"This is a big year for us in free agency," McDonough said last week after the last scheduled predraft workout. "We want to respect the draft process, but we also want to spend the proper amount of time preparing for free agency, working on any potential trades."
GM Ryan McDonough and President Lon Babby, along with Assistant GMs Pat Connolly and Trevor Buckstein, have rebuilt the roster more than once since McDonough inked on the dotted line after the 2012-13 season. In fact, only two players remain from the team that McDonough inherited: Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and P.J. Tucker who were all signed to long-term contracts last summer.
Ten new players were on the opening night roster in 2013-14, and 2014-15 saw a record 23 different players hit the roster at one time or another. The busy Suns have executed no fewer than ten trades in the past two years.
But turnover was needed in a big way.
The team McDonough inherited had just finished an awful 25-57 season with no evidence of future promise and just four players under 25 years old (the Morrii, plus Kendall Marshall and Michael Beasley). None of them projected as perennial NBA starters.
"We need to upgrade the talent up and down the roster," McDonough understated in April.
In addition to the underwhelming roster, he was also handed a lot of draft picks: the 5th and 30th picks that summer, plus all their own future picks, the Lakers' Top-5 protected 2015 pick and Minnesota's lottery protected first rounder (that would eventually become two second round picks). In fact, that summer the Suns' future collection of draft picks was projected to be the best in the league, assuming the Suns were one of the worst teams for the next few years while the Lakers and Timberwolves were marginally successful.
It didn't quite work out that way. The Suns hit on a major dose of chemistry, winning 48 and 39 games in two seasons, while the Lakers and Minny got so bad their picks kept rolling over to future years and losing value by the day. The Suns eventually shipped off both picks for players Brandon Knight and Brandan Wright during the 2014-15 season.
Now two years later, the roster is loaded with youth but still misses that necessary All-Star talent to be a perennial playoff contender. McDonough's roster now boasts eight players 25 or under, four of them already proven NBA starters. They also still have all their own future draft picks, plus three more future first rounders (2016, 2018 and 2021) as well.
But with ten players under contract for 2015-16, the Suns don't have that annual salary purge as they enter free agency that other teams have.
They do, however, have some flexibility.
Dragic trade exception
Somehow, the Phoenix Suns finagled a $5.5 million trade exception in the Goran Dragic trade to Miami. After hitting the cap with the Brandan Wright and Reggie Bullock mid-season trades, the Suns created a three-team deal that effectively replaced Dragic's $7.5 million with Danny Granger's $2.2 million contract. By some strange math, that became a $5.5 million trade exception.
A trade exception is only usable as long as you are over the cap, since by definition it's one of the salary cap exceptions written into the CBA. The Suns will likely enter July as an "under the cap" team (see below), so the Dragic trade exception may only be available until the end of June. Trades can be made now, as you've seen, and through the draft, so the Suns have the ability to take on a player up to $5.5 million in a trade without matching salary.
The Suns could decide to enter free agency "over the cap" to keep the Dragic trade exception, as long as they keep the Bird Rights of all their free agents, but that's not likely.
Salary cap space
More likely is that the Suns will enter free agency with at least $15 million to spend, only holding onto Brandon Knight's rights. I'm sure they'd like to bring back Brandan Wright too, but they'd also like to bring in a prime free agent under today's rates if they can.
This chart here assumes only Knight's cap hold (the salary cap charge to maintain "Bird Rights", allowing a team to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own player).
With regard to Brandan Wright, the Suns do have an option for a nifty cap dance this summer if Wright is willing. If they do it right, they can chase a major restricted free agent while keeping Wright's rights in their back pocket along with Knight's.
Wright's cap hold to keep his rights is $9.5 million, the difference between having enough money for a big contract offer. If they keep Wright's rights, they can re-sign him to any contract they want. Without the rights, they'd have to either use available cap room or an exception to keep him (ie. no more than about $6 million per year).
But in the case of a restricted free agent offer, the Suns can play with Wright's rights. A team can renounce Bird Rights for the purpose of an RFA offer sheet then un-renounce if the offer sheet is matched.
So, if the Suns get one of the RFA's to sign a max offer sheet, they can be winners regardless. Either they get the player in question, or they get to reclaim Wright's Bird Rights.
The same is true of Marcus Thornton's bird rights ($12.86 million cap hold) and Gerald Green's ($6.65 million). I was just using Wright as the example.
You might even say "why not renounce everyone and get $20+ million in cap space and then reclaim them if it falls through?". Well, that's not possible. You can only reclaim Bird Rights if an RFA offer is matched, and only in that circumstance. An RFA is capped at about $15 million to start, due to the CBA, so there's no need to dangle Knight in the wind.
If the Suns keep ALL the cap holds and Bird Rights, they can enter free agency "over the cap" and have the midlevel exception (about $6 million), the biennial exception ($3 million) and Dragic's trade exception ($5.5 million). Exceptions CANNOT be used in aggregate, so that's three or more different players if all are used.
But that's just inviting more mediocrity. I'd rather play poker with a single $15 million chip than a bunch of smaller ones.
Less is more
With ten players already under contract for 2015-16 (including Jerel McNeal's non guaranteed deal) plus two draft picks about to join the team this week, the Suns already have 12 spots "taken" for next year.
So, they are likely going to focus on only one new high-dollar player this summer rather than having to spread out their money on many.
While the Lakers, for example, have a lot of cap space they have to sign as many 8-10 new players with that space just to fill out a minimum-count roster.
The Suns only one or two additional players, so they'd like to spend it all in one place.
I'm sure the Suns have even smarter plans already in their arsenal, such as shedding even more salary during the draft to hike up that starter-number in July to something bigger than $15 million.
But I hope I've explained the various obvious options at the Suns' disposal as of this date:
- Start the summer with about $15 million, while keeping Kright's bird rights and renouncing Wright, Thornton and Green
- Start the summer with about $6 million, while renouncing Thornton and Green only
- Start the summer "over the cap" with a handful of cap exceptions to play with, and keeping rights to all their free agents