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Tyler Johnson helps the Suns now, but becomes critical to offseason plans as big expiring contract

Johnson helps Phoenix slightly on the margins this season, but this move puts into question what direction they plan on going in.

NBA: Miami Heat at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

When the Suns traded Ryan Anderson for Tyler JohnsonWayne Ellington was also included in the deal for further salary relief but was waived Thursday — my first reaction was probably like many others.

Huh?

However, the more I thought about it, the more I think it makes sense when it comes to how Phoenix will play their cards this offseason. And also switching out Anderson, who was on the end of the Suns’ bench, for a likely starter is a win in the short-term as the young core needs more proven players around them.

Johnson, even though he’s being paid around $3.5 million more, will make an even bigger impact than Anderson ever made with the Suns. That’s a guarantee after the disastrous stint with Anderson that saw him make only seven (!!) three-pointers in his entire Suns tenure.

The fifth-year undrafted combo guard out of Fresno State also provides one of the youngest rotations in the league with playoff experience. Johnson has appeared in 10 playoff games, five of which he started for the Heat in 2017-18 against Philadelphia.

Over the last 3-4 years, Johnson could easily qualify as the player with playoff experience who actually benefits Phoenix. Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler were over the hill the past few seasons, while Trevor Ariza simply quit on the team after a few weeks of realizing what situation he was actually in.

From that aspect, adding in someone who continues to build their scrappy identity makes sense. Johnson, unlike the other veterans mentioned, won’t loaf around. He is the type of player who gets his teeth knocked out and keeps going with no hesitation, like we saw on multiple occasions in Miami.

Adding Johnson alongside names like Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr., Richaun Holmes, and De’Anthony Melton helps solidify that newfound team building concept. Johnson can handle the ball in pick-and-roll situations and create his own shot when asked. That’s desperately needed at the moment when seeing how much Elie Okobo struggles with basic actions.

The thing is, Phoenix has 11 wins. They are on pace for less than last year’s lowly mark of 21 victories, which would be the worst season in franchise history since the expansion Suns over 50 years ago. Johnson is a lateral move that won’t help much in the win-loss column — maybe that was their plan all along when eyeing prospects like Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Ja Morant even though owner Robert Sarver said the “switch had flipped to winning” four months ago — but it provides some sort of backcourt stability.

So far this season, Johnson is averaging 10.8 points and 2.5 assists in 25.5 minutes but the bigger number to focus on here is his contract figures. Johnson makes $19.3 million with a player option for the same bloated salary for 2019-20.

All of a sudden, after Sarver said on 98.7 FM during the preseason that they were preserving max cap space, that’s out the window. There’s two scenarios how the Suns can get back to above the key $32.7 million threshold for a max contract slot in free agency: 1.) Trade Johnson with a pick for pure salary relief; 2.) Trade T.J. Warren and renounce rights to Oubre Jr. Immediately, the second option is an unrealistic route for me, so salary dumping Johnson is the most logical way to get back into that position.

Jones sounded like someone who values Johnson, as he mentioned on Burns & Gambo Thursday afternoon, but also knows his $19.3 million expiring salary could be vital to pulling off a trade to accelerate Phoenix’s near decade-long rebuild attempt.

Adding Johnson with one of the Suns’ wings gets them around $25-30 million in a trade this offseason. That matters when surveying the landscape for possible point guard and power forward targets. And it all will be decided by how May’s draft lottery goes. (Possible trade targets who make sense using Johnson’s expiring will be outlined this weekend on BSOTS, so stay tuned.)

If the Suns luck into their second consecutive No. 1 pick, Zion Williamson immediately steps in as the power forward of the future next to Deandre Ayton. If it’s at Nos. 2 or 3, Murray State’s Ja Morant or Duke’s R.J. Barrett qualify as best player available. Wherever they land in the lottery, it will go hand-in-hand with how the offseason is attacked.

In the meantime, Johnson is definitely better than what was sent out, but it does nothing much to really improve this team. So, if Phoenix wanted to stay in the Zion sweepstakes, they accomplished it because Johnson isn’t an impact addition. He’s a marginal upgrade for short-term gain.

With the Suns, Knicks, Cavaliers, and Bulls all separated by less than two games, each percentage point matters as the top three have equal odds to land the top pick. Unfortunately, it seems like we’re back to focusing on the draft after false promises leading into this season.

Phoenix’s front office advertised beforehand that they would be one of the most improved teams in the NBA. Little did they know that the opposite would happen as we slog through another meaningless season in the win-loss column for the Suns based around development.

Following the trade deadline where no real effort was put in to improving the team substantially, we might as well skip ahead to May, right?

Whatever direction the Suns choose to go in with Johnson’s big expiring contract, it better be put to good use for the greater good of this franchise’s long-term vision. Devin Booker is about to enter his fifth season where he still hasn’t even reached the 25-win threshold.

The clock is ticking, and even though Johnson helps improve slightly on the margins, it does nothing of substance to move this team forward.

After punting on preserving that precious cap space that was planned for over a year, this question needs to be asked: Do the Suns have any idea what they are doing? I guess we’ll find out this offseason as they take a mulligan on the 2018-19 season that blew up in their faces. Johnson will be involved in those plans one way or another.