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Here’s what the Suns have left to use in free agency this weekend

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After doing the Chris Paul trade earlier in the week, the Suns are over the cap, but that doesn’t mean they’re done adding talent.

2019-20 Phoenix Suns Media Day Photo by Barry Gossage NBAE via Getty Images

I hope you don’t think the first few days of this week have been crazy in the NBA, because it’s probably only going to get more wild from here. We haven’t seen the James Harden situation get sorted out, nor have we heard the last from Giannis and the Bucks. The Klay Thompson injury could force the Warriors to pivot again, while Anthony Davis still hasn’t signed his contract. There’s a lot going on.

We can expect things to likely be a bit quieter for the Suns, but that doesn’t mean they’re finished. A core of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton has the chance to be a real force in the Western Conference this year, and the Suns’ front office can make the team even better with the resources it has left.

A reminder on the Paul deal before we start:

  • Phoenix and OKC completed the trade officially on Monday, which swallowed up the Suns’ extra cap space heading into free agency and made them an “over the cap” team.
  • That’s important because it triggers a few mechanisms in the CBA.
  • First, the Suns can still keep their own players, such as Dario Saric, Jevon Carter or even Aron Baynes, without penalty, so long as they stay under the luxury tax and have Bird or restricted rights for those players.
  • They also now get access to a larger mid-level exception than they’ve had in recent years, which currently sits at $9.3 million, as well as the bi-annual exception of $3.6 million, which can only be used on a contract up to two years in length for a total value of $7.4 million.

All those exceptions

Really the exceptions are pretty simple. They’re just really regimented versions of contracts that the NBA allows teams to sign players to, even when they’re over the salary cap. Exceptions are basically just a way to ensure teams can keep building even if they have two expensive players like, say, Devin Booker and Chris Paul.

The main thing to note is the Suns could split the mid-level exception. Especially after drafting Jalen Smith, who doesn’t profile as a starting forward or (obviously) a backup guard, which were two of the Suns’ bigger needs in free agency, I could see them signing two cheaper players by splitting the mid-level. They could give each player up to $4.65 million. Guys like Garrett Temple, Jae Crowder, JaMychal Green and Justin Holiday come to mind there at forward.

However, it’s worth remembering most of the league is using these exceptions. Only the Pistons, Hornets, Knicks and Hawks have real cap space, while the Pelicans and Kings have a small bit potentially to spend under the cap. That means the Suns are competing with anyone who is over the cap but under the tax for players to sign with the mid-level exception. That includes championship contenders like the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks and others. It will take a lot for the Suns to convince players to come to Phoenix, even with the addition of Paul.

The only thing to know about the bi-annual exception is that if the Suns use it, they will not be eligible to use it next year and will trigger a hard cap at the tax apron, meaning they could not go into the luxury tax. Seeing as how they haven’t done that as far back as my memory can go, it’s not something to really consider here, but just keep it in mind.

Can the Suns still make trades?

Of course! Every team can make trades.

The only issue facing the Suns right now is who would be included in such a trade. Unless a motherlode materializes for Phoenix to get a superstar player (unlikely), we can assume Ayton, Bridges and Cameron Johnson are likely off the table. The same can probably be said for Jalen Smith, who was just drafted two days ago.

The rest of the Suns’ roster is largely made up of end-of-bench players who don’t make more money and current free agents. Unless Phoenix is just flipping one cheap player for another, they are probably looking at a sign-and-trade.

A sign-and-trade would be most likely to include either Baynes or Saric. What would happen in that case is that the Suns, who maintain Bird Rights (allowing them to go over the cap to sign them, as we discussed before) for both guys, would ink either player to a contract and then flip them on that new contract to another team.

The other thing to consider here, though, is the Base-Year Compensation rules. In short, this technicality means that if Saric’s or Baynes’ new contract earned them a raise of more than 20 percent (less likely for Baynes, who already made $5.4 million last year), their salaries would count as the larger between their previous salary or 50 percent of their new salary on the Suns’ side, but count as the actual new salary for the team they’re traded to.

Make sense? If not, read Danny Leroux’s explainer at The Athletic. It’s actually pretty simple. The point is that players don’t move teams in a way that treats them as cheap assets when in reality they are about get a big payday, effectively rewarding teams that are over the cap and don’t have the means to sign them outright.

What it means for the Suns is that doing any deal is pretty tricky. They don’t have extraneous players who make enough salary to be involved in any sort of big trade, and the two guys they could deal are both free agents and are attached to some wonky rules.

Frank Kaminsky could have been a trade chip if the Suns had exercised his team option and used his $5 million salary in a deal involving somebody like P.J. Tucker, but they instead waived him yesterday.

All that said, it would be a surprise if the Suns made a major trade this weekend.

Does the luxury tax matter for the Suns?

It sure matters in terms of avoiding getting hit with a big bill at the end of the season, but overall, the Suns would have to really go big to get there. They’re sitting at about $95 million in salary right now, meaning even if Saric gets a raise to the $10-12 million range, the Suns still would be more than $25 million away from the tax.

Even if you start to add on a raise for Baynes, the full MLE, the BAE, and a small raise for Carter, that’s still probably not within worrying distance of the tax line of $132.6 million.

Minimum contracts don’t count toward the luxury tax, and the Suns likely will sign several minimum players to fill out the roster no matter which direction they go with all this.

What should we expect?

As James Jones said in his post-draft press conference, they can use the exceptions to improve the roster. That’s probably all they will do.

Assuming they re-sign Saric and Carter and guarantee Cameron Payne’s deal, the Suns will go into free agency with nine players on the roster. We will probably learn soon whether they intend to guarantee Elie Okobo and Cheick Diallo’s contracts, which could get them as high as 11 rostered players.

That leaves several spots unaccounted for, meaning the Suns will see plenty of new faces between now and Dec. 22 when the season starts (and reinforces the likelihood that they split the MLE on two players).

The most important storylines facing the Suns right now as I see them are:

  1. Who they sign with the MLE, and whether it is one or two players
  2. Whether they use the BAE, and who they can sign with it
  3. What type of contract Saric gets to come back to Phoenix
  4. Whether the Suns retain Baynes
  5. How much money Carter can find to potentially sign an offer sheet in restricted free agency

Enjoy the transaction season!

Let me know if I missed anything, and I’ll try to answer any questions you have in the comments section below.