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Suns free agency primer: Looking to get bigger, more mature

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The Phoenix Suns begin to fill out their roster today as the new league year opens and only 8 players remain under contract

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

What: NBA Free Agency

When: Starts at 3:00 PM AZ/Pacific time


The Phoenix Suns have work to do.

As Free Agency begins today, the Suns now only have only eight players — six in the rotation — under contract to defend their third-ever Western Conference Title. One of those eight is a rookie, while another will miss all or most of next season with a knee injury.

The players under contract include four starters from the Finals team — Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder — but don’t include any point guards, as Chris Paul declined his 2021-22 player option and Cameron Payne became an unrestricted free agent.

Today, the Suns will begin to assemble the rest of their roster for next season through either free agent signings or trades.

First, let’s look at the roster and salary cap breakdown.

At the moment, the Suns can count on:

  • 2 shooting guards (Devin Booker, Landry Shamet)
  • 3 Wings (Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder)
  • 1 healthy Big (Deandre Ayton)

Spending Power

Thanks to ‘cap holds’ for the free agents, the Suns are well over the league’s Salary Cap. As an over-the-cap team, the Suns can sign contracts using the following cap exceptions

  • Bird Rights: used to re-sign their own free agents
  • Mid-level Exception: Sign another team’s free agent for up to four years with up to a $9.5 million starting salary
  • Bi-Annual Exception: Sign another team’s free agent for up to two years with up to a $3.7 million starting salary
  • Veteran Minimum: Sign any number of veterans for the league minimum

But there’s limits...

  • Luxury Tax: ALL OF THIS SPENDING counts toward the Luxury Tax, at which point the team has to pay multi-million dollar penalties to the other owners. This tax is counted at the end of the season.
  • Apron: calculated as the Luxury Tax level + $6 million. Any team that uses the MLE or a sign-and-trade cannot exceed the apron. This is also called ‘hard capped’.

Chris Paul and Cam Payne

The Suns utmost priority, and probably the only thing you will hear about today, is to re-sign both Chris Paul and Cam Payne.

Paul declined his $44.2 million player option for the 2021-22 season, while Payne’s contract expired yesterday to make him a free agent. Both players are eligible to sign with any team as of today, though the Suns have ‘Bird Rights’ on both that allow them to offer more money and/or years than any other team.

Paul’s ‘number’ is fairly common knowledge now — around $30 million per year — though the number of years is in question. He can sign for either 3 or 4 years.

The Suns are the only team who can offer him that 4th year since they own his ‘Bird Rights’. You might wonder why team would give Chris Paul $30 million in a year he would turn 40 before the playoffs begin, but that year could be largely non-guaranteed while still giving Paul a nice going-away gift if he retires.

There were rumors that Paul might get lured by another team away from the Suns, but those rumors were never real and have completely died down of late. Paul is coming back to the Suns. Probably for more money than you want him to make, but that’s the NBA.

Payne is a slightly different story. The Suns can sign Payne for anything up to a $10.4 million starting salary for up to four years. Of course, the Suns would love to pay their backup point guard a lot less than that, especially considering he was out of the league a year ago. It all depends on the 26-year old’s market with other teams. My guess is he signs with the Suns for around $8 million per year, for 3-4 years.

“Looking forward to talking to him soon to keep him with us,” Suns GM James Jones said of Payne. “Because we know how valuable he was for us. And I still believe there’s a lot more growth to his game that coach can unlock.”

Another matter to consider: re-signing Paul and Payne makes it easier to improve on last year’s team.

I won’t bore you with all the cap details, but replacing them with free agents would drain resources, leaving nothing left to spend on improving the team that lost the Finals and might even make them worse.


Getting older, stronger

Assuming Paul and Payne are back, the Suns would then focus on shoring up weaknesses on that Finals team for another run next year.

James Jones gave us a hint of his focus heading into free agency and trade season.

“Across the board at every position, we just need to get stronger, we need to mature,” Jones said this week after the Shamet trade.

Jones was commenting about the Suns young players. While Booker, Ayton, Bridges and Johnson all contributed as top-seven players on an NBA Finals team who had the second-most regular season and second-most playoff wins in the NBA, they have not even entered their primes yet. All of them, including the newly acquired Landry Shamet, will be 25 or younger next year, while age 25 is traditionally the beginning of an NBA player’s five-year peak.

Paul and Crowder, plus 48 seconds of Torrey Craig, were the only Suns players over age 27 on the floor in Game 6 of the Finals. By contrast, six of the eight Bucks were over 27 years old.

Sounds like Jones is looking for long-tooth vets among his 9th-15th roster spots. Jones himself was a mainstay of LeBron James’ bench units during seven straight Finals runs while Jones was 30-37 years old.

Last year’s late additions included E’Twaun Moore (30), Langston Galloway (28), Torrey Craig (30) and Frank Kaminsky (27) but none of them beat out the Suns young players for playing time and all are free agents on Monday with Cam Payne.

Expect the Suns to add a few older veterans to the squad.

One of the additions should be a swing forward to replace Torrey Craig in the 6’6” - 6’9” range with 220+ pounds on his frame. Sure the Suns could also just bring back Torrey Craig, but I’m guessing they will scour the market for an upgrade with their BAE or MLE first.


Getting bigger

The Suns were overrun in the Finals by the bigger Bucks. Deandre Ayton (6’11”, 250) was the only player over 6’8” or 220 pounds in the rotation after Dario Saric suffered a torn ACL in Game 1.

“As far as size, with Dario going down, we’ll have to address that position,” Jones said, echoing comments by managing partner Robert Sarver the day before.

The Suns have redshirt rookie Jalen Smith (6’10”, 220) , but he’s only 21 and needs to put some muscle on those bones. Pencil him in to the 3rd string, behind Ayton and whoever they acquire this week.


Trades?

The Suns can also make trades this week, using players’ 2021-22 salaries in the equation. There’s lots of nuance, but your takeaway is that the Suns need a 75% salary matching on any trade with another over-the-cap team (which is almost everyone).

James Jones has made eight trades in the past two years, nearly all of them of the ‘what just happened’ variety that ended up working out well.

The Suns can trade any player under contract, or trade them as part of a sign-and-trade as long as the player and other team goes along.

Most likely, if they do want to shake up the rotation, the Suns will dangle Dario’s $8.5 million contract, Jae Crowder’s $9.7 million and Jalen Smith’s $4.4 million if they see a player on another team that improves their chances to win a championship. Only Crowder currently projects as part of the rotation in 2021-22, due to Smith’s inexperience and Saric’s injury.


There you have it, Suns fans.

Enjoy this week’s free agency!!