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Phoenix Suns v Brooklyn Nets

Deep in luxury tax, Suns now stuck in waiting game for Kevin Durant

The Phoenix Suns are frozen in place, waiting for the Nets to make a Durant decision

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

As fellow writer Rod Argent noted this week, the Phoenix Suns still need to improve on a roster that crashed and burned in the 2022 Playoffs. The wheels started wobbling before the end of the season, but sprung off completely in the Dallas series after the Suns took what seemed like a commanding 2-0 lead.

Two months later, a period of time that included the annual NBA Draft and the first two weeks of free agency where a third of the league’s players changed teams, the Suns look... exactly the same.

Yes, the last few minimum-salary roster spots were swapped out but while the names have changed the performance likely won’t. They’re third-string players for a reason.

Rotation changes among the players who received 99% of the team’s playoff minutes? One. Backup center JaVale McGee — who was benched in the middle of the Dallas series — left for Dallas, but injured incumbent Dario Saric is expected to re-take his place after recovery from a torn ACL in the 2021 Finals.

Everyone else is exactly the same, now that Deandre Ayton is back under contract. All the starters — Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Ayton — are the same, and most of the backups too: Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric, Torrey Craig and Landry Shamet.

The team that won a franchise record 64 games and has the second-most playoff wins in the league the last two years is still together: yay!

The team that completely melted down against Dallas, emotionally and physically, is still together: boo!

And that’s the way it’s going to stay for a while.

The dog days of a transactionless NBA offseason are upon us. Over the next two months, team executives are hopping on planes for remote unplugged vacations, finally detaching from phones that are never out of reach the rest of the year.

The Suns, meanwhile, are frozen in place, awaiting the potential for a blockbuster Kevin Durant trade. They are keeping their entire arsenal of expiring contracts, important role players and a full chest of draft picks untouched for the moment the Nets decide to fully engage in trade talks for their perennial MVP candidate.

Why are the Suns waiting around, you ask? Because Kevin freaking Durant!

I wrote way back on June 1 how Suns GM James Jones had set up the team specifically to make almost the entire roster fungible this summer for a trade for a superstar, and here we are with one of the league’s top two or three players listing only the Suns on his trade demand list.

It appears the Suns are so confident about Durant’s conviction of only being happy in the Valley of the Sun, and so sure that the Nets won’t get any better offers from teams who can’t get Durant’s blessing to acquire him, that the Suns are simply playing out the game and waiting for the Nets to finally blink.

No, a package of non-All-Stars and low draft picks should not be enough to acquire one of the top three players in the NBA who is still in his prime.

But if Durant never gives his blessing to another team, and promises to be a locker room problem in Brooklyn if he’s not traded, the Nets may end up with no other choice.

As it stands, the Suns can aggregate any players they want — except for Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, because of their recently signed contracts — into a many-for-one trade for a star. But if they trade any of those players right now for someone(s) new, those new players cannot be aggregated into new trades for at least 60 days.

For example, if the Suns found a taker for Landry Shamet right now, whoever comes back would be tradable by themselves but unable to be combined with Crowder, Johnson or others in a larger trade for Kevin Durant for at least two months.

No way James Jones is going to reduce his chest of tradable assets, only to find out ‘damn, if I only had Landry’s contract for salary matching, I could have closed the deal on KD’.

How can the Suns work around the edges, without impacting their tradable assets?

One way is to use the Taxpayer Midlevel Exception.

Current luxury tax bill

First, let’s appreciate the fact that the Suns actually went into luxury tax territory this year. When they re-signed Deandre Ayton to a contract worth $30.9 million this year and $133 million over the next four years, they committed to paying the luxury tax for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

At the moment, the Suns have committed to pay just over $167 million in salaries, which is about $17 million over the luxury tax line. For every five million over the luxury tax line, the team is charged an escalating tax.

The exact tax rates depend on a few different factors. For starters, and rather obviously, how far above the salary cap a team’s roster is:

For teams between $0 and $4,999,999 over the cap, the tax rate is $1.50 for every dollar over the cap. The incremental maximum for this level is $7.5 million.

For teams between $5,000,000 and $9,999,999 over the cap, the tax rate is $1.75 for every dollar over the cap. The incremental maximum for this level is $8.75 million.

For teams between $10,000,000 and $14,999,999 over the cap, the tax rate is $2.50 for every dollar over the cap. The incremental maximum for this level is $12.5 million.

For teams between $15,000,000 and $19,999,999 over the cap, the tax rate is $3.25 for every dollar over the cap. The incremental maximum for this level is $16.25 million.

And for teams $20,000,000 over the cap or above, the tax rate is $3.75 for every dollar over the cap, and increasing $0.50 for each additional $5,000,000 over $20,000,000.

The Phoenix Suns are currently just under $17 million over the line, which brings their current tax amount to almost $35 million. That’s already more than twice what team managing partner Robert Sarver has paid in TOTAL in 18 years of governorship of the Suns. These tax amounts are paid to the league office and distributed evenly among teams owners/governors who are not paying the tax.

To put this in perspective, not only is Sarver committing to pay $35+ million in taxes, so far, but he’s also forgoing all the money he was getting from other owners who were.

