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Young, rebuilding teams could force the Suns’ hand on Kelly Oubre Jr.’s free agency

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Reports show Oubre as a backup target for championship contenders, but the real threat to give Oubre a big offer comes from other teams’ on the Suns’ timeline.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The central question of the Suns’ plans this summer is what salary Kelly Oubre Jr. will command on his second contract.

A $9.63 million qualifying offer will make Oubre a restricted free agent, and after a scorching second half of the year, he’s left that number in the dust. Since his breakout in Phoenix, reports from around the country have identified Oubre as a top priority for the Suns, as well as a player who could command a high-dollar offer. Yet with so much wing talent hitting the open market this summer, it remains to be seen precisely where such a deal would come from for Oubre, especially considering the leverage the Suns’ have by holding the young wing’s restricted rights.

Early Bird Rights

Here’s a chart detailing the entire league’s financial situation, courtesy of Early Bird Rights. That far left column shows the maximum cap space each team can create.

We can quickly cross off Brooklyn, the Clippers, New York and the Lakers. Those teams will be hesitant to tie up their cap space with an offer sheet for Oubre early in free agency — they’re casting for the biggest fish on the market.

Oubre is a fun young player, but those four franchises are operating on a different timeline now, one which moves forward on Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard’s time. Should any of those four organizations miss out on the top superstars on the market, they will likely roll their cap space over to next summer and try again. They’re not obvious Oubre suitors, despite a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski which says teams who miss out on superstars could target Oubre as a backup plan.

Those teams may never get the chance to offer Oubre the cap space they’re reserving for A-level free agents. The Suns and other young teams with cap space control the timing here, and can fast-forward if they’d like by tossing out a big offer soon after 6 p.m. ET on June 30.

The next tier of spenders includes a group of title contenders who won’t likely be made much better by a highly paid 23-year-old. Anyone paying Oubre is betting that he will improve as a decision-maker and shooter. Pulling those skills out of him is not how a team like Philadelphia or Utah will want to spend its time. They want to win. (Indiana and Denver fall into this category as well.)

No, the teams the Suns really have to worry about are the rebuilding young squads. They could see Oubre, who was miscast and underutilized in Washington and thrived with more freedom in Phoenix, as a potential building block. The Suns see him the same way, but after drafting Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges in back to back years, there is likely a ceiling on the salary the Suns are willing to pay Oubre.

The 23-year-old shot just 33 percent from deep and was even worse in catch-and-shoot situations this season. Though he was part of a couple good Wizards teams, many wonder whether Oubre can settle into a team-first game while competing at the highest level.

If Sacramento, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas or New Orleans ponies up for Oubre to add to their young core, Phoenix will have a decision to make. Any hope of getting Oubre on a salary smaller than his qualifying offer is gone when you look at how many teams could be interested in his services.

Cap experts around the league believe Oubre will command a starting salary in the $10-12 million range. That would barely cut into Phoenix’s cap space, leaving open plenty of room to find a veteran point guard. They would probably much such an offer.

But there’s a chance it gets even bigger than that.

Sacramento will prioritize Harrison Barnes, but Oubre fits their up-tempo, athletic core better than Barnes. Oubre is also closer to De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley’s age and should continue to get better alongside that duo.

Boston will shoot higher early (they’ve been linked with Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic already), but could settle for a high-upside young player if they truly do resign themselves to an old-fashioned rebuild. Adding Oubre to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and new draft picks Romeo Langford and Grant Williams would give the Celtics even more wing depth. The Celtics will play three or four of those guys together, and a four-year deal for Oubre would line up with the rookies’ contracts.

Similarly, the Mavericks may not see Oubre as Plan A right now, but they are reportedly not the team who has offered Al Horford a new four-year contract and don’t seem like legitimate suitors for Walker. Oubre is an interesting fit at the 3 between Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. You want someone on the wing with those two guys who can attack closeouts, create a bit for himself, and give the roster a little bit of athletic upside.

Particularly if Dallas hopes to play Porzingis at the 5 a good amount, Oubre’s defensively versatility would be helpful. The Mavericks will lose about $10 million in cap space if they indeed give Porzingis a maximum contract, starting at $27 million in 2019-20, but that leaves them plenty to offer Oubre a contract around $13 or 14 million to challenge the Suns.

Atlanta has the least remaining cap room of any of these teams after absorbing bad salary in two trades this month. It’s unlikely they want to spend the majority of their remaining space on a questionable team defender like Oubre who wouldn’t improve their biggest weakness and would block playing time for their two rookies. The Hawks also just traded Taurean Prince, a player who is very similar to Oubre.

The Pelicans haven’t made clear the types of players they want to put around Zion Williamson, and there’s a decent chance they horde their cap space heading into the season. In doing so, they could give their playing time to younger guys and continue to acquire assets by taking on other teams’ bad contracts. Oubre certainly fits New Orleans’ timeline but setting the market for a wildcard on his second contract may not be the priority right now.

Being a handful of teams’ backup plans might not appear to set Oubre up for a big payday, but things move quickly in free agency. As much as the league might like to pretend otherwise, Oubre is sure to know what his market looks like already. His agent, Bill Duffy, is one of the most prolific in the NBA.

Phoenix will have two days to match Oubre’s offer sheet after it is signed, if they let him work the market. Not immediately inking Oubre to a deal has the potential to ruffle feathers in his camp, but it also guarantees Oubre can go find the maximum offer available.

The timing of Oubre’s free agency will put the goodwill between team and player to the test. Do the Suns let him go to a franchise like Sacramento or Dallas to meet with opposing executives and put a scare in fans, or do they quickly agree to terms with the guy they’ve called a top priority basically since the day they traded for him?

More expensive players are likely to be on the Suns’ radar, most notably D’Angelo Russell and Malcolm Brogdon, who fill a more pressing hole in the roster. Cutting ties with Oubre is the easiest way to create the necessary cap space to sign those guys, but he’s a fan favorite and important locker room voice. Somehow, the man who was the Suns’ second option in the Trevor Ariza trade is a key to their offseason and a big determining factor in the way their roster looks moving forward.