On Thursday, the last day on which you can acquire a player via trade to add to your team in 2021-22, the Phoenix Suns parted with some cash, a rarely-used exception, a second round pick and their fourth-best center to acquire a pair of rotation players in Torrey Craig and Aaron Holiday.
Let’s break down what these players can do for the Suns 2022 title run.
Why Torrey Craig
Torrey Craig was re-acquired to be the fourth wing in a rotation with Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder. That’s the same role he played a year ago as the Suns won three playoff series to take the Western Conference crown and take the Bucks to six games in the NBA Finals (only the third Finals appearance for a Suns team in 54 years). Craig is the best rebounder of the four, though still no great shakes, and can spot time at small-ball center better than the other three as well.
The Suns love CamJ, Mikal and Jae, but those three cannot play all 96+ minutes of wing/forward time in the Suns rotation. And Jae, in particular, could really use a break because of his lingering wrist issue. They need someone who can pick up a good 15-20 minutes of time without a big drop-off in play, and Craig was a lucky find last year.
But after the Finals, and in the wake of Dario Saric likely missing all of 2021-22 with the torn ACL, the Suns decided they had a much bigger need for a backup center than fourth wing.
The Suns offered JaVale McGee $5 million the day free agency began, while the Pacers offered Craig the same amount per year over two years. Being over the salary cap, the Suns simply did not have the freedom to give two different players $5 million each. After signing McGee, their only options were the remaining $4.5 million of the mid-level exception, a $3 million bi-annual cap exception and unlimited use of minimum-salary exceptions.
So Craig went to Indiana. A four-year pro and not far from 30 years old, he’d never earned more than the league minimum. No way he was turning down $10 million over two years.
With Craig gone, the Suns turned inward. Hey re-signed Abdel Nader for the league minimum and hoped he or 2020 first round pick Jalen Smith could fill Craig’s role, but neither panned out. Then they signed a pair of two ways and a 10-day to try out the role, but none of them worked either.
- Nader, a five year vet who came over in the Chris Paul trade, was inconsistent at best this year, then went down with a nagging knee injury and never returned.
- Smith, a 2020 first round pick, looked so lost in his first full training camp and preseason the Suns declined to offer him a third-year rookie contract, making him a free agent next summer. ‘Stix’ later redeemed himself as a small-ball backup center, but had no future at the forward position in the Suns scheme and was at best the fourth best center on the roster after the Biyombo signing. And frankly, if Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric were healthy, Stix might have been 6th.
- Chandler Hutchison, a 2018 first round draft pick, signed a two-way contract but couldn’t even crack the COVID-depleted rotation.
- Justin Jackson, a 2017 recent first round pick, got a pair of 10-days but did not impress either
- Ish Wainright, undrafted 27 year old, was signed to a two-way and has been given a real shot, but is not quite ready for a playoff run.
None of these guys worked out consistently in that fourth-forward role.
Ultimately, James Jones decided get his man Torrey Craig for the second year in a row, this time using Smith’s expiring contract to match the salary.
“He’s one of us,” Chris Paul said of Craig after the Bucks game on Thursday night. Paul joked about almost passing Craig the ball in a game earlier this year versus Indiana, and Deandre Ayton noted that Craig had come over to the Suns locker room after that Suns-Pacers game to say hi and see who’d taken his locker.
Welcome back, Torrey!
Why the DPE
Rumor mills had the Suns wanting to use the injured Dario Saric’s salary slot in a trade this past week. What those guys got wrong is HOW the Suns were willing to use it. I’m sure the Suns were looking to trade Dario for a bigger-salary player, but they were apparently also happy to use Saric’s salary slot for something else too.
Like Craig a year ago, Jones casually acquired Aaron Holiday for cash considerations. Thanks to some sleuthing by 98.7 FM’s John Gambadoro, we find out the Suns did some quiet work to create another salary slot without losing their remaining $4.5 million of the Mid-Level Exception. More on the MLE later.
