Restricted free agent Aaron Brooks agreed to a one-year deal with Guangdong of the Chinese Basketball Association. (Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIRE)
Aaron Brooks, a restricted free agent tied to the Suns, has become the latest NBA player to agree to a deal in China. It’s an interesting move, but it says a lot about his current status in the league since most people’s initial reaction may well be: What does this mean for Steve Nash?
Nash is almost 38, well into the stage of his career where he needs a quality backup capable of logging at least 15-20 minutes per game. The Suns traded Goran Dragic and a first-round pick for Brooks at the February trade deadline in hopes that Brooks could serve that backup role and perhaps work as Nash’s heir. Brooks played better in Phoenix last season than he did during his miserable and injury-riddled 34 games in Houston — good enough for the Suns to tender his qualifying offer and retain matching rights.
But now Brooks has signed with Guangdong of the Chinese Basketball Association, and like the other NBA players there (i.e. the Nuggets), he lacks an out clause that would allow him to return to the league when the lockout ends. Brooks might be in China through mid- to late March (depending on the success of his team), leaving the Suns without a proven NBA backup for a large chunk of the theoretical 2011-12 season — the kind of player who could take the reins if Phoenix decides to pull the trigger on a Nash trade. Zabian Dowdell, for whom the Suns essentially have a team option, looked decent in stretches last season, but he’s a 27-year-old who had never cracked the NBA before last year. His numbers in limited run don’t indicate someone who is ready to play big NBA minutes. The Suns could look to free agency, but the point-guard pool is very shallow, and spending money at that position could create a logjam if both Nash and Brooks are around in the spring.
Brooks’ move to China raises the same questions as Wilson Chandler’s move there a couple of months ago: If Brooks returns toward the end the compressed regular season, would the Suns have the same kind of control over him as they would in a normal free agency? Anything else would seem unfair. Could Brooks be eligible to sign and play for any NBA team in the 2011-12 season? Teams under the old system could sign free agents at any time before the end of the regular season and have those players eligible for the postseason. (And they could pick up a player waived by another team and have him playoff-eligible, provided the waiver occurred before March 1.) Assuming they retain matching rights, the Suns could make timing an issue if Brooks returns toward the end of the regular season, signs an offer sheet and finds Phoenix holding up the works until the regular season ends. That might be an unlikely scenario given the mid-March end date of the CBA season, but we are in uncharted territory here.
In any case, the Suns miss a piece of their chanceto take a long-term look at a possible building block. Brooks has never been a very efficient player, even when he averaged nearly 20 points per game in his breakout 2009-10 season. He shoots too many longer jumpers — both twos and threes — at inopportune times, and you can only live with that if his three-point percentage climbs back up toward around 40 percent, where it landed in 2009-10. And even then, he could stand to dial it back a bit, especially if he has talent surrounding him.
Given his size, Brooks is always going to be a defensive liability. He has particular trouble guarding the ball and defending the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy, and he has never been a very good decision-maker on that end.
But nonetheless, this is a lightning-quick little guy who can beat anyone in the league off the dribble and get into the paint and create problems. As Rob Mahoney pointed out recently, Brooks did a bit more of that in Phoenix, where the Suns’ pick-and-roll-heavy offense offered more chances for him to distribute than Rick Adelman’s corner system did in Houston. Brooks’ assist rate shot up into acceptable territory for a starting point guard, and he isolated much less than he did in Houston, per Synergy. Bottle that kind of play, surround Brooks with solid defenders and place him in a sound defensive system, and he could be a very useful player on a good NBA team.
The Suns wanted to use 2011-12 to see if they might be that kind of team. They will keep control of Brooks’ future, but they might have to wait a year before they get a feel for him. That’s a setback.