The Phoenix Suns, for the fifth straight summer, face the most important offseason in franchise history. The consecutive sub-25 win seasons has to stop at four. This time, they need to come out of the summer loaded enough to exceed 30 wins if not fight for a playoff berth.
The key will be to add NBA veterans to a rotation with too many talented undeveloped youngsters. Last year’s rotation included seven — SEVEN — regulars who were age 22 or under. No other NBA team even came close to using so many kids at once.
Of the three vehicles at teams’ disposal to make roster changes, GM James Jones believes that free agency is the way to go.
“I say it all the time, it takes two to tango,” Jones said of trades, back in January when he gave an exclusive interview on Bright Side Night in January. “So, when your primary vehicle for acquiring a player is via trade, you don’t control that. We’ve seen time and time again you don’t control that. At some point, the other team can back out or you can back out.”
Jones had already found out the “other team can back out” part when teams kept rebuffing his attempts to acquire a point guard after taking over for McDonough in October. He later experienced the “or you can back out” part when he pulled out of a potential three-way deal with the Wizards and Grizzlies involving Trevor Ariza a month later. Ultimately, Jones and at the time Co-Interim GM Trevor Bukstein got Oubre to Phoenix instead.
Jones went on to say a lot more about the tenuous nature of trying to win trades, and also about how he didn’t want to add an 18-19 year old point guard to the current core. Read what he had to say here. I doubt his position has changed since January, especially given the Suns have not hired any draft scouts.
“So, the only way you can add is free agency,” Jones concluded, “Where you have more control, and the draft where you have complete control. That, for us, it will most likely be free agency. Just because when you look at our team and the way we’re constructed.”
Let’s take a look at how the Suns cap sheet lays out for summer spending.
They could start with as little as $7 million, but they could create as much as $30 million without making a single trade.
For this exercise, we will not execute any trades, because those “take two to tango” comments. Sure the Suns could create more cap room by sending out more salary than they take back in return, but we won’t touch on that in today’s article.
Initial most likely cap room: $7.63 million (less than the league’s mid-level salary)
- Rookie salary slot
If the Suns win the rights to the top overall draft pick (Zion Williamson!), that rookie slot is about $9.5 million all by itself.
For every pick lower, the cap hold drops by about a million. But let’s start with an optimistic outlook and say the Suns end up with the top draft pick and the rights to Zion.
- Cap holds for Oubre and Holmes
If they also want to retain the Bird Rights to re-sign Oubre and Richaun Holmes even after they’ve spent their free cap money, they need to keep those cap holds on the books.
For those who forget what Bird Rights are, that’s the ability to re-sign a player to a deal that exceeds the salary cap. Otherwise, teams can only use relatively small cap exceptions (mid-level, room, bi-annual, minimum salary, etc.).
Holmes is an unrestricted free agent, which means he can sign with any team and just walk away. However, for the mere cost of just over 1% of the salary cap ($1.6 million), the Suns could retain the right to sign him any time this summer even if they have already spent all their cap money on other players. Holmes will likely command $10+ million per year this summer.
Oubre is a restricted free agent, meaning he also can sign with any other team, except that the Suns would have the ability to match that offer and simply retain Oubre at whatever that salary is, without having to do any of the work to negotiate it, as long as they keep his cap hold ($9.6 million). Oubre will likely command $15-20 million per year this summer.
- Release everyone else non-guaranteed
To even get that $7.63 million in space, the Suns would have to release all cap holds on unrestricted free agents, including Dragan Bender, Troy Daniels and Jamal Crawford. They would also have to release the non-guaranteed contracts of Jimmer Fredette and Ray Spalding.
Increasing cap room: Drop Oubre and Holmes for $11.2 million
If Oubre and Holmes leave the Suns, there’s some cap room right there.
But then there’s also a need to replace two of the only mid-career veterans on the roster — and this team needs more of those, not less — and that measly $11.2 million in cap space wouldn’t bring back even one starting caliber player at their level, let alone two.
So, we need to find more money.
Increasing cap room: Johnson opts out for $19.5 million
Well that would be a boon for the Suns. Tyler Johnson has the right to become an unrestricted free agent this summer to sign a long-term deal with another team — likely in the $10 million per year range he’s actually worth, but for 3-4 years to give him some long-term certainty with a team of his choosing.
But Johnson doesn’t have to do anything at all to be guaranteed all $19.5 million in 2019-20 and become a free agent a year from now instead.
If he wants to opt out he would have to notify the team by end of June, but it’s extremely unlikely Johnson would do that. Why give up that extra $10 million he’s making over his open-market worth in 2019-20, when he’s still just going to be 28 years old and prime for a 3-4 year deal then?
So let’s assume Johnson won’t opt out.
Increasing cap room: Waive/stretch Tyler Johnson for $12.83 million
The team could release him this summer and stretch his $19.5 million salary over three seasons.
That would charge the Suns $6.41 million per year in “dead money” on their cap sheet for each of the next three years just for the privilege of being able to spend another $12.83 million on salaries.
Increasing cap room: drop Holmes, Oubre and Johnson for $24 million
Individually, they are difficult to replace.
But if you could, would you trade all three of them to acquire a single max-level star making about as much as, or more than, Booker?
Add that $24 million to the $7.13 million they started with, and that’s a $31 million-per-year player.
Let me tell you, there’s no NBA team with an under-contract $30 million player that would trade that player for the combo of Oubre, Holmes and Tyler Johnson. Yet all the Suns need to is clear them from the books to create that space for the free agent market.
Ridding themselves of Oubre, Holmes and Johnson, while also renouncing the other free agents, while keeping the top overall pick (hypothetically), gives the Suns the following depth chart as of July 1 without having made any trades at all:
- PG: De’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo
- SG: Devin Booker, Josh Jackson
- SF: T.J. Warren, Mikal Bridges
- PF: Zion Williamson
- C: Deandre Ayton
Plus, your $30 million dollar star.
How about an unrestricted free agent like Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving, or Klay Thompson or Jimmy Butler? Or Kemba Walker or Tobias Harris?
Of course, you see that the Suns have no starting-caliber point guard here, but all the other positions are fairly loaded with developable talent.
So, that means Walker or Irving, right? Or, if you’re a believer in long-term Point Book, how about Klay Thompson, an incredible catch-and-shoot guy who plays near All-NBA level defense.
“Ultimately, the best free agents want to win,” Jones said.
No, the Suns have not won a damn thing in four years. They are a laughingstock. But when you look at a core of Booker, Zion, Bridges and Ayton, maybe just maybe a big name would want to sign on with the Suns.
“They want to see that they have players that they either could lead or players that they can follow,” Jones continued. “I think we have players at this stage of their career that are really, really good players that an elite free agent would say ‘I think I can lead those guys to the promised land.’”
The Suns have more problems than their roster, though.
“But it still comes back down to facilities; it comes down to culture,” Jones admits. “It comes down to players and the opportunity to win. The best teams build it early and then that cherry [star free agent] comes on top.”
Jones is hopeful. Back in January he talked very confidently about free agency being their top vehicle to improve the team.
“If we can get that leader in this building,” he said. “He can lead our guys. But at some point when that switch flips, our guys can carry him forward later into his career.”