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Harper: Bridges should hold out for the max from Suns

The Athletic’s Zach Harper predicts huge dollars for both Bridges and Ayton, extension-eligible for the Suns. The max for Bridges is the hottest of hot takes.

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

News broke this week that combo forward Aaron Gordon had agreed to a four year, $92 million extension with the Denver Nuggets.

When that nugget came across the timeline, Phoenix Suns fans reacted with interest because of the similar role that Aaron Gordon plays for the Nuggets that extension-eligible Mikal Bridges plays for the Suns.

Note the same-sames:

  • One of the best defenders in the game
  • Takes on the other team’s best offensive player across four positions
  • Provides solid offense (12-18 points per game) in tertiary role
  • Extension eligible, to kick in 2021-22
  • Has to get his bag as the 4th highest-paid player on the team

Aaron Gordon’s $24 million per year will only be the 4th highest salary on the Denver Nuggets in 2021-22 after Michael Porter Jr. signs his rookie extension in the coming weeks. Porter Jr., Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic will all be making $30+ million a year from now.

Sounds a lot like the Phoenix Suns current makeup. In 2022-23, the Suns will just as likely have their own trio of $30+ million contracts (Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul and Devin Booker) ahead of whatever Mikal Bridges signs for.

Note that none of the rookie-eligible players (Porter, Ayton, Bridges) in the above scenarios have signed those rookie extensions yet. Does that mean their teams don’t want such a top-heavy roster structure? No. Well, yes, but no. If Ayton, Bridges and Porter all took $15 million per year, their teams would throw a party. But that’s not going to happen and the teams know it.

Almost certainly, in the coming weeks prior to opening day, Porter and Ayton will get max extensions starting at $31 million per year, while Bridges will likely get something near or thereabouts what Gordon just got.

Suns fans would argue that Ayton might not be worth the max, considering very few centers have gotten max extensions in recent years, but every person I’ve spoken to this summer who’s around basketball in media or the league has been confident the Suns won’t get Ayton for less than max. He was THAT GOOD in the playoffs, and everyone knows he’s just scratching the surface of his offensive potential.

In an exclusive interview with Zach Harper, of the Athletic and Sirius XM radio, we spoke about the potential extensions of Ayton and Bridges. Harper has been covering the NBA for the biggest media outlets for the past several years.

He did not hesitate on Ayton at all.

“You’re maxing out Ayton,” Harper said. “That’s just what the market’s gonna be. He goes to restricted free agency, he’s getting a max deal. You could say, if he signs an offer sheet and you match it, I got him at a lower max. But there’s something to the idea that you may have now upset him and his agent down the road.”

Zach cites the Gordon Hayward situation in Utah a few years ago, when the Jazz let him test free agency and matched the max offer from the Hornets — with whom Hayward eventually signed years later.

The ‘lower max’ is still 25% of the salary cap, but is limited to no more than four years and 5% raises from another team versus up to five years and 8% raises from the Suns as a designated rookie max extension.

Per Harper, Ayton’s value is not just market driven — overpay to keep — but also because of just how good Ayton was in the 2021 playoffs.

“What we saw out of him in the playoffs,” Harper said. “If he’s close to that, moving forward the next few years, more than justifies a max deal for him. He’s an exceptional young big man that probably gets a little too much scrutiny because of who went after him in the draft. Where if you just look at his game, his production, and how he’s grown defensively, that’s a max center to me. So I wouldn’t blink when it comes to maxing him out.”

Nail, meet hammer. Boom. Ayton carried the Suns front line defense to the Finals, defended some of the best bigs in the game, never complained, almost never got into foul trouble despite being the only big-big out there, and oh by the way set records for field goal percentage and efficiency on offense.

Now the question is on Mikal Bridges. Do you give $20-25 million per year to your 4th best player? The Nuggets did. Super-teams have done it.

Is there precedent for Mikal to get that kind of money right now, in an extension? Not really, unless you think he’s on par with Jayson Tatum.

