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Suns may have to be aggressive this summer to get what they want

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They fell in the lottery and don’t have a ton of money to spend, but the Suns can still operate aggressively.

Utah Jazz v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It would be easy to bemoan the way the draft lottery did the Suns dirty or hammer the organization for mismanaging their cap space.

Both are true, to a point. Phoenix did fall four spots when the lottery proceedings were all said and done — one spot on a coin flip, the other three by way of a ping pong ball curse. The Brandon Knight contract and Devin Booker’s early extension also put the Suns at a disadvantage compared with other young teams when it comes to building their roster.

None of that eliminated flexibility on the part of the Suns this summer. They can still find exciting young talent on draft night, and they are still in a good position to get deeper by spending in free agency.

The key question of the summer will be if any larger opportunities manifest, and how the Suns set themselves up to take advantage.

Trade up in the draft?

This was a question posed by Chris Manning of Fear the Sword on our latest episode of Locked On Suns. If the fit of players like De’Andre Hunter or Coby White makes the thought of picking them difficult to digest for the Suns, perhaps they opt to move up. From my vantage point, Jarrett Culver is the best fit of anyone who might reasonably be drafted sixth overall, and also has the type of high ceiling that befits a lottery pick.

This entire line of thinking, however, comes under the assumption that the Suns view these players the same way, and that is difficult to know. Hunter comes with the type of pedigree and attitude that would fit the culture James Jones is trying to build. White is, you know, a point guard.

Yet if the Suns put the future Bucks first-round pick they are owed in play, they could move up into the top five. It would be another all-in move on draft night similar to the one that put Mikal Bridges into their lap, but after meeting with Culver in Lubbock, Texas, this week, perhaps the Suns like what they see so much that they want to control their own destiny. They have the means of doing it.

Don’t ignore No. 32, either. In the past, the Suns have locked in on a prospect at that spot whom they are eager to take, rarely treating that pick like the trade asset it is. The difference between an early second-round pick and late first-round pick could, however, favor the Suns in a deal with a capped-out team.

Phoenix would love to have another cost-controlled young player locked in for four seasons, whereas a team picking in the 20s might prefer the limited commitments required to a second-round pick. Players in this range are especially situation-dependent, meaning the Suns might like someone and move up to get him at 25, allowing the team at 25 to move back and still find a player they’re happy with.

Such trades are not incredibly common, but would require less draft capital to pull off than moving up into the top five and could still put a talented player in Phoenix’s pocket who is ready to contribute, such as Ty Jerome or Grant Williams.

Playing the restricted free agency game

Teams who see their restricted free agent signed to an offer sheet with an opposing franchise have two days to match that offer. For those 48 hours, the spending ability of both teams is limited. Both teams operate as if that player is on their books — the incumbent team with his lower cap hold, the new team with the new contract number.

That gives the advantage to the incumbent to wait the full three days and do other business before returning to the restricted free agent and locking him in at a (likely) more expensive salary.

Think about D’Angelo Russell. The Nets will want to go big-game hunting (as evidenced by their recent move to give up first-round picks to open more cap space) before sealing Russell’s fate. Another team could move quickly, signing Russell to an offer sheet right at 6 p.m. ET on June 30, and make it harder for Brooklyn to keep him. This would force the Nets to either let Russell walk or ink their new superstar players to new contracts within the first couple days of free agency, which the biggest names rarely do.

The same goes for Terry Rozier, Tyus Jones and others — the Suns can force the issue if they have enough money to pay their target and are ready to patiently wait those three days out.

Trades are there if the Suns are willing to pay up

As we saw with the Nets-Hawks deal this week, most any team that wants to create cap space can do so — for a price. Salary cap analysts Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux like to equate one first round pick with $20 million in salary for trade purposes, based on recent NBA history. That would mean moving on from Tyler Johnson and his $19.245 million next season would cost at least the No. 32 pick in this year’s draft, but likely more.

A similar package involving T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson — approximately $17.9 million — would likely cost the Suns the same amount in draft capital.

These are purely salary dumps. Teams don’t do this unless they have something better up their sleeve to spend money on, or need to get out of the luxury tax. Neither necessarily applies to the Suns right now — unless things change in a hurry. If some star free agent who has not been connected to Phoenix all season suddenly looks at what Jones and Monty Williams are building and want to be part of it, the Suns can make room.

The problem with this pathway is that by the start of free agency, the No. 32 pick will already be spent, making it less valuable. At that point, the pick will already have become a player, and not necessarily the guy other teams would have drafted. Of course, the Suns may already have used all their extra picks to move up on draft night, limiting them to the $11 or so million they are expected to have.

Everything happens in sequence, and the draft of course comes first. How the Suns operate before and on June 20 will impact what they do in free agency, which will impact how they operate at next year’s trade deadline, and on and on.

This summer’s bad luck may seem like it handicaps the Suns completely, but if they are willing to sacrifice future assets, get creative and make calculated risks, they could still come away from the summer having made substantial progress toward building the type of roster they need around their young core.

A previous version of this story listed NBA teams as having three days to match offer sheets for restricted free agents, rather than two.