Once upon a three years ago, James Jones and the Phoenix Suns did something no one expected. Following a draft day trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves that garnered Dario Saric and swapping draft picks, Phoenix found themselves with the 11th overall pick.
They were now on the clock.
Bleacher Report predicted that the Suns would take P.J. Washington from the University of Kentucky. NBA Draft Room projected that the Suns would take Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke. Adam Silver approached the podium and…
We were shocked. We were surprised. And in the long run, we were wrong. James Jones was right. He drafted the most NBA-ready player in the draft as well as a player who was elite at his skill of shooting the three.
One year later, following a pandemic-laden 2019-20 season, Champ did it again.
The team had barely missed the 2020 play-in game after running the slate with an 8-0 record in the Orlando Bubble. The roster was improving and the team sat comfortably with the 10th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. The team had needs and plenty of prospects existed that could meet those needs.
Tyrese Haliburton was on the board. So was Devin Vassell, Cole Anthony, Kira Lewis, Jr., and Tyrese Maxey.
No words were spoken at the Suns JAM Session’s socially distanced draft party. None.
Tyler Byrum and Chase Hughes of NBCSports slotted Jalen Smith to go 14th. The Sporting News’ Kyle Iriving had Smith at 22. Jones took him at 10.
Once again, James Jones zagged. Jalen Smith appeared to possess a similar trait to that of Cameron Johnson: he wasn’t someone who was good at some things, he was great at one thing. Rebounding.
James Jones had established himself as a general manager who wasn’t interested in prospects, projects or developmental players. He wanted to build a team that was ready to win now, and that meant veterans and/or young guys with a singular skill in which they were elite.
Here is where the story takes an interesting turn.
Drafting was one thing. Navigating the world of contract extensions has been another.
In the 2021 offseason, one that followed a run to the NBA Finals for the Phoenix Suns, James Jones did two things that left us scratching our heads and questioning Jones’ motives.
The first – and the most controversial – was Jones and the Suns not offering a max rookie extension to former #1 overall pick Deandre Ayton.
ESPN Sources: Suns talks with Deandre Ayton on rookie extension have ended --- without a deal. Ayton expected max contract and owner Robert Sarver hasn’t offered it. More coming on consequences for failing to reach deal with 2018 No. 1 overall pick. NBA Today debut, ESPN2. Now.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) October 18, 2021
This happened days after the team reached extension terms with Ayton’s fellow 2018 NBA Draft mate, Mikal Bridges. He was willing t lock up one guy, doing so on a 4 year, $90.1M contract, but wasn’t ready to re-sign the franchises only #1 overall pick?
It sparked the season-long debate: is Ayton worth it? It divided the fan base and created unnecessary tension. At least on Twitter. And on podcasts.
Ultimately it worked out for Jones as Ayton signed a 4 year, $132.9M extension this past summer following an offer from the Pacers that he immediately matched.
But why all of the drama?
James Jones understood the designated rookie rule. A maximum rookie extension to Ayton would hamper their flexibility if another asset with a similar contract became available, knowing that Booker would remain on his rookie max for the next two seasons.
The second strange move in the summer of 2021 was Jones choosing to not pick up the third-year option for 2020 draftee Jalen Smith. It would have cost the Suns $4.7M for the 2022-23 season. How rare was this?
Okay this is too hilarious not to share. The last three lottery picks to get their third-year rookie-scale options declined:— Zona (@ZonaHoops_) November 1, 2021
Jalen Smith (10th in 2020)
Kendall Marshall (13th in 2012)
Earl Clark (14th in 2009)
This is out of the entire NBA. It’s rare! Only six total since 2005.
Given the current Jae Crowder situation, it sure would be nice to have Jalen Smith, who is starting for the Indiana Pacers, right about now, eh? But Jones valued Torrey Craig more than Jalen Smith. I think it’s safe to say he missed on that one.
And now onto the 2022 offseason.
Monday was the deadline for NBA teams to reach terms with any and all contract extensions prior to the start of the season. These extensions wouldn’t go into effect until the 2023–24 NBA season, but analysts were keeping an eye on prominent stars like Cameron Johnson of the Suns, who they had trashed three years prior.
The deadline came and went without Phoenix reaching terms with their newly promoted power forward. It’s an interesting situation, especially when you consider the terms that Suns’ insider Flex from Jersey reported.
I'm told the Suns were willing to offer 4 years 72 million for Cam Johnson. He wanted something in the 4 year 85 million range. Both sides are taking a risk in my opinion & the Suns have the leverage of RFA which is not player friendly as we all have seen. Big opportunity for Cam— FLEX From Jersey (@FlexFromJersey) October 18, 2022
Time to pull out the ‘ole calculator.