Forwards on rookie extensions: top salaries in 2021-22

*Players are in various years of their extensions, which generally rise 5-8% per year

  1. Pascal Siakam — $33M (max)
  2. Kristaps Porzingis — $31M (max)
  3. Andrew Wiggins — $31M (max)
  4. Brandon Ingram — $29M (max)
  5. Bam Adebayo — $28M (max)
  6. Jayson Tatum — $28M (max)
  7. Jaylen Brown — $26M — rookie extension
  8. John Collins — $23M — RFA signed this summer
  9. Jerami Grant — $20M — RFA signed last summer
  10. Domantis Sabonis — $20M — rookie extension
  11. Jonathan Isaac — $17M — rookie extension
  12. Lauri Markkanen — $16M — RFA signed this summer
  13. OG Anunoby — $16M — rookie extension

Jayson Tatum and Bam Adebayo are the ones I’d point to, for reference on whether Bridges is a max-level player. If you were given the chance to start a team — not fill it out after your stars are already selected — do you take Bridges over Tatum or Adebayo? Likely not.

So that puts Bridges at least a little below the max level, like Jaylen Brown and John Collins if not OG Anunoby. Right?

Zach Harper has a take on that too. And it’s a doozy.

“Now if I’m Bridges and his agent,” Harper said. “I’m saying ‘you have to keep us together. Max me out’. He could go somewhere and average 18-20 points per game relatively efficiently, and of the better defenders in the league on the wings.”

Max out Bridges? Giving the Suns four $30+ million players in 2022-23?!! His earlier reference to Gordon Hayward is a great example of what can happen here. The Jazz did not want to max out Hayward a few years ago, so they let him test free agency. He got that max offer from the Hornets that the Jazz needed to match, but never felt loyal to the Jazz after that.

Suns owner Robert Sarver could also start feeling a bit of deja vu, remembering what he’s personally called his biggest regret from the SSOL era: declining to come to agreement with Joe Johnson in the summer of 2004, a year ahead of free agency, and we all know how that turned out.

Harper uses John Collins as an example of what he expects with Bridges. Collins was offered a huge extension — but only four years and less than max salary — in 2020 ahead of year four, which he turned down to wait for restricted free agency. Collins ended up re-signing for five years, $125 million this summer.

***Interesting note alert***

In a rookie extension, offered a year before rookie free agency, a team can only offer five years if it’s a designated rookie max extension, and a team can only have two five-year maxes at a time. The Suns already have Booker on a five-year max, so if they sign Ayton to a five-year max too, they cannot possibly give the same to Bridges this fall.

That means the Suns, right now, can only offer up to four years to Bridges. Whereas next summer, while Bridges hits restricted free agency, the Suns could make it a five-year deal at something less than max, like Collins got, or four years at the full max, like Hayward got.

One year apart on timing, but both scenarios would conclude prior to the start of the 2022-23 season anway.

That’s how Harper sees it playing out.

“I think what you’re probably going to see,” Harper says, assuming the Bridges camp wants five years at or near the max. “They go through the season, they go into restricted free agency, doesn’t even come down to an offer sheet. Just, we’ve worked out a deal for you for five years, $120 million or $125 million. [The Suns] get the benefit of no-max, but you’re still paying him more than you wanted to.”

Harper is a huge Mikal Bridges fan, going all the way back to thinking he was the steal of the draft in 2018.

“He was so good in college and he’s so good in the NBA,” Harper says. “You see what he does to people every single night. I feel like, with Bridges, it’s not ideal to pay a guy like that the max. I also think he could justify a max deal, in that first extension. I think he’s worth 25-30 million dollars.”

Would Mikal Bridges really hold out until next summer’s restricted free agency to get a higher offer from the Suns? Would another team really give Mikal a max deal? Sure it’s a seller’s market next summer, and Gordon Hayward is a cautionary tale for the Suns. But also, Mikal is not what you’d call an ‘alpha’ mentality to lead a team. Hayward was a lead scorer at the time of that offer sheet. I don’t see Bridges leading the Suns in scoring next season, or even coming in second.

Mikal slots most perfectly as the 3rd or 4th best player on a team, and should be paid on an elite level of those players. Like Aaron Gordon, for example.

Is that $20 million per year? Or is it $25 million? Let’s hope it’s not “Thanks but I’ll wait for $30.”

Want to hear more of this interview with Zach Harper? We cover the whole Suns off-season, their contender status, Zach’s take on Booker’s rise from looter to All-NBA, other West competition and a handful of other Suns questions.

All you need to do is subscribe to the Solar Panel podcast. This interview will be up Wednesday night, joining a host of other interviews with local and national media. Hit this quick link to subscribe:

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