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The JaVale head scratcher, and what’s left on Day 2 for the Suns

McGee is a good signing, but basically takes the Suns off the market for a top rotation player

Olympics: Basketball-Men Group A - USA-IRI Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last night, you voted highly on the Phoenix Suns haul on the first day of free agency, but one move left me scratching my head the more I thought about it.

The Suns agreed to a deal with veteran center JaVale McGee worth reportedly $5 million. For McGee, that’s more money than he has made in any of the last five years. For the Suns, who are over the cap and only using cap exceptions to sign players, that number is so big it can only come from the Mid-level exception, leaving the Suns out of the bidding for any more free agents who want more than $4 million per year.

McGee, 32, is a nice add, don’t get me wrong. He’s a quality small-role player on great teams. In the last five years, McGee has gathered three championship rings with the Warriors (2) and Lakers (1) and now could win a Gold Medal with Team USA as a small-role center who plays old-school style.

I like JaVale McGee as a backup over Frank Kaminsky. He’s athletic and long, at 7’0” tall with a 7’6” wingspan and the ability to soar above everyone for a block or a dunk. He rebounds well, blocks shots, and delivers the kind of slam dunks you want Deandre Ayton doing. The way Ayton morphs and emulates his teammates skills make me wonder if McGee’s maximization of his own athleticism will inspire Ayton to do the same.

What I don’t like is the size of the contract. The Suns clearly had to outbid at least one other contender for McGee’s services, but why bite the bullet on day one rather than pivot to another option on Day 2 who could cost less?

The market. It dried up faster than a puddle in Phoenix. There’s few still out there, but the list is short on bigs with a plus defensive skill. I am of the opinion that players like Andre Drummond, Montrezl Harrell, Hassan Whiteside and Enes Kanter — who are all still available while 20 lesser-profile centers were signed to good money on Monday — are bad fits in Phoenix because they are all offense, bad defense and want roles bigger than their teams want to give them.

McGee is a nice add. Unfortunately, it really limits what the Suns can offer good free agents to fill their biggest remaining need: a 4th physical, mobile swing forward to replace what Torrey Craig brought last year.

Yes, the Suns already have Jae Crowder, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson manning the forward positions around Ayton but they need a fourth for proper minutes distribution. The Suns use their forwards interchangeably around Ayton, expect them to rebound, rotate to protect the rim and defend on the perimeter against any of the opponents’ forwards.

Spending vehicles available:

  • Remainder of MLE (about $4.5 million to start, up to 4 years)
  • Bi-annual exception ($3.7 million to start, up to 2 years)
  • Veteran minimums ($2-3 million each, one year)

*Note: The exact 2021 salaries for Paul or Payne don’t actually matter yet. The Suns are over the cap regardless, which leaves them only these exceptions to work with. All that matters in free agency so far is JaVale McGee’s salary.

Will the Suns sign a mobile forward who can drain a three, switch on defense against bigger and smaller players, and potentially generate their own shot?

Available forwards

Here’s a list of remaining Craig/Crowder-like forwards on the market this morning that might take the BAE or what’s left of the MLE:

  • Paul Millsap — sure he’s older (35-ish) but still provides plus value as a 4/5
  • Andre Iguodala — he’s old too (35-ish) but still can defend and make an occasional three
  • Georges Niang — younger than the others, purely a stretch wing who tries hard and can make a three (42% last year) but doesn’t provide a ton else
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson — I only put him here because RHJ-stans will crucify me if I don’t, but this guy can’t stay in a rotation because he’s a total black hole on offense. There’s a reason he only signs mid-season deals these days, folks!
  • Stanley Johnson — He’s here for Stanley-stans; has a higher upside than RHJ but the same symptoms in that he’s can’t score enough to stay in any team’s plans
  • DeMar DeRozan — wants a lot more than $4.5 million, but he’s still out there on Day 2 so now he’d be a BARGAIN if he takes what’s left of the MLE. The Suns would be cornering the market on middys with this signing.
  • Kelly Oubre Jr. — would be fun to bring back, and probably will sign for a low amount now, but there’s no way his ego lets him take $4.5 million to return to the team he inexplicably blasted on the way out of town

Please note that I excluded restricted free agents from this list. The Suns cannot make competitive offers to RFAs because (a) you need cap space to make the offer and (b) every team would match an offer that starts at $4.5 million.

The Trade Route

Of course a trade could bring back a better player. And depending on the player coming in, everyone currently under contract could be traded. But the Suns aren’t going to break up a Finals team unless their socks are blown off.

The most likely trade combo I see is combining Jalen Smith’s upside with Dario Saric’s salary-matching to generate a trade slot for a player in the $10-15 million range (75% match either direction) who would rather say goodbye to their player. The problem with this is that Smith showed nothing as rookie to prove he might reach his ceiling, and Dario is nothing more than a salary-filler because he’s out ALL of next year with the knee surgery.

But hey, let’s keep going. Add in Jae Crowder to Jalen and Dario and suddenly you’re looking at being able to acquire a player making $20-30 million.

I’ll let you scour the 200+ players under contract to find a match. I have no idea who’s really available and who’s not, and which teams would take a Jae/Dario/Jalen package for their All-Star level player.

Still, a trade is the most likely way to improve on the top eight.

Free agent signings with the Suns salary vehicles are mostly to fill in the bottom five roster spots.

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