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Phoenix Suns free agency: Setting the stage on Ayton, Crowder, free agent targets and trades

Crowder trade? Donte signing? And what about Ayton?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Today at 6:00pm the Phoenix Suns will start their quest to build another contending roster around soon-to-be-47-million-dollar All-Star Devin Booker.

The Suns are coming off consecutive historically-exciting seasons that ended in disappointment. First, they made the Finals and took a 2-0 lead before getting Greek-rolled. Then, they set a new franchise record for regular season wins (64) before getting Slo-rolled in the second round.

Now they prep for season three with the All-Star back court of Devin Booker and Chris Paul as part of a starting lineup — along with Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton — that led the league in minutes played together (1,471) since Paul was added.

But with consecutive disappointing endings, we might never see that lineup again. Ayton is a restricted free agent looking for a bigger payday elsewhere, and Crowder is already being mentioned in trade talks.

What are the Suns looking to change?

More playmaker(s)

“We’ll sit as a staff,” head coach Monty Williams said. “And look at our style of play and, ‘Do we need to change anything to fit the playoffs a bit better?’.”

Each of the Suns tough endings happened for different reasons.

The first year, they lost in part due to a lack of size in the front court to defend Giannis, which they rectified by adding JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo.

But lack of size to combat Giannis was only one reason the Suns lost the Finals. The other reason — lack of shot creation outside of Paul and Booker — hurt the Suns again in the 2022 playoffs. Once the Bucks bottled up Paul and Booker, the Suns had no one left who could create a shot out of nothing.

“I learned that lesson from (Nets forward) Kevin Durant after the Finals last year.” Williams said. “He was like, ‘Coach, look. The playoffs, when you get deep into it,’ he said, ‘You got to stop a guy from getting a bucket, and you got to go get a bucket.’ And a lot of the teams have guys that can do that.”

This past summer, the Suns made one small acquisition — Landry Shamet — but otherwise decided to develop those much-needed playmaking skills in-house.

“I ask myself, ‘Am I preparing our guys to do that?’,” Williams said. “I think we have guys that can. Mikal, Cam Johnson, what I saw from Landry in the postseason to complement what we have in Book and Chris... How do I put those guys in a position where they can be more confident, when teams are taking away Book and Chris?”

They tried.

  • Ayton developed a hook shot and began to show off a dependable mid-range game, though that always started with a catch in the high post.
  • Mikal Bridges developed a mid-range turnaround jumper, though that had to be initiated with a catch on the move.
  • Cameron Johnson worked on driving into the teeth of the defense off the catch at the three-point line, though the results were mixed at best.
  • Cameron Payne tried to dust off his one-handed mid-range floater to keep defenses guessing, but he missed roughly 1200% of those attempts
  • Landry Shamet was acquired as a playmaking combo guard, one who could initiate either his offense, someone else’s offense or both, but his season came up way short of hopes and dreams.

In the playoffs, those new skills all faded out by the second round.

“I’m asking myself over the course of the season, ‘Did I put those guys in enough positions so they can grow and do that?’ We thought that we did but when you look at this past series, maybe not.”

Why couldn’t the Suns rely on their third-ranked offense to create shots for these guys like they did all regular season? Because playoff defenses — where you’re matching up 6-7 times in a row — know how to shut down your easy actions and take away a lot of assist opportunities.

“In the playoffs, everybody knows your plays,” Williams said. “You throw the ball around two three, four times, one guy gets it, and he goes and gets a bucket.”

Because the Suns only had Booker and Paul to create those shots, the Mavericks were able to lock in and bottle them up enough to make the Suns fold.

Now, the Suns have to decide which way they want to go this summer.

Do they continue to develop their players in-house, or do they shake up the roster to bring a third high-level playmaker at the wing or guard position to take pressure off Book and Paul come playoff time?

Either way, the Suns are facing a luxury tax bill if they want to keep the band together or continue to improve on what they have.

Spending Power

At the moment, the Suns have only 9 players under contract (teams must have 15+ by the start of next season) and are already well over the salary cap at $129 million in guaranteed contracts. That does not include Ayton’s $30 million asking price, which would place them squarely into the luxury tax before even filling out the rest of the roster.

Yesterday was the deadline for the Suns to offer third-string point guard Aaron Holiday a qualifying offer of $5.8 million for the 2022-23 season and make him a restricted free agent this summer. No way Holiday is worth that much, so the Suns made him an unrestricted free agent. The Suns still have Holiday’s Bird Rights though, so they can re-sign him if they want to, to something less on an annual salary basis and they don’t have to use any of their other cap exceptions listed below.

When it comes to unrestricted free agents, the Suns will have the same spending mechanisms as they had a year ago:

  • tax-payer mid-level exception (TPMLE), worth up $6.5 million per year*
  • bi-annual exception (BAE), worth up to $4.5 million*
  • veteran minimums, worth up to $2.3 million

*there’s this thing called an a ‘Tax Apron’ (i.e. hard cap) which, if triggered, would force the Suns to stay under $161 million in cap spending this year with no exceptions. Using the full mid-level exception ($10.1 million), the BAE, or acquiring a player via sign-and-trade would trigger the hard cap. That hard cap is important to avoid, considering re-signing Ayton for $30m puts them just under the hard cap with a handful more players still needed to sign. The Suns, at that point, would have to shed salary to finish filling out their roster.

As long as the Suns don’t trigger the hard cap — meaning, don’t use the BAE, don’t use the full $10.1 million MLE and don’t acquire a sign-and-traded player — they can spend and trade to fill out the best roster possible.

“That’s a part of the business,” General Manager James Jones said. “As your team improves, typically your payroll increases. [Being over the luxury tax level] doesn’t preclude us from doing anything. We’re not talking about luxury tax issues or avoiding those things. That’s not something that’s going to prevent us from continuing to build this team and keep this team together.”

