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Uh oh, Cam and Jae now hold all the cards, but the Suns have no one to pay them

The Phoenix Suns have two players in need of extensions, yet no clear decision-maker on spending new money

Phoenix Suns v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Three Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Lost among most of the Phoenix Suns issues to start this season, yet highlighted by the bad outing of the all-bench unit against the NBL’s Adelaide 36ers on Sunday night, it’s clear that there are three tiers of players on the Suns roster.

After the top four players, there is a small middle tier and then a glom of all the rest.

  • Top tier: Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges
  • Second tier: Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder
  • All the rest: Cameron Payne, Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Torrey Craig and the minimums

The problem for the Suns is that both players in the second tier become free agents next summer and could both very easily leave for the highest bidder. If Johnson (restricted free agent) and Crowder (unrestricted) leave in free agency, the Suns have almost no options to replace them effectively.

Cameron Johnson might get a new contract well north of $20 million per year, while Crowder will likely get something right around the non-taxpayer-midlevel of $10-11 million per year.

The Suns, however, will be significantly over the luxury tax next summer (unless they outright release top-tier Chris Paul, that is) so their only vehicles to replace Johnson and Crowder will be much smaller salary slots: the $6 million taxpayer-midlevel, one of the lowest picks in the first round of the NBA Draft, and the $4 million bi-annual exception. That’s it.

Something major is going to change on the Suns roster next summer...unless a new multi-billionaire owner spends like the Warriors or Clippers. Adding $30 million in Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder extensions to the top four puts them into the luxury tax with only six guys. Any contracts beyond that for the other 7-8 players will cost the Suns new owner double or triple their salaries in luxury tax payments.

But what’s the alternative? All four in the Suns top tier deserve their salaries, and the Suns would almost certainly get worse if any of those guys are replaced with a low-salary option. Cam Johnson is a homegrown success story, and Jae Crowder is a glue guy that helps you win games. You’re going to replace them with low-salary replacements? The cheap version of Crowder and Cam are Josh Okogie and Damion Lee. You’re not winning anything significant that way.

My suggestion, especially since it’s not my money, is to extend Crowder and Johnson now. Right now. Because the new TV money coming in two years will drive up the salary cap (and make it easier to keep all your guys on ‘legacy’ contracts) and salaries are only rising.

Pay them now, and work out the future roster in the future.

Let’s dive.

Jae Crowder’s Unrestricted Free Agency

We all know by now that Jae is sitting out indefinitely while the Suns look for a trade partner. But he’s really only sitting out because of money.

Jae wants to leave the Suns because he’s facing the prospect of losing a lot of money next summer by coming off the bench this year behind Cameron Johnson. If he’s going to be a free agent, he wants to remain a full-time starter until that day arrives. Even aging, fifth-best starters on the market get full mid-level or above (like 37-year old P.J. Tucker got from Philly this offseason), while aging bench players are often scrapping for portions of the mid-level exception.

Crowder believes he’s still starter-quality, having started 365 of a possible 497 games (73%) over the last seven seasons, including the last two with the Suns. Last year, Crowder averaged almost exactly at his career scoring mark (9.4 points per game), while increasing his rebounding and assists to 5.3 and 1.9, respectively. Even his three-point shooting (34.8%) was right on career average. So while the eye test might say he’s slowing down, the numbers do not.

He’s starter-quality. Period. The problem is that Cameron Johnson has developed into a better player and deserves that starting spot over Crowder this season.

Crowder apparently approached the Suns this summer about negotiating an extension before hearing he was not even going to be a starter anymore. Hence, the holdout and request for trade because he wants to be where he is ‘wanted’.

My guess is that the Suns want to keep Crowder on the team and in the rotation, likely only a fraction off the same minutes he played last season (28.1 per game), as long as he’s okay coming off the bench for most of those games.

Over this past weekend, a pair of veterans who now vacillate between starting and coming off the bench signed two-year extensions with their teams. Steven Adams (Grizzlies) and Larry Nance Jr. (Pelicans) both signed two-year extensions to pay them $11-12 million per year, which is becoming a fine price for a good rotation player and may soon be considered a bargain.

Why not offer Jae the same? He’s currently making $10 million this season, and in free agency will be angling for no more than next year’s full mid-level exception which will likely be in the $11 million range.

Paying Crowder $11 million to come off the bench for two extra seasons (or one, if they can get a team option on year two) could make everyone happy.

Do it, Suns.

I find it unlikely that the Suns can trade Crowder for a better player, or they would have traded him by now. He asked for this trade — and the Suns have been attempting to oblige — more than two months ago.

Re-signing Crowder to an extension, and bringing him back onto the team, makes them better in 2022-23 and still gives them a trade option in the future.

Cam Johnson’s Restricted Free Agency

Now here’s where it gets tricky. New money is coming into the NBA, and a lot of it is preemptively going to guys coming off their rookie contracts.

Two days ago, the Miami Heat gave bench player Tyler Herro a four year, $130 million extension. Herro is a 20-points per game player, but will only just now be moved into the starting lineup and there’s no guarantee he’s a better starter than microwave off the bench in the long term.

That’s $32.5 million per year for the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, and former #13 overall pick in the 2019 Draft.

