Is it really possible the one player who blundered one of the most legendary performances in NBA Finals history could be an asset to the Suns this offseason? Yes indeed, but if the price might be different than everyone else is envisioning.
Smith has one of the final few remaining contracts in the NBA that’s partially guaranteed while also being an expiring contract. Teams won’t be interested in Smith the player, but the salary makes him intriguing for almost any team looking to shed additional money to chase free agents. The 33-year-old shooting guard is projected to make $15.7 million, but less than 25 percent of it is fully guaranteed if waived on or before June 30.
When looking over the Suns’ roster, names such as Tyler Johnson, T.J. Warren and even Josh Jackson make sense as candidates who could be swapped out for Smith before he’s ultimately waived. Realistically, though, the only player who would make sense to do a straight one-for-one swap involving Smith, who’s also represented by Klutch Sports, is Johnson and his $19.2 million expiring.
If Phoenix were to approach Cleveland about Smith’s partially guaranteed deal — there will be plenty of teams circling around this subject as we get closer to free agency — attaching an asset will likely have to occur. For example, here’s a mock scenario that could go down involving the Suns and Cavaliers:
Suns - J.R. Smith (waived upon becoming official)
Cavaliers - Tyler Johnson and 2020 Bucks first-round pick
To be honest, Cleveland likely won’t want to bring a long-term salary onto their books (Warren) or will Phoenix really feel compelled to save barely over $2 million cutting ties early with a former top-five selection in this manner (Jackson). Once more, that circles us back around to why this only really works with Johnson.
Some might also be asking why Cleveland would do this. Well, if you look at the contracts they’re currently on the hook for, most of them clear out after the 2019-20 season.
All of the following bloated salaries will be off their books very soon: Tristan Thompson ($18.5 million), Brandon Knight ($15.6 million), Jordan Clarkson ($13.4 million), John Henson ($10.5 million), and Matthew Dellavedova ($9.6 million). Outside of Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman and whoever they select with the No. 5 overall pick, they have a rather clean long-term plan to fully reboot outside of Kevin Love’s possible albatross extension that runs through 2022-2023.
Adding in another expiring salary, albeit another big-figure one, on top of another future first-round pick should be the plan for Cavaliers GM Koby Altman when trying to construct Smith trades before the end of this month. Next season, the Cavaliers’ pick is top-10 protected, so they have incentive to lead the tanking palooza once more. Adding another pick to the litter probably falling anywhere between 25-30 is huge, because they traded away their second-rounder.
From the Suns’ point of view, chasing Smith’s expiring with Johnson should be a no-brainer. The deadline for Johnson to pick up his player option is June 29, a day before when Smith has to be off the Cavaliers’ roster. The timing also makes sense for both parties here, if Johnson actually ends up taking the maximum amount of time allotted to him on an easy decision.
With only $3.8 million of it guaranteed, the Suns could immediately open up an additional $14.5 million in space. That’s a gigantic amount of flexibility all of the sudden, because Phoenix would now be operating with $23.7 million in space compared to only $9.2 million when factoring in keeping the No. 6 pick and its $5.8 million first-year salary. Depending on who is picked at No. 6, if the Suns even keep it, they could attack free agency from multiple angles addressing both their needs at point guard and power forward.
With that amount of money, the Suns could absorb players such as Darren Collison and Al-Farouq Aminu into their salary with no issue while also keeping hold of the rights belonging to Kelly Oubre Jr. and Richaun Holmes.
This is only one way Phoenix could open up more space for free agency, but it’s also the most forward-thinking. If James Jones is truly exploring all of his options, dialing up the final team he played for would be a smart decision.
Heading into July, here’s what the Suns’ roster would look like if this Johnson for Smith hypothetically actually came to fruition:
PG - (No. 6 or No. 32 pick?), De’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo
SG - Devin Booker, Josh Jackson
SF - Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges
PF - (No. 6 or No. 32 pick?), T.J. Warren
C - Deandre Ayton, Richaun Holmes
If Phoenix also wanted to truly chase after the cream of the crop in free agency, albeit a pipe dream, they could attach another future pick along with Warren’s $10.8 million salary in 2019-20 to achieve max cap space. Doing so would put the Suns around $34 million, just enough to pursue names like Kyrie Irving with the $32.7 million starting figure.
Again, I doubt they could reel-in superstar names to the Valley, but, if that’s their intent, it’s on the table for the Suns’ front office to pull off.
Even executing the Johnson-for-Smith swap would instantly double Phoenix’s cap space heading into an important offseason period where no missteps can be taken along the way. We’ll have to wait a little while longer on if their new GM can pull a proverbial rabbit out of his hat, but this would be a savvy way of allowing more room to bring in quality NBA players onto the Suns’ roster.