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Cameron Johnson extension does not happen; will be a restricted free agent next summer

The Suns did not get a deal done ahead of the 2022-23 season.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Just like Deandre Ayton a year ago, the Phoenix Suns have been unable to come to agreement on a rookie-contract extension with forward Cameron Johnson.

Johnson will now play out the season and become a restricted free agent next summer, meaning he can negotiate and accept an offer from another team that the Suns would have the right to match.

The Suns followed this pattern with Deandre Ayton last year, and waited until another team set his market price before they simply matched the offer mere minutes later. DA is now under contract long-term with the Suns, but at the cost of at least a small bit of loyalty to the franchise that hurt the team late last season and could potentially impact his commitment to the Suns for the rest of his career.

Of course, the Suns also have the ability to make an offer outright, before another team, but not until on or after July 1 of 2023.

None of the problem is Cam’s though. And it’s not about the Suns being unwilling to commit to Cam long-term.

The two major factors here are (a) uncertain Suns ownership, with the team for sale and managing partner Robert Sarver suspended from the NBA for a year, and (b) the future exploding cap that is inflating a lot of extensions this summer and salaries going forward.

Another factor is Cam wanting to be paid like a proven starter rather than a regular bench guy. Because that’s a VAST difference.

How we got here:

Coming into deadline day, most of the 2019 first round picks remained without extensions beyond this coming season.

Keith Smith posted this tweet early this morning.

Since then, Nassir Little (Portland) agreed to a 4yr, $28 million extension and Kevin Porter Jr. got a weird 4 yr, $82 million extension that’s only guaranteed in year one. Every other year is a team option.

The rest of those players on Keith’s list are deserving of extensions, but the economics at play really complicated negotiations this year. Some teams capitulated to the future money-printing of the NBA (Golden State with Jordan Poole and Miami with Tyler Herro) and some players agreed to ignore the future for security today (Little, Clarke).

What do I mean by future money-printing?

Beginning in either 2024 or 2025, depending on Collective Bargaining between the NBA and the players, the salary cap will begin to explode in anticipation of new TV money.

Starting in 2025, new TV money will triple over today’s income stream, which will likely double the league’s ‘basketball related income’ and, hence, each team’s salary cap and, hence again, the average player salary. While $10 million is the mid-level salary today, that mid-level number will likely jump to $20 million within a few short years.

That’s why you’re seeing $35 million per year going to Jordan Poole and $32.5 million per year to Tyler Herro. Those guys are career bench players who bring more scoring juice than the four guys detailed above, but truly aren’t significantly more dangerous than, say, Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford in their heydays — score-first-don’t-do-much-else perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidates.

Let’s look at some of the most relevant extensions to Cam’s situation.

First, let’s start close to home. Cam’s best friend on the Suns, Mikal Bridges, is also a very good long-distance shooter (career 37% on threes, including 39% the last two years) while bringing first-team All-Defense skills and three years of starting experience to the table. Bridges agreed to a 4 year, $90 million extension last summer ($22.5 million AAV).

On the surface, Cameron Johnson should not get that much money. But Bridges signed a year ago, and the prospect of new TV money doubling the salary cap was not as solid as it is today. If Bridges had waited, he might have gotten a full max ($30 million) this summer, like teammate Deandre Ayton did. But he didn’t wait, and now his $22.5 million average salary might barely be middle of the pack of NBA salaries by the time he’s up for his next extension.

On the bottom end of the spectrum, we have teammate Landry Shamet. Like Cam, Shamet is also a very good shooter (career 39% on threes) who comes off the bench. A year ago, Shamet agreed to a 4 year, $42.5 million extension with the Suns. Only two years are guaranteed but, given the economics at play, Shamet’s deal will be a true bargain in two years — well below the mid-level exception cost. I’d guess the Shamet’s team will pick up years 3 and 4 of that deal, because by then replacing him would cost a lot more than keeping him.

Now let’s look around the league and across time, up to two years ago.

On Sunday, Brandon Clarke agreed to a 4 year, $52 million extension ($13 million AAV) with the Memphis Grizzlies. While his skills are totally different than Cam’s — Clarke is a high energy big who can’t shoot, while Cam is a shooter — their impact on a game is similar. Yet, it’s shooting that gets paid and Clarke doesn’t shoot it well.

Who shoots it well? How about Luke Kennard with the Los Angeles Clippers. Kennard has a very similar profile to Cam Johnson — a great shooter off the bench who does a little of everything but nothing else really great. Kennard signed a 4 year, $64 million extension last summer.

But neither of those players has a starting lineup spot waiting for them.

Cam’s camp will likely point to Duncan Robinson’s extension signed two years ago, signed for $90 million over 5 years ($18 million per year). Robinson’s game is similar to both Cam and Kennard in that he’s mostly a shooter who isn’t great at anything else, but he proved his worth in the starting lineup of a playoff team in Miami before signing.

Cam’s camp will also point to Joe Harris, another guy with the same profile. Two years ago, Harris got $75 million over 4 years ($18.75 million per year) for being a great shooter in the starting lineup of a playoff team.

Except, Cam’s camp is going to want more than Robinson or Harris got.

The problem for the Suns is that those contracts were signed two years ago, well before the likely parameters of a new TV deal were solidifying.

Johnson was drafted 11th overall in the 2019 Draft, as part of the same transaction that brought teammate Dario Saric to the Suns from the Wolves, in exchange for the 6th pick in that draft, Jarrett Culver.

The NBA world, including the Suns’ own fans, made a lot of jokes at the expense of Cameron Johnson and the man who drafted him, James Jones, mostly because of Cam’s advanced age for a rookie (23 when drafted) and his limited role as a shooter and veteran leader in college. Johnson was the oldest lottery pick in years. Most people assumed that Johnson was a finished product with a much lower NBA ceiling than those around him on the draft board.

Yet by the end of Cam’s rookie year, he was grudgingly seen as good value for the 11th pick. Cam played in 57 of the team’s 72 games that year, averaging 8.8 points per game on 43/39/81 splits in 22 minutes a night. And then in the Bubble, when starter Kelly Oubre opted out of playing, Cam started all eight games next to Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker and Ricky Rubio. The Suns won all 8 games, had a better net rating than anyone by far, and barely missed a playoff spot. He nearly made an All-Rookie team (10 rookies per year are named to first- or second-team) and in ‘re-drafts’ by the draft experts, Cam has never dipped below lottery level.

Over his first three seasons, Johnson ranks 1st in three-point percentage (39%) and among the Top 5 from his draft in several advanced stats categories, including total Win Shares (5th), BPM (4th) and VORP (4th). And despite barely starting any games in three years, he is 10th in total minutes played and 12th in points scored.

He’s improved every year, and last year averaged career highs in games played (66) and per-game averages of minutes (26.2), points (12.5), rebounds (4.1), assists (1.5), steals (0.9) and three-point percentage (42.5%).

Now this year, Cam is moving full-time into the starting lineup with three of those same players he went into the Bubble with in 2020 plus All-Star Chris Paul. As a starter, Cam’s minutes will increase — likely from 26.2 to 30 per game — and his production should increase into the 15-16 points per game range.

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