Where do the Suns go from here?

On the heels of their Game 6 loss to the Lakers, the Phoenix Suns once again start an offseason after coming up short in the postseason.

In reality, despite the sour finish, making the Western Conference Finals represents a resounding success for the Suns, who weren’t expected to be a legitimate title contender heading into the season. But after the trade deadline, Amare Stoudemire played like an All-NBAer (27-10 after the All-Star break), and the Suns’ bench — specifically Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley and Channing Frye — provided a much-needed punch when the starters weren’t getting it done.

This team already has great chemistry and is playing championship-caliber ball, why mess with it? Well, the Suns have a huge decision this offseason — whether or not to offer Stoudemire a max contract.

Is he worth a max deal? He doesn’t rebound as well as he should — and grabbed just nine rebounds in the first two games of the WCF — and he’s not known as a very good defender. Shouldn’t a max player excel at scoring, rebounding and defense?

Stoudemire is open to staying in Phoenix, but it seems like he wants a max deal. Without it, he’ll probably go elsewhere, providing they’ll offer him the non-Bird max.

If he leaves, the Suns will have about $13 million of cap space assuming Grant Hill opts in and Channing Frye opts out (which they are rumored to do). What that means is that if Stoudemire bolts, the Suns will be a player in this summer’s free agency frenzy. They may not have a shot at LeBron James or Chris Bosh, but they could potentially afford someone like Carlos Boozer or David Lee, who would both fit in well with the Suns’ up-tempo system. However, neither player is known for his defense, so the Suns will probably continue to struggle on that end of the court. Also, such a move would only serve to further highlight the length issues that the Suns have when they face the Lakers.

Steve Nash is already 36 and his game has to fall off at some point. However, he’s in tremendous shape and the emergence of Goran Dragic should continue to offset the decline in Nash’s game. The Suns have a nice core, so if they re-sign Stoudemire or end up with someone like Boozer or Lee to pay power forward, they should stay near the top of the Western Conference. It doesn’t appear that they’re built to get by the Lakers, but if there’s a playoff-threatening injury to Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol, the Suns would be in position to pick up the ball and run to the Finals. That’s better than blowing the whole thing up and starting over, right?

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Chad Ford looks ahead to 2010 NBA free agency

Now that the dust has pretty much settled in the 2009 NBA offseason, ESPN’s Chad Ford previews the free agents that are likely to be available next summer. [Insider subscription required.]

No subscription? Check out our preview from last December. I plan to update it once this year’s restricted free agents are settled, as there are still a few looking for long-term deals.

Right now, it’s looking like the 2010 unrestricted free agent class could include the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Paul Pierce, David Lee, Manu Ginobili, Shaquille O’Neal, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady, Tyson Chandler, Michael Redd, Richard Jefferson, Ramon Sessions, Ray Felton, Nate Robinson, Travis Outlaw, John Salmons and Al Harrington.

I expect at least a few of those names will strike long-term deals before next summer, but still, that’s quite the list, and it doesn’t even include the potential restricted free agents from the draft class of 2006 (i.e. Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, etc.)

Cavs commit to Varejao

It looks like Anderson Varejao is staying in Cleveland.

Varejao’s contract is worth $42.5 million over the six years, and the final year is only partially guaranteed. Incentives could push the total amount to $50 million.

Varejao’s agent, Dan Fegan, says that the Cavs turned down a few sign-and-trade offers.

“I’m excited about it,” Fegan said. “I will tell you several teams made sign-and trade proposals where Anderson could have made $10 million or $11 million a year. Some very good players would have been involved.

“He wanted to stay in Cleveland. There were also a number of teams with cap space, like Oklahoma City and Portland, who were interested.”

I estimated Varejao’s value to be somewhere in the $5.5-$6.5 million per year range, so without the incentives, this contract came in a little bit above that. The thing I worry about from the Cavs’ perspective is the fact that it’s going to be tough to play Varejao and Shaquille O’Neal together because neither guy has the ability to hit an open 15-foot jumper. This will allow the defense to sag into the lane which will help to close off LeBron’s drives.

In addition, the Cavs have a verbal agreement with Anthony Parker (formerly of the Raptors) and have their sights set on Channing Frye.

The Cavs have also agreed to terms with Toronto free agent Anthony Parker. The final figures of the deal are not set, but he will receive a portion of the $5.8 mid-level exception for either two or three years.

The Cavs hope to sign Channing Frye with the remainder of their mid-level exception.

Shaq is clearly a short-term fix, but with the Varejao, Parker and possible Frye signings, and assuming the salary cap falls to somewhere in the $50 million to $53 million range, the Cavs aren’t going to have the cap space necessary next summer to woo a big-name free agent like Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire. They may still be able to work out a sign-and-trade, but with roughly $30 million already spoken for heading into 2010, the Cavs won’t have the cap space to make two maximum contract offers.

Cleveland is clearly treating this as a “must-win” season, but what happens if they flame out in the playoffs again?

Boozer opts…in!

Tuesday Afternoon Update: Mehmet Okur is going to play the final year of his contract as well.

Earlier today, we discussed the possibility of Carlos Boozer playing out the final year of his contract, and that’s exactly what he decided to do.

Boozer’s decision was a reversal from his December comments to an ESPN.com reporter that he was planning to opt out and would get a raise regardless. The Jazz, however, long questioned if the market that Boozer believed existed was more fantasy than reality.

In the end, it sounds as if Boozer considered his prospects and decided to take the sure $12.7 million instead of rolling the dice on the open market. If he is able to play at a high level and without injury, he stands to significantly improve his value heading into the summer of 2010. There are so many teams cutting salary in preparation for that summer’s free agent frenzy, so if he can stay healthy, he definitely stands to gain. However, by playing out the last year of this deal, he is forgoing the security of the long-term contract that he otherwise would have signed this summer. If he were to suffer a career-ending injury next season, he’d be leaving perhaps $42 million on the table.

How does this affect the team’s payroll?

The Jazz also are treading in dangerous territory in regard to the luxury tax. Boozer’s return gives them approximately $64.5 million in salary commitments to 10 players for the upcoming season.

That’s before making decisions about re-signing Okur – should he opt out – and Millsap. The NBA’s luxury-tax threshold is expected to be around $70 million and the Jazz would have to carry at least a league-minimum 13 players on their roster.

“It could be [a problem],” Miller said, “but it’s like I said before: If we need to go into the luxury tax to protect our players and protect our team, keep it intact, we’d have to take a look at that.”

If Okur opts out, the Jazz projected payroll would be around $63 million, leaving some (but not a lot) of flexibility to sign Paul Millsap. If Okur plays out the final year of his deal, Utah will have to pay a steep luxury tax to re-sign Millsap. Essentially, if a franchise is over the luxury tax threshold, they have to pay a dollar-for-dollar tax. Simply stated, now that Boozer has opted in, if Okur opts in, it’s going to make it tougher for the Jazz to retain Millsap.

I’m sure there are a few teams out there licking their chops at the prospect of signing Millsap.

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