Per Flex, the Suns offered Johnson a 4-year, $72M contract. That equates to $18.8M a year, comparable to the current contracts of the Brooklyn Nets’ Joe Harris, Dallas Mavericks’ Tim Hardaway, Jr., and the Houston Rockets’ Eric Gordon. This is the 86-88 range relative to most valuable contracts in the NBA, per Spotrac.
Johnson’s camp wanted a 4-year, $85M contract, which is $21.2M a year. That would be the same as the Toronto Raptors’ Fred VanVleet, Boston Celtics’ Malcolm Brogdon, and the Sacramento Kings’ Harrison Barnes. $21.2M is tied for the 77th most valuable contract.
That was the reported difference. 10 spots on the NBA contract value list. Note that Cameron Johnson did not crack ESPN’s Top 100 Players list.
We are once again asking, “Why didn’t James Jones make a deal with Cameron Johnson?”. That would make sense. But again, Jones doesn’t do what we think he would or should. He likes to zag.
It would make sense to lock him up now. The NBA television rights deal is looming. Prior to the 2025-26 season, just three seasons away, a television deal will drastically change the salary cap, just as it did prior to the 2016-17 season. The current TV deal is worth $24B. Yes, B as in “billion”. The new deal is projected to be $75B.
We can expect the salary cap for NBA teams to double, and with that will come astronomical numbers relative to what players will make annually to play basketball.
The current NBA salary cap in $123.7M. If the Phoenix Suns chose to extend Cameron Johnson for the number his camp desired – $21.2M – that would account for 17.1% of the team’s current cap space. Tough to navigate? Maybe.
Knowing that his extension would take effect at the beginning of the 2023-24 season, and the salary cap will double in 2025-26 — two years into the deal — that contract becomes a steal of a deal.
Let’s say that the salary cap doesn’t double with the new TV deal. Let’s get conservative and say it increases by 75%. That would make the annual salary cap number for an NBA team $216.5M.
The Johnson contract that accounted for 17.1% of your cap for its first two years becomes 9.7%. That is a cap savings of 7.4%.
Cameron Johnson is assuming the role of a starting power forward in the NBA. Why didn’t the Phoenix Suns pay him as such? Why would they go through the process of putting him in a position to be successful, and if he is, he increases his value entering next season when he becomes a restricted free agent?
Front office: "We're dealing Crowder because you're a starter, Cam."— Micah Rumsey (@MicahRumsey) October 18, 2022
Cam: "OK, that's cool. Then can I get a reasonable raise?"
FO: "Woah, what do you think you are, a starter?"
It’s similar to the Ayton situation.
James Jones appears to be a “let the market dictate the value of a player” kind of guy. After all of the Ayton debate and deliberation, arguments and lines drawn on Twitter, ultimately that is what occurred. The “market” came down to one team. The Indiana Pacers. They offered him a max deal, and the Phoenix Suns had the leverage to match that deal the moment it came in. And they did.
This is Jones’ strategy entering next season with Cam Johnson. He’s going to put Johnson in a position to be successful and isn’t going to financially commit to him unless he is.
If he is, the moment that somebody else attempts to take him off of his hands, he’ll match. What’s unfortunate is the amount of money that might cost.
Who wants to play the “what if” game with me?
What if Johnson lives up to his potential...and beyond? What if he seizes the opportunity set before him this season and averages 18 points and 9 rebounds? What if he shoots 39% from deep and helps this team reach the Finals and, dare I say, win a championship?
What if the market dictates his value and it ends up being 4 years for $110M? That’s $27.5M a year. That’s Andrew Wiggins/DeMar DeRozan range. That equates to 22.2% of the team’s salary cap. In this best-case-scenario for Johnson, it appears that Jones blundered this opportunity to sign him on the cheap.
Under the new cap – again using our conservative figure of $216.5M – that $27.5M a year falls to 12.7% of the Suns cap space.
Do you see what James Jones is doing here? He is allowing Cameron Johnson to play for his deal. He knows the Suns hold all of the cards. And, given my conservative salary cap increase projection coupled with the best-case-scenario for Cameron Johnson, there is only a 3% increase in Johnson’s cap value when the cap escalates.
That’s the 12.7% cap hit if he chooses to sign him after this season minus the 9.7% if he was to sign him prior to this season, for those trying to do the math.
So why would James Jones choose to sign him now? While we all think that Jones dropped the ball on this one, once again, his zag might be the right answer.
Yes, there might be a couple of seasons in which the Suns are in the luxury tax as they try to pay their young core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, and Cameron Johnson. That is why he has to ensure it’s the right move. That’s why he can’t sign Cam Johnson to an extension at this time. Let him prove it. And if it does, and you backload his contract, the variance for waiting is a 3% cap hit.
If you’re playing the long game, which Jones typically does, it makes perfect sense what he did. In James Jones we trust…