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Suns owner on bringing Paul and Payne back, paying luxury tax, biggest team needs

Phoenix Suns managing partner Robert Sarver talked about the Suns off-season needs and wants

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Phoenix Suns managing partner Robert Sarver went on the Burns and Gambo radio show yesterday for a couple of segments to talk about his bittersweet feelings on the just-finished season.

With the season ending in a Finals loss just a week ago, and now the NBA Draft, trades and free agency season coming starting just a week later, the Suns organization has not yet recapped the 2020-21 season for us.

Just like the rest of us, Sarver was thrilled with the team’s rapid, unexpected progress and yet bitterly disappointed that they did not close the deal with a championship. He was confident after the Suns went up 2-0 in the NBA Finals, but that just made him take the last loss that much harder.

“The longer you play in the playoffs and don’t win the last game, the more bitter it is,” he said to Burns and Gambo.

Still, the Suns made a lasting impression on the world with the Finals run.

“It was a great opportunity to introduce our team, our culture, our city” to a billion people in 230 countries. He said merchandise sales were record-breaking, and lauded the city’s response to the team including the tens of thousands of fans for showing up organically to the airport after they won the West.

Can he ever look back on the season with nothing but joy? “That’ll never come to pass,” Sarver said quickly.

“I promise everybody we’re going to demand excellence and try to improve,” he said of going forward. “And win that last game together.”

“Our players smelled blood in the water this year. It will be a motivator for continued success.”

Sarver covered a great number of off-season topics, giving more candid answers than you’d probably hear from GM James Jones.

Here are most of those comments.

On paying the luxury tax

“That’s gonna come with the territory here,” Sarver said of paying the luxury tax soon. “I don’t know if that’s next season (2021-22) or the one after that (2022-23), but we know it’s coming. We see ourselves as a taxpayer, and that’s just part of what it’s gonna take to bring home a championship.”

This is an important admission by the owner who actively avoided luxury tax payments during the Nash years. Sure he paid luxury tax in three of those six years, but the ‘overage’ was small each time and the Suns made head-scratching moves to specifically reduce their tax payments. One of those moves was to trade center Kurt Thomas AND a pair of first round picks to rid the team of his 2007-08 salary that could have cost the team almost $20 million after tax calculations.

This time, maybe Robert Sarver will pay the tax to keep the band together. He says he believes his group can bring home a championship. Yet with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton (next year) all making $30+ million apiece, not to mention Mikal Bridges’ likely $20+ million (next year), the Suns are certain to have to pay luxury tax very soon.

Maybe even this year, not even factoring in the extensions for DA and Mikal yet.

If Chris Paul keeps his $44.2 million one-year player option — a decision totally within his control — then the Suns will be just $8.4 million below the luxury tax line in 2021-22 with five left players to sign. Considering Cameron Payne’s free agency and that a mid-level exception is higher than that, the Suns could end up paying the luxury tax as soon as next year.

But if Paul opts out and re-signs with the Suns at a lower number in exchange for more years, there’s a good chance the Suns could stave off luxury tax payments one more season. The longer the Suns push off being in luxury tax land the better, considering the escalating penalties called the ‘repeater tax’ after consecutive years paying the tax. Very few teams in history have paid the ‘repeater tax’.

Sarver says he believes this team can win a championship, and that the young guys are the key.

“Our young players really showed well in the playoffs,” he said. “Better than what I anticipated going in.”

He mentioned all of Cameron Johnson (highest True Shooting % ever for a player with 100+ attempts in the playoffs), Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton (highest field goal % ever for a player with 100+ attempts and highest True Shooting % ever for a player with 200+ attempts in the playoffs), Devin Booker (most points ever in a playoff debut) and Cameron Payne.

Sarver commented on the Suns loss to the Bucks in the Finals in terms of experience. The Bucks youngest player was 26 and their rotation averaged 700 NBA games experience while the Suns numbers were 22 and 250, respectively.

On Chris Paul’s status

“I had some discussions with him after the season,” Sarver said. “Statistically speaking, it was my best season in 17 years and your best season in 16 years.”

The Suns are allowed to talk to Paul about an extension to his $44.2 million player option, but are not yet allowed to talk to him about a new contract if Paul opts out. The increasing likelihood is that Paul opts out and re-signs next week with the Suns for a lower number per year.

Paul has recently posted on IG and Facebook a number of pictures with his Suns teammates with the comment ‘back to work’, so my guess is he’s staying and already knows what numbers he’s happy with.

On DA and Mikal

“They’re two key pieces for us,” Sarver said of Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, both restricted free agents next year. “They both saw what they can do, and they both saw what they need to work on. And they also saw how hard it is, physically and mentally, to compete at that level for that long into the playoffs.”

The Suns played 22 playoffs games over two months after a 72-game regular season. Neither appeared to slow down physically, but mentally you could see Ayton and Bridges fade a bit in those final games when the pressure was highest.

They are both eligible for contract extensions next summer (2022) which can be negotiated as early as this summer. Ayton has almost certainly played himself into a five-year maximum extension ($168 million over 5 years) while Bridges’ number is more likely in the $80-100 million range over four years.

Either way, Sarver talks as if both will be with the team for years to come.

“Whether a deal gets done with them before the season starts, I don’t really know,” he said. “None of those discussions have taken place or started to take place. Fortunately they’re both restricted free agents too. So we start with that. That kind of gives us the upper hand in dealing with them and being first to talk with them and how that goes.”

On Cam Payne’s unrestricted free agency

“He had a lot of success with us,” Saver said. “I think he also has a fondness for the organization. And he knows that in Phoenix he can do well. He fits well with the system, well with the players, well with the coaches, and our team, our system, is able to bring out the best in him in terms of his style of play and his strengths. So that’s another one I’d say probably the nod’s in our favor, but he’s unrestricted you don’t know.”

Sounds like the Suns want Cam Payne back, but Payne will be on the market for all 30 teams starting on Monday. Payne has likely played himself into a multi-year contract starting at $6-10 million per year.

On adding size

“I would say that the biggest priority right now is some size,” Sarver said of offseason needs. “We need some size, we need some length. We probably need another big that can help roll to the basket, that can defend, that can block shots. We’re gonna need some size. If I had to pick one, that would be it.”

Backup center Dario Saric will be out at least all regular season next year with a knee injury/rehab for a torn ACL. His surgery is scheduled for next week. Without Dario, the Suns only rotation player over 6’8” in the Finals against the Bucks was Ayton (6’11”).

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