No matter what anyone thought of De’Anthony Melton as a player, most everyone panned the Suns this summer for including him (and two second-round picks) in a trade to shed the $7 million owed to Josh Jackson this upcoming season.
The line of thinking here was that while second-rounders can be a reasonable cost of doing business in some cases and Melton’s ceiling at the moment doesn’t appear to be very high, there were other options. In fact, the ability to simply waive and stretch Jackson rather than making this trade was staring the Suns in the face. Though they had to clear cap space to make room for Ricky Rubio on their balance sheet, simply waiving Jackson and spreading his salary over three seasons would have done the trick.
Instead, they gave up a young two-way guard in Melton who showed a lot last year, plus two picks they could have used elsewhere. Why? It seems there are two answers: Either the optics of using an unglamorous mechanism of the Collective Bargaining Agreement to get rid of a recent fourth overall pick was unbecoming for the Suns, or they are operating under a mandate to avoid dead money spread over multiple years.
Both are perfectly reasonable. Managing Partner Robert Sarver has not been shy about eating dead salary so long as it doesn’t affect the cap into the future, and much of the Suns’ focus this entire offseason has been about transforming optics. The team’s relationship with Jackson can’t have been pretty by July, on or off the court.
Aside from Jackson, the Suns had other opportunities to make space for Rubio. Last September, former general manager Ryan McDonough acquired Ryan Anderson under the agreement that Anderson’s salary would count for just $15 million rather than $21 should he be bought out this summer. The Miami Heat took advantage of that provision as part of their acquisition of Jimmy Butler. Rather than hold onto Anderson and stretch his roughly $15 million over the next three seasons (about $5 million per year), new GM James Jones opted to trade Anderson for scoring guard Tyler Johnson at February’s deadline.
This move, like the desire to dump Jackson, is understandable. Johnson is infinitely more valuable to the Suns right now than a pile of dead money. He will actually help the team, something that couldn’t be said for Anderson last season.
That leads into yet another option facing the Suns this summer, which was to stretch Johnson himself. Instead of swallowing a third of Johnson’s deal (nearly Jackson’s whole salary) by stretching him, the Suns again leaned in a more conservative direction.
While they resoundingly are in a better position with Rubio and Johnson than without, they realistically sacrificed Melton, two second-round picks and a bunch of dead money to get there.
Sarver’s money is far from my concern here. But it’s worth noting that along the way, the Suns also bought out Tyson Chandler, Wayne Ellington and Kyle Korver in full rather than stretching their salaries as well. However, they did no such favors for Troy Daniels heading into last season even though he was not a part of the rotation. Ditto for Darrell Arthur, who was unplayable due to injury and ate into the Suns’ cap space last season. They have not stretched a waived player since the mechanism was introduced in the 2017 CBA.
This pattern is connected to the Suns’ unwillingness to use their cap space in-season as a way to get draft picks from opposing franchises in exchange for taking on bigger salaries. Despite going into the past few seasons with room on their books, the Suns have not made a trade like this once. Organizations like the Hawks and Nets have been aggressive rebuilding this way and have found incredible value by doing so.
Sarver’s willingness to spend is not being challenged here. In order to get several deals done (and help Jones try to turn the tide of perception), the owner bought out player Jones didn’t want around. Sarver also gave the green light to use the room mid-level exception this summer on Frank Kaminsky, something he hasn’t done in the recent past.
The Suns have established they will either buy out a player completely or find a trade. That leaves open flexibility in future seasons (just ask the Lakers about Luol Deng’s dead money) while avoiding the ugliness of spreading the mistake out over multiple years. In the case of Jackson, stretching the former Kansas standout was probably a more logical decision than giving up so much to dump him on the Grizzlies. When it comes to Johnson or Anderson, the Suns will now benefit from a solid Sixth Man behind Rubio and could use Johnson as a trade asset this year.
The Suns have clearly made it a top-level priority to avoid clogging their books into the future at all.
That’s the problem with an overarching stance on something as situation-dependent as the salary cap. Maybe Sarver down the road will clear Jones to stretch an unwanted player. Maybe the decision has been more from Jones, and he could budge on that strategy. The Suns’ books are mostly clear going forward anyway, so they shouldn’t have to worry for a while.
When the time does come for the Suns to be spenders again in free agency, they may have to clear cap space at that time. Being a bit more flexible and willing to proclaim mistakes by stretching a bigger salary isn’t as bad as this franchise is making it out to be, and could really help them do business in the future. Spending this way also creates more short-term options than buying out entire salaries. Ignoring this method of creating flexibility and acquiring assets has already affected the Suns and could hamper their future plans as well.