Suns Roster 2009: Keepers

So who was it that hit Suns GM Steve Kerr and Suns majority owner Robert Sarver on their heads and knocked some sense into them?

Kerr suddenly appears to have realized the wonders of “cap space.” The high-dollar players whom Kerr is trying to dump for expiring contracts, draft picks, and underachieving role players might all be off the books by the end of next season, giving the Suns the chance to be a big factor in the highly rated 2010 free agent market. Kerr now admits this is a good thing. (See Paola Boivin’s post on azcentral.)

In strange symmetry, Sarver has proclaimed that he has no intention of owning a 29-game winner. (See Dan Bickley’s post on azcentral.) We also know that the Suns don’t have a first round draft pick in 2010. So not only would it be unacceptable to Sarver for the Suns to turn into a league doormat, but there is also no reward for failure. They traded their 2010 first round pick without lottery protection to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Kurt Thomas trade.

So will the Suns now not make any major trades in 2009? Not so fast. The Dallas Mavericks were feeling good about themselves after dominating the San Antonio Spurs in the first round playoff series. Yet, after being on the losing side of a lopsided playoff matchup against the Denver Nuggets in the second round, the Mavs appear to be readying themselves for an active offseason.

Then in the biggest upset of the playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers melted down in the conference finals and now cannot sit still in the offseason. We all know Shaquille O’Neal would be a good fit with the Cavs and he would certainly make the Mavs a better team.

Perhaps common sense might prevail in the Suns front office, but that still doesn’t mean they will not make a big trade. However, there will be more thought put into the process this time around. And it also means that I have to adjust my post about who will definitely be gone. Shaq now moves into the “Maybe” category, joining Matt Barnes, Grant Hill, and Amare Stoudemire.

Moving on the the remaining players on the roster, the rest of this post focuses on players who will definitely be back for next season.

Louis Amundson
(’08-’09 salary: $797,581, ’09-’10 salary/status: $855,189)

Jared Dudley
(’08-’09 salary: $1,222,320, ’09-’10 salary/status: $1,307,640)
It’s logical to group Amundson and Dudley into the same category because both players have earned a slot in the regular rotation through hard work and hustle. Amundson was a free agent steal and Dudley is the saving grace of the Raja Bell/Boris Diaw midseason trade. Hopefully, they will both continue to grow as players next season and both are definite keepers.

Alando Tucker
(’08-’09 salary: $1,001,880, ’09-’10 salary/status: $1,071,720)

Robin Lopez
(’08-’09 salary: $1,623,720, ’09-’10 salary/status: $1,745,520)

Goran Dragic
(’08-’09 salary: $1,700,000, ’09-’10 salary/status: $1,836,000)
The three Suns players still on their reasonably affordable guaranteed rookie scale contracts are also keepers. Tucker, who was a prolific scorer during his rookie stint in the D-League, seems remarkably passive during his gametime in the NBA. But he has a cheap contract and is certain to return.

Lopez also showed flashes of potential, but he still looked awkward and out of place even at the end of the season. Perhaps with his first season under his belt and a chance to work on his game all summer, Lopez can emerge as a regular contributor. If he can do so, it will be a big plus for the Suns, who are severely lacking size.

Of the three, Dragic emerged late in the season as the one with the most potential. Clearly suited to the uptempo style of coach Alvin Gentry, Dragic became a more reliable ball handler and a more accurate shooter once Gentry loosened the reins and let the rookie guard freelance without consequences for little mistakes. The second round pick of ’08 received lottery money in order to ensure his escape from his oversees contract. His performance in the last 31 games of the season provided hope that Dragic will live up to that potential in the coming seasons.

Leandro Barbosa
(’08-’09 salary: $6,100,000, ’09-’10 salary/status: $6,600,000)
Last pre-season’s trade talk involving Barbosa was remarkable in its short-sightedness. At a tick over $6M per year, Barbosa is one of the best bargains in the NBA. Many times outperforming the much higher paid Jason Richardson, Barbosa ironically went from trade bait to untouchable in Steve Kerr’s mind as the 2009 trade deadline approached. And there is no reason to think that Barbosa will be traded any time soon. He plays hard and doesn’t complain about coming off the bench. Barbosa has three more years left on his current contract and should be entering the prime years of his career.

Jason Richardson
(’08-’09 salary: $12,222,222, ’09-’10 salary/status: $13,333,333)
It’s difficult to imagine that a $13M player is a project but this is exactly what the Suns have in Richardson. He is the symbol of Steve Kerr’s reign as GM. At the time of the trade last December, Kerr made a point to talk about Richardson’s defense since Kerr’s mantra has always been about defense. Needless to say, the Suns were an even worse defensive team this year than during the Mike D’Antoni era, and Richardson is a poor defender at best. Many times he simply looked lost after blowing assignment after assignment. His shortcomings are even more glaring when compared to the player Richardson replaced, lockdown defender Raja Bell.

Kerr can talk all he wants to about defending the pick-and-roll, but good team defense starts with the perimeter. Clearly, Richardson knows how to score, but the only way the Suns will become a more competitive team is if Richardson learns how to play better defense.

Steve Nash
(’08-’09 salary: $12,250,000, ’09-’10 salary/status: $13,125,000 team option)
With only partial money guaranteed to Nash for next season it is still possible that he will not be back with the team. Of course if he were to leave, Robert Sarver would see season ticket renewals plummet even further. As the face of the franchise and perhaps the most popular player with the paying public, it is vital for the Suns to retain Nash.

However, Nash has played it cool so far this offseason in deciding to wait and see how things unfold before starting any contract extension talks. This is a smart move. If the Suns jettison Shaq and Stoudemire and replace them with the likes of Ben Wallace and Tyrus Thomas, then Nash would rather play somewhere else. And who could blame him?

Ultimately, it’s difficult to believe that Jason Richardson will be earning more money next year than Nash. The indications are that Nash wants big money for a contract extension. And if the Suns are willing to fork over $13M – $14M for a player of Richardson’s caliber, then they must see the logic in rewarding the two-time league MVP and leader of the run-and-gun offense with a nice paycheck to finish out his career in Phoenix.

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