to the Washington Wizards and no one batted an eye.
Between Knight’s knee on fire, the Chandler misfire, the Ariza backfire and 3-point specialist Ryan Anderson forgetting how to fire, McDonough’s attempts to recruit outside talent resembled the most naive interpretation of abstract art: hurling different paints at the canvass to see what stuck.
Phoenix was a place where NBA talent went to die. Altering that perception was always going to be difficult, opening the revolving door to a cycle of overpays.
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New GM James Jones is already struggling with the same problem as his predecessor when it comes to attracting outside talent.
His three-year, $51 million deal for Rubio was tied for “worst move of the summer” in a survey among 20 NBA executives, coaches and scouts on ESPN, while giving Frank Kaminsky the room exception for two years ($9.8 million) almost certainly awarded him money no one else was offering.
Even the re-signing of Kelly Oubre Jr. wound up paying $15 million annually to a restricted free agent in what had become a dry market. With that being said, there’s reason to be optimistic about Jones’ particular brand of overpay. As a whole, the Suns got better this summer, adding actual NBA talent to a roster largely devoid of it last season.
The bigger issue was not the players being added, but the means to achieving that end. From the draft to trade negotiations, Phoenix continually displayed a lack of awareness for market value. A plan was in place, but asset management was poor.
Still, free agency was where Jones performed best this summer. Criticizing a franchise that’s missed the playoffs for nine straight years and once let a goat s**t in its GM’s office has become commonplace, and it’s understandable. It’s easy to chalk up the Suns’ every move as “LOL SUNS,” especially when they do things like draft Cameron Johnson about 10 spots too early or dump T.J. Warren and the 32nd overall pick for nothing but cap space and cash considerations.
However, criticizing Phoenix — a team that trotted out Isaiah Canaan, combo guards Tyler Johnson and Devin Booker, and rookies De’Anthony Melton and Elie Okobo at the 1 last year — for finally landing a reputable NBA point guard shouldn’t be one of those instances, overpay or not.
Neither should re-signing Oubre, a 23-year-old wing who flourished in Phoenix with career-high scoring and rebounding numbers while helping change a losing culture with the “Valley Boyz” wave. His annual figure is a bit higher than he’s actually worth, but it’s a short-term trial period that allows both parties to bet on themselves and re-evaluate their partnership in two years’ time.
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Bad teams are always going to have to overpay to attract talent on the open market. The Suns are an especially bad team, stuck in a playoff drought that will likely last a decade before dancing in the postseason rains again. Even worse, they’re a young bad team. Plenty of veterans saw what became of well-respected guys like Chandler, Dudley and Ariza during their time in the desert.
Bearing that in mind, paying an average of $17 million a year for a league-average point guard is more than permissible. It’s not a one-year desperation move like Ariza, and with Rubio only turning 29 in October, it’s not a longer investment in a washed-up vet like Chandler and Dudley.
Rubio’s lack of shooting hurts his fit with Booker, but in the Suns’ most memorable stretch of the 2018-19 campaign, when Tyler Johnson got acclimated and everyone was still healthy, they reeled off a fairly impressive 5-2 mark against great competition. It was a tiny sample size, but also eye-opening as to how much more competitive this group could be with an actual point guard.
Upgrade to Rubio at the 1, replace Dragan Bender with Dario Saric at the 4, return Oubre to the lineup, give Booker and Ayton another year of growth and bring Johnson, Ty Jerome, Mikal Bridges, Kaminsky and Aaron Baynes off the bench, and suddenly 30 wins doesn’t seem as impossible as it has for the last five years.
The Suns paid more than market value for both Rubio and Oubre. They have a discouraging history of overpaying outside free agents under the prior regime, almost all of which backfired. It’s easy to start connecting dots and assume yet another series of oversteps is going to doom Phoenix once again.
However, much like abstract art, the art of the overpay in this league operates outside the constructs of dots and lines. It’s an impractical craft, and one that Phoenix has more experience with failing in than anyone over the last five years.
If this team has to overextend to accumulate legitimate NBA talent, at least it’s doing so with better players and on a more acceptable timeline now.
None of this is to say the Phoenix Suns are saved, or that they should be given the benefit of the doubt with a new GM in place, but maybe they’ve learned from their past to finally understand a widely dismissed but necessary art form.