If all goes according to plan, NBA free agency will officially kick off on October 18th.
That is, if league revenues can properly be projected and the salary cap can be adjusted by then, free agency may begin roughly two months from now.
Two months is a long time, but it seems no length of time could have stopped the rumor mill from sending the Phoenix fanbase into a frenzy on Monday morning. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Phoenix could be one of at least three teams interested in heavily pursuing Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, alongside New York and Detroit.
This column isn’t about the merits of adding VanVleet to a backcourt of Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio. That’s a separate conversation. But here’s why this particular rumor is important:
- The Suns can create up to ~24 million in cap space, as noted the other day by our very own Dave King. That would involve renouncing the rights to Saric, Baynes, Carter, and even the 10th overall pick, plus a few other bench players. It’s quite a lot of turnover.
- A max contract for Fred VanVleet starts at $27.3 million in year 1.
See the problem? Even if Phoenix was interested in VanVleet, there’s only one sensible way to clear the necessary cap: Kelly Oubre Jr. has got to go. And not just in a normal trade that offers Phoenix fair value, but in a cap-clearing dump, much like the T.J. Warren trade of Summer 2019.
Again, this business with VanVleet is only a rumor. But it exemplifies a greater point that really was my main takeaway from yesterday:
Open season on Kelly Oubre has officially begun.
It’s not really fair, is it? The notion that the man who coined the term “Valley Boyz”, the one who played a massive part in revitalizing a broken organization’s culture over the past 18 months, would now find himself first on the chopping block seems a bit...needlessly cruel.
And yet, the NBA is a business. And while I want to make it absolutely clear that I’m not necessarily advocating for an Oubre trade, it’s undeniable that in many team-building scenarios, Oubre does not have a future with Phoenix.
If the Suns ultimately want to build a championship team around Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, they may find themselves wanting to take a swing for a 3rd star. And they have two ways to get there: free agency and trades. Free agency we’ve already covered. If the Suns want to target a top-tier FA, they need to cut costs and on this particular roster, that means Oubre.
But in the trade market too, any trade for a star would necessitate having mid-sized contracts to send to another team in order to match salaries. This is why expiring contracts are so valuable in the NBA, because without them, trades couldn’t happen. And next year, the Suns will only have one expiring contract: Kelly Oubre and his $14.4 million salary.
Sure, the Suns could try to move Ricky Rubio (two years remaining, at $17 million/year) instead. But Oubre, a 24-year-old coming off a career-high 18.7 PPG campaign, no doubt has more value. And beyond that, depth must be considered. Without Oubre, the Suns still have a thriving Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. Without Rubio, they’re back to struggling with the main issue that caused a 19-win season just a year ago.
I think I know what you want to say. Sam, there’s another way to get that 3rd star! What if Kelly Oubre is that 3rd star?
Maybe he is! Stranger things have certainly happened in the past. But even if he is, both the Suns and Oubre need to be on the same page about what his future is in this organization. If you commit to him with a long-term extension, you put yourself in the precarious position of offering $25+ million/year to a player that has not yet proven to be of that stature, simply for the sake of security. Sometimes that pans out, and you lock in on a core worthy of competing for a championship.
But often times it backfires, and you find yourself stuck with players like Tobias Harris or Andrew Wiggins, who don’t move the needle towards playoff success and who ultimately paralyze growth by cutting off roster flexibility.
If the Suns and Oubre aren’t on the same page, or if Oubre feels at all threatened by the presence of Johnson/Bridges, then the temptation to look for a trade partner grows even stronger. Because right now, Oubre has trade value. Six months into next season, he won’t have much anymore. And a full year from now, he could leave in unrestricted free agency for nothing.
To reiterate, the takeaway here isn’t that “KELLY OUBRE MUST GO NOW.” As founder of the Valley Boyz movement, I’d like to think that Oubre has earned more respect than that.
But it’s simply a reminder that, as you start to see more rumors circle a team that clearly has positive momentum, all actions have consequences. So whether it’s debating the fit of a player like VanVleet, or Victor Oladipo, or Bradley Beal, or a million other names...there’s effectively only one current Sun whose fate you’re dooming in the process.