What’s that mean for Cam Johnson, who finished 4th in the Sixth-Man voting and was once the #11 pick in the 2019 Draft?

Johnson doesn’t score on the level that Herro does (12 ppg vs. 20 ppg), but both will be making their way into the starting lineup this year and the scoring disparity will almost certainly shrink. Plus, Cam is a better three-point shooter and better defender. Should Cam get $30 million a year for what he brings to the table, if Herro gets that much? You can bet Cam’s agents think so.

The Suns, of course, would want to argue the other end of the spectrum. Their comp would be Mikal Bridges, who is a better player than Cam Johnson, a long term starter and accepted an extension last year for ‘just’ $21 million per year. How could they give Cam more money than Mikal, without risking Mikal’s discontent?

There’s more comps. A lot more. just put out their Top 100 list again, and guess who clocks in at #79 overall? You guessed it: Cam Johnson.

Let’s take a look at the guys around Cam. lists RJ Barrett at #89 overall — ten spots behind Cam! — and just this summer Barrett signed a $107 million extension over four years (that could grow to $120 million if he meets incentives). has Anfernee Simons at #86 overall — seven spots behind Cam — and just this summer he signed for $100 million over four years.

Jordan Poole clocks in at #81 overall — two spots behind Cam — and he’s eyeing at least as much as Simons and Barrett got in his own extension.

All of them are ranked lower this year than the Suns’ Cam Johnson, who checks in for the first time at #79 overall.

79. Cam Johnson, Phoenix Suns

(Previous rank: NR)

Johnson walked into the league as a deadly three-point shooter and has started to shore up his game in other areas, but most importantly, you can’t leave him open. He’s benefited from two playoff runs in Phoenix, as well as excellent guard play. Johnson will presumably step in as a full-time starter this season, where his mettle will be tested defensively, but his size and shotmaking have made him invaluable.

A few spots ahead of Cam Johnson, ranked at #76 overall, is Terry Rozier who just re-signed with the Hornets on a newer, bigger contract for $96 million over four years.

Malcolm Brogdon, #74, makes over $20 million a year on ‘old’ dollars. John Collins, #73, makes $25 million a year. Jerami Grant, #72, makes just about $20 million. Keldon Johnson, #71, makes $18.5 million per year on his new extension.

Almost all players ranked higher than the 70s are now making $30+ million (including Deandre Ayton at #49), unless they’re still stuck on rookie-scale contracts or really old extensions. One exception is Mikal Bridges (ranked at #51 overall on this list, and 49th on ESPN’s) who somehow took $21 million just last year from the Suns. Another is OG Anunoby, who got $18 million per year a couple off-seasons ago. But you can bet, based on the Herro and Barrett extensions, the Raps would have to pay more to OG if the extension was now vs. two years ago.

Salaries are going up, folks, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It is what it is.

Here’s the comps from this summer’s signings:

  • Low end: $18.5 million per year to Keldon Johnson
  • High end: $32.5 million per year to Tyler Herro

My guess is Cam Johnson and the Suns eventually agree to something in between those numbers, maybe in the low 20s. I know that sounds like a lot to you, but in two years the full MLE will be about 20 million (yes, for sure it will be), and Cam is better than a mid-level player.

Who’s signing the checks?

Of course, the Suns problem right now is that the managing partner has been suspended for the season and the interim Governor, minority owner Sam Garvin, almost certainly doesn’t have carte blanche control of the team to authorize $30+ million in extensions before the season starts.

The deadline to extend Cam is October 17 — less than two weeks from now — while the deadline to extend Crowder goes all the way through the coming season.

Latest news from ESPN is that the Suns have engaged with an investment firm to manage the sale of the Suns (meaning Sarver isn’t leaving the door open to stay), but that a full execution of the sale could take the length of the season and stretch into next offseason too. Not sure what that means for spending power.

“It’ll be the highest price ever paid for an NBA team,” one investment bank official said.

To date, the highest price paid was Joe Tsai spending $2.35 billion for the Nets three years ago. In the interim, the ownership group that bought the Timberwolves paid only $1.6 billion, but there’s a world of difference between the marketability of the Suns and the Wolves.

Factors playing into a potential record bid could be the Suns’ warm-weather climate and proximity to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the Bay Area, as well as the team’s new practice facility and renovated arena. Additional factors include a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon, plus the NBA’s young and growing global audience and the potential for new expansion teams in Seattle and Las Vegas.

Not to mention the Suns are currently one of the best teams in the league, have a young core under contract to keep it going a while, and have one of the greatest brands in the NBA.

“There’s going to be a tremendous amount of interest,” an investment bank official said.

While the record sale price for an NBA has been $2.35 billion, I would not be surprised to see a $4 billion bid on the table. Many have speculated prices ranging from $3-5 billion. Why? Because television money — as much as half the annual income to the league — is expected to triple in two years, and that’s on the conservative end.

In the meantime, though, the Suns ownership and final decision-making on big money expenses could be muddy at best, stifled at worst.

My guess is that the Suns would only get approval to extend Cam this fall for a real bargain, and that they’ll leave Crowder dangling in the wind until they can find a trade partner and/or until a new owner gets in place.

I just wish they’d lock these guys up now.

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