One of the primary goals of NBA teams at the trade deadline is to get rid of their long-term salaries. There are many ways to do this, all based upon how good the player is who is attached to that long, expensive contract. Perhaps the most common mechanism to get this type of relief is to trade your expensive guy for someone equally expensive who is making the same amount of money on a shorter contract. That way, the light at the end of the tunnel is a little closer.
Under Ryan McDonough, the Suns never made trades like this. Despite fielding a young, cheap team most years during the tear-down, the Suns never used that extra future cap space to take a chance on another team’s albatross contract.
The Suns were smart enough to trade P.J. Tucker at the very last moment of the 2017 trade deadline, but did so simply to get back a couple second-round picks. They did the same with Markieff Morris the year prior. No players in return. Phoenix simply kept stirring the pot of assets and making draft picks.
When Jared Dudley’s three-year, $30 million deal was expiring, the Suns flipped him to Brooklyn along with a second-round pick for Richaun Holmes. The backup big man was more valuable to the Suns than Dudley would have been, but Holmes’ contract expired along with Dudley’s in 2019 and the Suns did not retain him. That second-round pick would also be pretty handy as the Suns approach trade season right now.
A few months later, with Tyson Chandler’s behemoth 2015 contract set to expire, the Suns did Chandler a favor and simply bought him out rather than extracting any value at the trade deadline for the serviceable backup big man. That one was James Jones’ decision.
Which brings us to the present.
Most of the league’s truly horrendous contracts are set to expire in 2020. That’s because we’re finally four years past the cap-spike summer of 2016, when teams like Portland, Washington and Charlotte made big mistakes and misjudged not only how to spend their money but which players to give it to.
Still, the Suns can make something of Tyler Johnson’s $19.2 million expiring contract. They are in a unique position to acquire a long-term player making close to Johnson’s salary without ever clearing the cap space to do it. All they have to do is find a player who makes a similar amount to Johnson.
A few players that come to mind who may or may not be available: Evan Fournier, who makes $17 million with a player option for 2020-21; Gorgui Dieng, a backup big man with two years left; Tony Snell, a forgotten wing making $12.1 million next year; or even Gary Harris, perhaps the most disappointing player in the NBA this season; or Otto Porter Jr., perennially injured but a great fit in Phoenix.
None of those guys are particularly exciting, and that’s kind of the point. The Suns in this case would be doing their trade partner a favor.
Take a look at last year’s Porter Jr. deal between Washington and Chicago. The Wizards, knowing they’d soon be firing their general manager and tearing down while John Wall recovered from two major injuries, wanted financial relief. The Bulls used expiring deals for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker to give them that relief.
That type of opportunity is right in front of the Suns with Johnson. It would allow them to replace Johnson with a more useful player now and moving forward as well as recoup some of the assets that they lost this summer in their various dealings (reminder: the Suns don’t have a second-round pick until 2022).
That said, the Suns have plenty of other ways to use Johnson’s big, expiring salary. They could simply trade him for another player on an expiring contract who they like more, such as Charlotte’s Marvin Williams, a great veteran fit stylistically next to Deandre Ayton.
The Suns also could package Johnson as part of a bigger deal.
They could also just buy him out if no deal materializes, allowing Johnson to go to a playoff contender (perhaps the Heat again).
Or, Phoenix can keep Johnson through the end of the season. He’s not playing anyway, and he’s still been an amiable and supportive presence for his teammates from what I’ve observed. Keeping Johnson and his massive cap hold on the books will keep the Suns flexible in terms of flipping between being over or under the salary cap this summer.
No one expects Johnson to get as big of a contract this time around. The Suns could ink him to a smaller deal more reasonable for a backup guard and hope that a summer of recuperation and continuity helps him get back to the player he was early in his career.
The most important thing is that the Suns maintain cap space for 2021. At that point, they hope to be coming off a playoff berth, two consecutive All-Star appearances for Devin Booker, and with a brand new practice facility and renovated home arena. They showed us their cards in terms of preserving space for 2021 when they signed Kelly Oubre Jr. to a two-year contract that will expire that summer.
No one except Booker and Ricky Rubio are on the books for 2021-22. Of course, Ayton and Mikal Bridges will be due for extensions at that time, so they are part of this calculation as well. All of this is on Suns’ executives minds as they near decision time on Johnson.
This deadline is expected to be quiet around the NBA, but with such a weak draft and free agency class, don’t be surprised if teams — including the Suns — focus more heavily on trades to improve their rosters.