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2021 Free Agency Primer: Suns cap sheet, spending power, trade options

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All the good and bad of the Suns cap situation heading into the draft and free agency

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The best self-care for a post-Finals hangover is to think about how the Phoenix Suns will get even better next year!

The obvious get-betters are the further development of young players under long-term team salary control like Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. Every one of them improved in 2021 and, at age 25 or younger, none have reached their athletic or basketball primes yet.

It’s everyone else on the roster that, if you’re James Jones, you have to consider because either they are free agents in 10 days or they could be used as trade bait for a bit more balance in size, rebounding and/or free throw drawing.

First, let’s peek at the salary cap situation. We all need to be talking from the same baseline.


Takeaways

  1. Option 1: Bring all but one free agent back + the 29th pick. This one won’t happen, but it’s our starting point for discussions. The salaries in red next to the free agents is their ‘cap hold’ which is what is charged to the Suns cap sheet unless they are renounced, which is a foregone conclusion. I only added this option as the most vanilla. Won’t happen.
  2. Option 2: This version is the most likely on Day 1 of free agency on August 2 (which is only 10 days from now!). The Suns will let all of the minimum-salary free agents enter the market, and start the offseason with 10 players and only $8.4 million to spend on the rest of the roster before the Luxury Tax Line is reached. The big caveat on this one assumes James Jones just took a single player in the draft at #29 and hasn’t already shaken up the roster with trades on draft day.
  3. We are now basing everything on the Luxury Tax threshold ($136.6 million) NOT the cap line ($112 million). Get used to it.
  4. There isn’t a single NBA team that willingly goes into the season over the Luxury Tax unless they did so to bring back a huge free agent with Bird Rights. Robert Sarver is no different. He won’t do it, Suns fans.
  5. I previewed potential impact of Ayton and Bridges extensions starting next year just to show you the impact of three huge contracts at once, not even counting Chris Paul. The Suns would already be over the cap in 2022 with 8 players not including Paul. Adding Paul puts them over the Luxury Tax Threshold unless the Suns go min on everyone else, which they easily could but would suck away the depth.

Spending Power

  1. The Suns are over the cap, so they can only use Salary Cap Exceptions, including Bird Rights, Mid-level exception, bi-annual exception, minimum salary exceptions and draft pick salary exceptions
  2. By my calculations, unless something changes on Chris Paul’s contract, the Suns have only $8.4 million to spend for up to 5 players before hitting the luxury tax threshold
  3. Cameron Payne: the Suns have Payne’s Early Bird Rights can re-sign Payne for up to the league average salary (about $10 million in year one, for up to 4 years) and not even use the MLE
  4. Bird Rights: each player has various levels of Bird Rights on them with the Suns, meaning they can be re-signed for the same or larger number if the Suns keep their cap hold. But most of them are only minimum-salary guys anyway, so Bird Rights are not necessary.
  5. Mid-level exception (MLE): the Suns can sign anyone else’s free agent for up to the mid-level salary, which like for Payne is about $10 million in year one, for up to 4 years. This can be used once per off-season.
  6. Bi-annual exception (BAE): the Suns can sign anyone else’s free agency for up to $3 million per year for up to 2 years. This can be used once every two years, and is available this summer.
  7. Minimum salary players and draft picks: The Suns can sign anyone to a minimum deal, and will always be given cap space for draft picks
  8. ****DON’T FORGET**** the Suns have all those exceptions available but only have a total of $8.4 million to spend on replacing/re-signing five of Torrey Craig, Cam Payne, Abdel Nader, Langston Galloway, E’Twaun Moore and Frank Kaminsky

Trade Assets

Don’t bother

  1. Don’t bother trading Dario Saric and his juicy contract, unless you find a team that wants NO PLAYER in the deal, because Dario will be rehabbing that knee all next year until late-season or playoffs. He won’t play for the Suns or any other team until spring.
  2. With the Suns making the Finals and projecting to even improve next year, I don’t see James Jones swapping big rotation players unless it’s a slam dunk (like Ricky and Kelly for CP was).

Let’s do it!

  1. Jalen Smith and his $4.4 million seems good to trade, but he’s got no proven NBA skills so the market would likely be limited to teams taking an upside flyer
  2. Jevon Carter and his $3.83 million is a good trade filler to match salaries
  3. Draft pick(s) — the Suns can trade the 2021 pick on or after draft day (but not before), but I caution against that. With the roster getting top-heavy, finding another Cameron Johnson or Mikal Bridges is key to having good depth. JJ has to find a player, and it would cost less than Jalen Smith’s $4.4 mil this time.
  4. Future draft picks: the Suns have already committed the 2022 pick in the CP trade, so because of the Stepien Rule they cannot trade a first round pick until 2024 or later. They can do pick swaps.
  5. While I don’t see JJ swapping big rotation players after a promising Finals run, I don’t put it past him either. I can see anyone not named Booker or Ayton being in a deal. It’s just very unlikely, unless third All-Star is coming back.

Biggest needs

  1. Someone who can generate free throws — the Suns went from mid-pack in 2020 to last in the league in 2021. This can be a rim-attacking guard, wing or big man who can add 4-5 free throws per game to the Suns attack.
  2. Someone who can back up Ayton with size, length and defensive acumen — Dario is out almost all next year, and no I’m not talking about Damian Jones. And I really don’t see Jalen Smith with the lateral quickness to be an Ayton backup defensively. I like him on offense, but not on defense.

Bottom Line

Anything and everything can happen in the next two weeks. This cap sheet is a primer to get you ready to rosterbate responsibly.