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Suns can create up to $18 million in cap space; but could also go into summer “over the cap” (updated)

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The Phoenix Suns have a ton of flexibility on their cap number thanks to several non-guaranteed contracts and cap holds.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

We have heard a lot about the Suns’ desire to be aggressive this summer in improving the stable of in-their-prime talent to supplement the young core.

But what kind of money do the Suns actually have in their pockets to spend?

As of right now: they are projected to be “over the cap” on July 1.

But all it takes is a couple of roster moves to create up to $20 million in cap space.

Note: story updated with proper 120% cap hold for rookie scale contracts, a change in the 2015 CBA, and a couple of other minor edits. Changes the bottom line by a couple million.

No cap room, yet

If you just look at the bottom line right now, with all the players still on the roster and the incoming #1 and #16 picks, the Suns are actually almost $7 million $10 million OVER the cap. If you don’t believe me, keep reading.

There is no perfect cap analysis site out there. They all have some flaws. Some use the wrong rookie scale numbers (they use 100% instead of the flat cap hold), some the wrong cap estimate for 2018-19, some the wrong terms on player contracts or it’s not counting the cap holds on the the picks at all. Even shampsports.com/capulator is thisclose but it’s missing Shaq Harrison’s contract.

So I have to make one of my own.

The known rules

  • Latest cap estimate (multiple sources, most notably Shams Charania then verified by others): $101 million
  • Rookie scale for #1 overall pick: $6.75 million (that’s the cap number; they can SIGN for 120% of that) (thanks to my twitter fam, and to the Suns for verifying the new rule)
  • Rookie scale for #16 overall pick: $2.16 million (that’s the cap number; they can SIGN for 120% of that) (thanks to my twitter fam, and to the Suns for verifying the new rule)
  • Rookie scale for #1 overall pick: $8.18 million (cap number 120% of the rookie scale amount; a new rule in 2015 CBA because teams give that contract at least 99% of the time)
  • Rookie scale for #16 overall pick: $2.62 million (cap number 120% of the rookie scale amount; a new rule in 2015 CBA because teams give that contract at least 99% of the time)
  • Keep all the non-guaranteed salaries on the roster (Alan Williams, Tyler Ulis, Davon Reed, Shaquille Harrison)
  • Keep all the cap holds for free agents (Alex Len, Elfrid Payton, Alec Peters)

Update: Please re-read the rest of the article with necessary edits to accommodate the higher rookie contract cap holds. It changes the scenarios a bit.

Without making any moves, the Suns are actually over the cap by almost $7 more than $10 million. Even if the Suns drop to #4 overall (which has a cap number of $5.93 million), they are still almost $8 million over.

Being over the cap does give the Suns access to the cap exceptions, most notably about $12 million in mid-level and biennial exceptions, that could be used on free agents.

Of course, they won’t keep all 16 contracted players plus two first round picks. So the Suns will find other ways to create cap room.

Where does “10 million” come from?

“We have $10 million,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough said on exit interview day.

Interesting that he says this, considering the Suns would have to make roster moves to make that happen. Roster moves that have not been released to the player or the public yet.

The Suns would have to shed $17 $20 million in salary and cap holds to create a “$10 million” cushion (which by the way is smaller than the $12 million available in cap exceptions they have right now).

The first place you look is at the cap holds.

Conveniently, dropping Alex Len, Alec Peters and Elfrid Payton’s cap holds gets you almost $20 million right there, which would put the Suns right about $10 million under the cap, where McDonough says they are.

Releasing those cap holds makes those players unrestricted free agents and disallows the Suns to re-sign them using any salary cap exceptions. The Suns don’t want cap exceptions, so it’s no big loss.

Alternately, you can get to “$10 million” under the cap by letting go of all the non-guaranteed contract guys in place of Elfrid Payton’s cap hold, which does keep him ‘restricted’ to allow the Suns to match any offer.

The contracts of Alan Williams, Tyler Ulis, Shaquille Harrison and Davon Reed are almost entirely non-guaranteed for 2018-19. Reed has $689,000 guaranteed that could be stretched over two seasons or absorbed in one season. Not much either way.

Most likely, though, McDonough had to be referring to releasing the holds on Len, Peters and Payton.

They JUST signed Harrison to that multi-year non-guaranteed deal. They can’t already be planning no cutting him the day after the season ended. Plus, releasing all four players puts the Suns below the minimum roster count, which would force a “roster hold” of a minimum-salary player anyway.

“But we can create more,” McDonough said.

So how about $18 million?

Simply severing rights to all of Len, Peters, Payton, Sauce, Ulis and Shaq’s contacts/cap holds would create a tidy $18 million in cap space to sign a near-max free agent on top of bringing in a couple of first round draft picks.

You kinda need to keep Davon Reed, considering releasing him costs $689k and you’d have to eat a “roster hold” because all those roster moves puts the Suns at only 11 players under contract, so the league charges $800k to the cap for a “roster hold”.

The beauty of this move is that any of those guys can be re-signed at a later date, though they’d all be unrestricted and free to sign with any team.

Here’s the Suns depth chart with almost $20 million in cap space:

PG: Brandon Knight

SG: Devin Booker, Troy Daniels, Davon Reed

SF: T.J. Warren, Josh Jackson

PF: Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Jared Dudley

C: Tyson Chandler

PLUS, you include two first round picks - probably a center and a point guard - and your $18 million free agent and, well, that’s not such a bad 12-man depth chart is it?

Here’s the Suns’ guaranteed contracts right now.

More than $18 million?

Sure, the Suns could find more than $18 million. But this is where you need two to tango.

All the Suns have left are guaranteed contracts, so some other team would have to get involved to help the Suns create space. You’ll remember a couple years ago when McDonough dumped Marcus Morris, Anthony Tolliver Danny Granger and Reggie Bullock on the Pistons for a 2020 second round pick? And last summer when the Suns absorbed Troy Daniels’ contract from Memphis, getting a 2018 second round pick for their troubles, while only giving back a never-going-to-convey second round pick in return.

So yeah it could happen.

The Suns theoretically could create a lot more than $18 million in space by dumping any of Knight, Chandler or Dudley on some other team, but WHO WOULD WANT those guys’ contracts without sending back the same salary anyway? Only a few teams even HAVE that kind of cap space, even if they wanted to. And none of those teams want to just absorb these guys to be nice.

They could probably find a Troy Daniels, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss taker if they need a few more million for a particular free agent offer. Don’t be surprised if the Suns already have that lined up for a just-in-case scenario.

Most likely, though, the remaining vets on the roster will be trade bait in salary matching scenarios. Very few teams actually have cap space this summer, so the trade market will likely be hot and heavy once a few big names are off the board.

Other notes

  • Renouncing Elfrid Payton and Alec Peters makes them unrestricted free agents just like Alex Len. The Suns would no longer have the right to match any contract offers they get.
  • If the Suns make a big restricted free agent offer (say, to Aaron Gordon or Clint Capela for example), they can temporarily renounce the cap holds Payton and Peters only to un-renounce them if the offer is later matched and the RFA never comes to the Suns. But that only goes for RFA offer sheets, and only applies to Payton and Peters and can only be un-renounced if the offer is matched and Payton and Peters haven’t already signed with other teams.
  • The Suns could later re-sign any of Ulis, Harrison or Peters to the same contract they just dumped because any team can give out league-minimum contracts no matter what their cap situation.
  • Re-signing Alan Williams would not be so easy. If they spend all their money on someone else, and hit the cap as a result, the team could only offer minimum contracts after that. Sauce is likely worth more than league minimum, despite missing all last year with a knee injury.