The Phoenix Suns had to cut ties with Steve Nash eventually. And though there will be no potential lottery picks or a youngster to hand a new uniform to in the deal that sends Nash to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Suns did as well as could be reasonably expected in trading the player they drafted all the way back in 1996. Steve Nash's second term with the Suns, starting in 2004 and ending officially sometime next week, did not result in Phoenix's first championship. But we'll remember the various permutations of the Nash-led Suns team from 2004-12 far more than we'll remember half of the NBA Finals games we watched and re-watched over that span.
The Suns got draft picks, not great ones, from the Lakers. And retained salary cap space. They couldn't pull in an Iman Shumpert-type in a sign-and-trade deal, but the "sign" has to come before the "trade," and Nash chose Los Angeles over New York. The early returns, even after that, are a little worrisome. The New Orleans Hornets are sure to match Phoenix's somehow-reasonable max offer of four years and $58 million for restricted free agent Eric Gordon. Goran Dragic, whom the Suns once dealt with a first round draft pick for the rights to acquire the long-forgotten Aaron Brooks, is back for four years and $30 million guaranteed. And major head case Michael Beasley was just handed three years and $18 million.
Yet, for whatever reason, we can't bring ourselves to destroy Phoenix's initial attempts to make up for Nash's loss. Partially because they've brought in some good talent. But mostly because there is still room to grow. Provided the team executes this rebuilding the right way.
We can understand why the Suns went after Beasley, and potentially had to pay this much. This offseason is not a good market to work in for NBA teams, as plenty of squads feature either cap space and sign-and-trade options to use on so few players capable of providing the play appropriate for those spots in the salary cap. That was the context heading into the offseason, at least.
The context regarding the Beasley move, specifically, has to do with wondering if there were other teams out there willing to either give him a midlevel exception (which Phoenix seems to be outbidding) or just as much cash under the salary cap as Phoenix attempted to.
Because, frankly, we're just not seeing these other suitors. Someone will take another shot at Jamal Crawford taking another shot, and there have been plenty of dodgy free agent deals to pick at (especially with George Hill's contract ramping up to eight million a year), but we're just not aware of a market that demands the Suns act this quickly on Beasley for this much.
Michael might be a model citizen from here on out, we'd actually expect it. His off-court work is not the point. Players that enter the league with a loping, almost old-man game that seems to derive full from being more talented than anyone else rarely lose that. Beasley can still feel like his long jumpers have an expert's chance every time he lets them fly, and yet another turn as a would-be franchise cornerstone wouldn't appear to be the bucket of cold water that he needs. Even in that dry heat.
His contract is still salvageable, though. For reasons we'll note in a bit.
At some point, the circuitous route needed to pull Dragic back into Phoenix's phold needs to be phorgotten. It's true that the Suns were well aware of his potential at the time of the 2011 deal, if only stemming from the proof provided by his play during the 2010 conference semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs. There's nothing the Suns can do beyond that embarrassment, though, and passing on a talent like Dragic's just to save face means absolutely nothing to anyone but NBA-niks that remember that initial transaction.
What counts now is his presence. Dragic's brilliant late-season play in 2011-12 still isn't enough to convince us he's well-rounded enough to lead a team from a distributor's position, but that thought might go away forever just a few months into this upcoming season. The terms are reasonable, given the context of this year's player-friendly free-agent market, and the player just turned 26. He's old enough to be counted on, and young enough to stick it out through the rebuilding process.
It will be a process, because there's still no franchise player here, and the team won't be bad enough in 2012-13 to lead fans into thinking they can grab a high-end lottery pick. The Lakers picks, sure to be in the 20s, aren't going to help. As teams have discovered over the last few years, bundling lower picks isn't a way to move into the top five of the draft, and there is no way the team is going to deal Marcin Gortat (he of perhaps the NBA's best non-rookie contract, considering Kyle Lowry's anger issues) for help.
Where does the team turn? Flexibility.
Which means "hope."
Which means "there are no players there, yet. Just cap space."
But still … "hope."
Even after signing Beasley and Dragic, the team is still hovering around the minimum salary mark. They'll be there next offseason, too, with the option to use the amnesty clause on what will then be the last two years and $14.5 million of his contract. Re-signing Robin Lopez this summer will eat into that space, but he's a restricted free agent and the market (crazed though it may be) will determine his pay and Phoenix's willingness to match it. The team will have space to either trade for a great player or sign one. And considering the young core, Phoenix's climate, a good coach in Alvin Gentry, and the team's renowned training staff, this should be a free-agent destination.
After all, look how quickly it took Eric Gordon to tell Chris Broussard that his heart was in Phoenix.
The Beasley deal can set off some sirens, if you want. It's an average salary, but quite a few metrics will tell you that he's a below-average player. The history with Dragic has to frustrate. Losing Nash has to hurt. Coming so close on those potential trips to the Finals will sting forever.
This story doesn't have to end in the summer of 2012, though.