By Josh Redetzke

2007/08 Phoenix Suns Payroll: $78.3 million
2007/08 Estimated NBA Salary Cap: $55 million
Roughly: $23.3 million over cap

The Good: There is a heck of a lot to like about the Phoenix Suns. First and foremost is the play of Steve Nash. The two-time league MVP was nearly a three-timer after putting up 18.6 points and 11.6 assists per game while shooting a ridiculous 53.2% from the field and 45.5% from three point land. Even though Nash is easily one of the top five players in the NBA, he is only the third highest paid player on his own team and he doesn’t crack the top 30 for pay league-wide. Nash has three years remaining on his contract for an average of only $12 million per year. If every team’s best player made that much, they would find it a lot easier to put together a talented supporting cast.

The primary recipient of all those Steve Nash assists was Amare Stoudemire. The future looked murky last year for Amare after he came off microfracture surgery and missed nearly the entire season. After averaging 20.4 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks on 57% shooting, while playing in all 82 games, I think it’s safe to say that Amare is back with a vengeance. This is obviously a welcome sign for Phoenix considering they have to pay him $60.5 million over the next four years. As long as Nash and Stoudemire are around, this team will always be a contender.

Two other guards give the Suns phenomenal value for their contracts. Raja Bell has three years and just $15 million remaining. Bell’s stats were nearly identical to last year when he scored 14.7 points per game and shot over 41% from the three point line. Bell’s defensive prowess adds even more value for his paycheck. Leandro Barbosa recently signed a five-year, $33 million contract extension that starts next season. To celebrate, he went out and won the NBA’s Sixth Man award. Barbosa raised his scoring average five points to 18.1, shot 43.4% from beyond the arc, and chipped in with a career high 4 assists per game. The Suns picked a good time to extend his contract because after a season like this, Barbosa’s asking price would have been significantly higher.

The Bad: One of the big stories for Phoenix last season was the incredible play of Boris Diaw in Stoudemire’s absence. The young forward was a multi-talented threat. He could score (13.3), rebound (6.9), and was a great passer for a big man (6.2 assists per game). As a reward, the Suns gave him a five-year, $45 million contract at a flat rate of $9 million each season. Diaw was given that much money because of his play but also because the team needed an insurance policy in case Stoudemire wasn’t able to come back and perform like his former self. When Amare came back in full force, Diaw’s production predictably dropped to 4.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 9.7 points per game. Unless an injury or trade occurs involving Stoudemire or Shawn Marion, Diaw simply will not have a large enough role to earn $9 million a year.

The Suns knew right away that they made a mistake signing Marcus Banks and they tried to get rid of him before his first season with the team was complete. Unfortunately, they found no takers and now the team might have to continue paying Banks an average of $4.25 million each of the next four years. He barely found any minutes in the Sun’s rotation and played poorly when he did see the court. It will be surprising if the team gets any value out of him.

The Future: There isn’t a lot that Phoenix needs to do since they are already a championship caliber team. They likely would have won it this year had it not been for a strictly enforced rule that was stupidly written in the first place. The biggest move for the Suns will be what they don’t do. They don’t need to trade for Kevin Garnett and mortgage their post-Nash future. They don’t need to trade Shawn Marion to save luxury tax money. Sure, Marion will make $16.4 and $17.1 million the next two years (the second of which is a player option), but he is still performing at Matrix level, filling up a box score like few ballers can. The Suns have all the right players for their system and they need to keep them together.

The only thing that must improve is their bench. Adding Alando Tucker through the draft was a good step. It is strange that a team so worried about luxury taxes would give away so many first round draft picks in recent years. There is no cheaper way to add talent to your bench than using rookies. Kurt Thomas is a bruiser and defender, but his athleticism is woefully inadequate for the Sun’s offense. His $8 million dollar contract comes to an end next summer, so perhaps they could use Thomas as a trading chip. Recently, the team added veteran Grant Hill for an incredibly cheap deal. That’s a classic example of another good way to improve your bench; convince veterans to jump on your bandwagon for very little pay. Phoenix was already a contender, but if their bench proves to be better than last year, it’s the Sun’s title to lose.

Free Throw: I had to wonder what some of the Phoenix Suns players were thinking when they watched Robert Horry hold up seven fingers to the camera after winning his seventh NBA championship. No offense to Spurs fans, but I firmly believe that the Suns win that series if Horry doesn’t give a hard shoulder to Steve Nash in the waning seconds of an already decided game four. Alas, we’ll never know who truly should have won that series. I can’t wait to see it again next year.

Grade: B+

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