Trading Power

This is where the Suns have some leverage:

  • Six players who make between $5.1 million and $10.1 million, almost all expiring in one year
  • Extension-eligible Cameron Johnson, who could be had for $6 million matching but is worth $15+ million in the coming years
  • Restricted free agent Deandre Ayton, who could be had in a sign-and-trade to a team willing to pay his $30 million/year asking price

That’s a lot of good trade chips they didn’t have a year ago.

A year ago, the Suns didn’t really have anything they could or would trade. Chris Paul and Cameron Payne were free agents they wanted to bring back. Five other players, all at the league minimum, were free to leave for greener pastures. Everyone else was relatively untouchable. Off that Finals run, there was no way they’d trade Devin Booker, Jae Crowder, Ayton, Bridges or super-sub Cam Johnson. They would have traded Dario Saric, but he had no value because he was looking at a year-long recovery from that torn ACL.

That’s it. That was the post-Finals roster.

This year is different. After that second round exit, the Suns would be willing to move any and most of the guys not named Devin Booker, in the right deal.

A name going around this week is that Miami is looking at Jae Crowder to replace the out-going P.J. Tucker. Not sure how the trade would work, since the Heat don’t really have an easy salary match ready to go, but the interest is there.

The Suns would also be willing, I’m sure, to consolidate some of their expiring $5-10 million contracts for an upgrade at either the playmaking or big wing spots. Could the Atlanta Hawks be interested in getting multiple assets for John Collins, for example? Who knows, but you can bet the Suns are looking at that kind of upgrade.

Just don’t expect any of those targets being Klutch Sports clients. Ever since Suns managing partner Robert Sarver got into that fight with Earl Watson — “fire Klutch or get fired yourself” — which ended up making Eric Bledsoe not want to be here, the Suns and Klutch have not worked together on anything. Could James Jones — a good friend of LeBron James, an investor in the agency — change that? Maybe, but nothing has happened yet, and we are entering year four of James’ tenure atop the Suns front office (but below Sarver).

What to expect TODAY

Probably nothing*.

Today is for teams to spend their cap space on quick signings, and the Suns don’t have anything beyond the TPMLE (about $6.5 million, with up to 5% raises).

It’s possible you’ll hear something over the weekend, after money starts drying up and good players see the TPMLE as their ceiling.

According to John Gambadoro of 98.7FM and ArizonaSports.com, the Suns might want someone like Donte DiVincenzo.

Once a starter for the Bucks in 2021 and draft target for the Suns in 2018, Donte had a bad year and now is looking to max out at the full MLE but might take a TPMLE for chance to play for a good team. Donte is supposed to be a good three-point shooter who can defend well, but he’s barely an upgrade — if even that — over Landry Shamet. I’d expect that any signing of Donte would only come if the Suns need to replace a traded Shamet. I don’t see them sharing the same backup back court.

Seems like the Suns are not in the drivers seat on any trades at this time, according to Gambo...

*Note: OG Anunoby is a Klutch client.

I don’t quite understand the Gobert love. Dude makes $38 million this year, will average $41 million over the next four years, will only decline from here (he’s 30 already) and got exposed badly in the playoffs for three years straight! He’s great protecting the paint, but once the playoffs start the opponent only has to go five-out and Gobert becomes a liability on both ends. He can’t defend the perimeter, and can’t score on littles in the paint.

Ayton, on the other hand, can stay out there all playoffs, has gone a lot further than Gobert, can play better against five-outs, and will only make $31 million next year while averaging only $33 million over four years.

Plus, teams will have to give up more to acquire to Gobert than to acquire Ayton. In an Ayton sign-and-trade, the acquiring team can only send back just over half Ayton’s new salary.

The only advantage I can see on Gobert, beyond a rep that exceeds his playoff success, is that acquiring him won’t trigger the hard cap, while acquiring a sign-and-traded Ayton would do just that. Plus, in that transaction, the acquiring team’s total salary will increase by at least $10 million post-trade. So if a big-spending contender wants a new big-time center, Gobert might actually be easier to absorb.

*The only thing we might hear today is that the Suns will offer All-Star, All-NBA Devin Booker a super-max extension as soon as free agency starts. The supermax is worth $211 million over five years, and would start after Booker’s current contract ends two years from now. That locks in Booker for seven years.

What to expect over the next two weeks

The first time you hear the Suns name called with an actual transaction could be days away. They will let the initial free agency wash over the league, and try to improve the team through an Ayton sign-and-trade or through other trades after that wave crashes.

Don’t get frustrated when you heard big signings and big names changing teams the next two days. That happens every summer. There’s 29 other teams with varying amounts of cap space. The Suns have none; only those exceptions mentioned above.

I know it’s hard, but the only thing that matters is what the team looks like in the fall, after all is said and done.

“Our team was a really good team,” James Jones said. “We just didn’t have that same level of success in the playoffs. And so I’m not going to change what we do. I’m not going to change my approach to team-building, which is to create and construct a team that has a ton of depth, a ton of skill and great chemistry. We just need to be a better, and I think after a summer where our guys improve, we will be.”

Don’t forget the Suns won more regular season games than any other team in the league the last two years, and the second-most playoff games of any other team. This is a contender, still a good bet at the Sportsbooks. DraftKings has the Suns, as currently comprised, with the 6th best odds to win next year’s championship.

Jones will still build/keep depth, but he also wants to add a third playmaker into the mix who can take pressure off Paul and Booker in the playoffs.

That’s not a TPMLE guy. That’s someone you have to acquire via trade.

Hold tight, Suns fans.


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