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Phoenix Suns salary cap reset heading into free agency

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Where do the Suns sit on the cusp of a wild summer?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in years, the Phoenix Suns are heading into the summer with a plan to spend all their possible dollars in free agency and then some.

The plan for the Phoenix Suns is to turn over just about every player on the roster not named Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton or Mikal Bridges. Sure they want to re-sign Kelly Oubre Jr. to a good sized deal, but are open to other possibilities as July 1 rolls around and they get to see Oubre’s salary demands compared to others in the market.

They have primarily decided to see how far they can go with Booker and Ayton as the core, and so far Mikal Bridges profiles as the most complementary young player around them (so, least likely to be traded unless an even better complement becomes available).

How do I know this? Well, I don’t know anything for sure. None of us do. Just take last week’s draft for example. Did anyone on the planet outside that front office even know they liked Cam Johnson or Ty Jerome?

Evan covered what those particular draft picks tell us about the Suns plans. They clearly did not think another 19-20 year old raw prospect was the way to go, or they’d have stayed at 6 and drafted Coby White or Jarrett Culver. Seems obvious that the plan is to surround Ayton and Booker with smart role players who can shoot the basketball in James Jones’ own mold.

And rumors created by John Gambadoro, who seems the most dialed in with Suns sources yet was shocked by the draft night moves too, steers us to more role players rather than a splashy single player. He says the Suns are targeting guys who will make $10-13 million per year (Corey Joseph, Thaddeus Young, Al-Farouq Aminu), rather than a single potential star in D’Angelo Russell who is looking more for $25-27 million a year.

Here’s this on guard targets...

And here’s another story on power forward targets, which includes Thad Young, Aminu and (please no) Frank Kaminsky. I’ve got to think Kaminsky is off the board now that Dario Saric was acquired. Young and Aminu are much better complements to Saric and Ayton.

Either way — a pair of $10-13 million players or a single $25+ million player — requires the Suns to create $25+ million in cap space.

Only $13.2 million to spend right now

At the moment, the Suns only have $13.2 million to spend, assuming they renounce Bird Rights to Richaun Holmes and all their unrestricted free agents and release Ray Spalding and Jimmer Fredette, as laid out beautifully by Suns fan David Nash.

That’s a depth chart of

  • PG: (no starting caliber PG), Ty Jerome (R), Jalen Lecque (R), Tyler Johnson, D’Anthony Melton, Elie Okobo
  • SG: Devin Booker
  • SF: Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, Cam Johnson (R)
  • PF: Dario Saric
  • C: Deandre Ayton, Aron Baynes

You could say that the Suns have four NBA-level starters ready to go if they bring back Oubre (bold), though you might want to shore up the PF position with a veteran starter if you can get Young or Aminu.

But you cannot say the Suns have a starting caliber point guard on the roster. Sure, they CAN start those other guys. They just shouldn’t start those other guys.

$13.2 million is not enough to fill both the starting point guard and defensive-minded power forward rotation spots (rotating with Dario Saric), and definitely not enough to entice any individual big-name free agents.

Oubre and RFA cap holds

The Suns have been open about wanting to bring back Kelly Oubre Jr. They love his hustle and heart, and what he brings to the team both on and off the court. Plus, he’s a 20 point per game scorer who can play above average defense in many situations.

So, they are likely to want to exceed the cap after spending their free agent money by re-signing him to something in the $12-16 million per year range. But they can only do that if they keep his $9 million cap hold on the books while spending the rest of their free agent money.

However, note this loophole: Oubre’s cap hold can be “used” as part of another RFA offer without giving up rights to Oubre unless it works.

If the other team declines to match, thus giving the player to the Suns, then at that point the Suns would have to renounce Oubre if they still need any or all of that cap hold for the new player’s salary. But if the other team matches and keeps the player, the Suns can still keep Oubre’s cap hold as if the other RFA offer never happened.

For example, if the Suns decide that another RESTRICTED free agent like D’Angelo Russell or Malcolm Brogdon, or whoever, is so necessary that they’re willing to let Oubre go if they can get that player, the Suns can use Oubre’s $9 million as part of the “money” for the offer. If the Nets/Bucks/whoever match and keep the RFA, then the Suns still have all of Oubre’s rights.

Using Oubre’s cap hold, the Suns could create an RFA offer starting at $22 million per year. That might not be high enough, but it’s close. And the Suns would only lose Oubre if they need his cap number to honor the offer.

Non-Oubre methods to increase cap space

  • Trade D’Anthony Melton and/or Elie Okobo into cap space (adds $1.41 million in space for each) — likelihood: it’s pretty certain one or both are gone soon
  • Trade Josh Jackson into cap space (adds $7 million in space) — likelihood: almost nil before best free agents are off board in mid-late July
  • Trade Tyler Johnson into cap space (adds $19.25 million in space) — likelihood: zero
  • Waive/stretch Tyler Johnson (adds $12.83 million in space) — likelihood: totally in the Suns control

Beyond their $13.2 million in likely space on July 1, all the remaining contracts are guaranteed for the 2019-20 season except Oubre’s cap hold, meaning the Suns or someone else are going to pay that contract money out.

I mean, sure, we can believe that the Suns will find takers for Jackson or even Tyler Johnson’s contracts, but judging by having to include the #32 overall pick to dump a better player (T.J. Warren) we should stop fooling ourselves into thinking that teams will do this before all the good free agents are gone.

That leaves the Suns with either trading Tyler Johnson for a good player on a big long contract, or releasing/stretching Johnson for immediate cap relief to use in free agency.

If the Suns are willing to have $6.3 million in dead cap hit for the next three seasons, they can balloon their free agent money right up to $26 million as soon as they need it just by releasing/stretching Johnson.

To recap, the keys to making big improvements to the roster in free agency are Tyler Johnson and Kelly Oubre.

But wait there’s MORE!

Once the Suns spend their available cap space, there are a few salary cap exceptions available to them in addition to the Bird Rights exception they can use on Kelly Oubre Jr.

No, they don’t have access to the Mid-level exception or the Bi-Annual Exception, but they do have access something else — the ROOM exception — as well as the regular minimum-salary exceptions.

The room exception is larger than the BAE and smaller than the MLE — it is worth up to $4.7 million in a starting salary, for up to two seasons with up to 5% increase in year two.

This exception cannot be aggregated with anything else (i.e. cannot be added to cap space) and cannot be used in trades. It can only be used for a free agent signing or two or three.

By late July, at least a few guys will be disappointed with not getting any offers and might take a deal from the Suns for 1-2 years. So maybe that’s where the Suns can get a veteran power forward or backup shooting guard, if they’ve spent their cap space on a point guard.