The Suns gave up cash considerations to Washington and put Holiday in the disabled trade exception from Dario not being able to play. So Suns just took on his money.— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) February 10, 2022
Disabled Player Exception?!?!?
Suns GM James Jones randomly mentioned the other day on his weekly radio spot with Burns and Gambo that Dario is out for the year (the Suns had not previously declared this in public). Now a day later we find out they applied for and received a DPE for him?
A DPE has very narrow usage.
First, you need independent medical professionals to agree that Dario won’t be able to play at all this year. He tore an ACL — which usually takes 12+ months to get back in NBA action — in July 2021 in the NBA Finals and these next Finals will be over by mid-June 2022.
Second, the exception has narrow usage. You can use it on a player making up to HALF the disabled player’s salary ($8.5 million this year for Dario), and that player’s contract must expire this offseason. The DPE can only be used on a single player, and cannot be aggregated in larger deal involving more players.
Generally, if used at all, a DPE is used to sign a free agent. Rarely is it used for a trade, because you need to acquire a single player on an expiring contract making half or less of your disabled player’s contract.
Why Aaron Holiday
So before the trade deadline, the Suns scoured the league for a trade-eligible backup point guard making $4 million or less on an expiring deal that some other team is willing to give away for cash considerations.
Enter, Aaron Holiday.
Sure, the Suns could have waited for the buyout market to use their DPE and/or the remaining MLE, but the buyout market is a free market. Any player released in the next few days that’s worth more than league minimum will have a dozen teams fighting for their services. The Suns could lose out on all of them. And even so, if a good player wants the Suns in the next few days, they still have the leftover MLE money ($4.5 million) anyway!
The Suns wanted certainty, and they got it with acquiring Aaron Holiday.
Holiday is no great shakes. He’s a third-string point guard, stands barely 6-feet, and doesn’t play high level defense. But he can get to the rim and makes better than league average on threes for his career.
Bringing Holiday here is vitally important right now. For the next few weeks at least, because the Suns won’t even try to bring back Cameron Payne until after the All-Star break and he’ll need to time to get in a groove for a bit after that.
Lately, that means Chris Paul plays 38-40 minutes because any more than 8-10 minutes of Elfrid Payton at point guard has been a real challenge. With Holiday in the fold, the Suns can ease back on Paul’s minutes a bit more. Holiday is at least as good as Payton, and might fit the Suns style better because he attacks with the ball like Cameron Payne.
When Payne returns to full health, we may not see either Aaron Holiday or Elfrid Payton again and that’s okay. That’s the job of your 3rd and 4th string point guards: Be ready, in case of injury to the starter or backup. Now the Suns are more confident in their ability to absorb injuries to Paul and Payne.
Farewell, Stix and Doolie
Stix went to Indiana in the Craig deal.
I hope the Pacers give Stix a chance at center this year so he’s in demand on the open market this summer.
Abdel Nader was released yesterday to make room for Aaron Holiday. The DPE only gives you the financial vehicle, not the roster spot. Since Dario is still under contract through next year, the Suns had to find another spot.
Nader just couldn’t stay healthy. He’d missed the last 39 games for the Suns this season and three months the prior season with knee pain. He signed a two year contract last offseason for the league-minimum, but the second year was a team option. Nader is now a free agent, though he will still be paid by the Suns through the end of the season. Let’s hope he gets healthy again, and can come back to the NBA sometime soon.
The Suns also released Justin Jackson from his 10-day contract. He did not make a shot (0-7) in 3 games played.
Expect Craig and Holiday to pass their physicals and join the team for Saturday’s game against the Orlando Magic.
Also, keep an eye on the buyout market. The Suns don’t have any holes left, so they likely won’t sign anyone. But if a surprising player hits the market, the Suns can offer more than anyone else. They still have $4.5 million of the MLE available for a free agent signing.