Will the tax bill go higher?

Every year, 6-8 teams go into the tax, and in 15 of 18 years of ownership, Sarver has received a share of those payments. But not this year.

And in fact, the Suns are not even done. They still want to acquire Kevin Durant, who alone makes $44 million. Ideally, in a trade for Durant, the Suns would send out only 75% of his salary to fit within the Collective Bargaining Agreement rules, leaving the Suns with another $10 million in taxable salaries on the books. At this point, another $10 million in salaries would translate to another $40ish million in tax payments.

Rumor has it — confirmed by both local insiders Gambo and Flex — that Sarver and the Suns are willing go as high as $100 million into tax payments...if they can get Kevin Durant.

In the Suns perfect world, they would subtract no more than Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric, Cameron Payne and Landry Shamet, plus 5+ draft picks/swaps for Durant.

The next best iteration would include Mikal Bridges as the headliner (while keeping 2-3 of the other players and picks) — a tough pill for the Suns to swallow, but probably a necessary one to get an MVP-level talent.

How else can the Suns acquire a true rotation player?

However you slice it, either the Suns are coming back with the same team that needed another good ball-handler and playmaker to get further in the playoffs, or they will come back with a great starting lineup but very little depth.

In a perfect world, the Suns can still sign a quality free agent using their Taxpayer Mid-level Exception (TPMLE) to their 15th roster spot, knowing for sure that this guy will still be around on opening night, because free agents can’t be traded till December 15 at earliest.

The TPMLE is worth $6.479 million this season.

It should be noted that if the Suns used that exception Sarver and his partners would end up paying over $20 million MORE in luxury tax payments to fellow owners.

Who is still out there? Anyone?

Not really. The best remaining free agents who are not probably facing prison time — meaning, Miles Bridges/domestic violence and Montrezl Harrell/felony drug charge — are a ragtag bunch:

  • LaMarcus Aldridge — old now, limited to mid-range shooting and light rebounding
  • Carmelo Anthony — old now, limited to spot-up shooting, bravado and little else
  • Dennis Schroder — still in his prime, but has left his last four teams (from contenders to rebuilders) on bad terms, very ball-dominant, doesn’t really run the offense as designed
  • Hassan Whiteside — an oak tree under the basket, but like Schroder keeps getting let go
  • Eric Bledsoe — mere shadow of his former beauty salon self

Here’s a longer list, via SBNation.com: Best remaining free agents

Our own Damon Allred wrote about a little-known talent who could make an impact in the NBA next season, and would likely cost

Or is Sexton an option?

At the top of the SBNation list is restricted free agent Collin Sexton, who closely fits the profile of 2014 Eric Bledsoe, when he was an RFA for the Suns. Bledsoe waited around all summer because every other team in the league knew the Suns would simply match an offer sheet if they tried to throw one out there. No one did, and he finally accepted a compromise deal that was below max.

Sexton is a young (24 years old), undersized 6’1” combo guard who would be a major upgrade over everyone who’s been trying to support Book and CP in the back court. But he’s not really a point guard, despite having plenty of chances in Cleveland his first two years before Darius Garland bloomed.

So, he’s really a 6’1” shooting guard with a little bit of playmaking. Let’s compare Sexton to the Suns current backups to Devin Booker.

Sexton really has gotten the biggest run of all four of these players. He’s the only proven starter, though all of them have had a turn at it.

He is by far the best shooter of the group, with Shamet only beating Sexton out for three-point shooting percentage (39% to 37.8% for their careers), but a key note should be that Sexton really lives where Book and Paul live: in the mid-range. He takes 12.3 two-point shots per game versus 3.9 three point shots. And he doesn’t live in the paint.

As far as visioning, you could see Sexton in a Jordan Clarkson role as a dynamic, alpha scorer off the bench who can get any shot out of nothing, dish a couple assists and keep the team afloat when starters rest and/or defenses taken them out of the base offense. Another comp might be a smaller Spencer Dinwiddie.

After missing last year, Sexton is likely healthy now and would solve a couple of Suns issues, but here’s the big problems:

  • he’d command a higher salary than Bridges — likely $22+ million per year. That’s great if he could project as a long-term starter next to Booker when Paul declines, but he’s a shooting guard not a point guard and would leave the Suns really short on playmaking. I expect, on the Suns, he’d always be a microwave off the bench
  • acquiring him, since he’s a restricted free agent, would require a sign-and-trade and by now you should know what that means: the Suns would then be hard-capped, and would be required to shed at least $10 million in salaries ahead of, or as part of, the sign-and-trade. They wouldn’t be adding Sexton to a deep rotation. They’d be basically replacing a current major rotation player with Sexton in a 1:to:1 or 2:to:1 trade.

I guess this is a possibility if Durant goes off the table and the Suns are faced with making a major rotation decision right near the new season. He would definitely become their best bench player next to Cameron Johnson. He’s a major, major upgrade.

All this is assuming Sexton is still on the market at whatever point Durant comes off it, and Phoenix is left holding the bag.

The Unknown

Of course, there’s 300+ tradable players in the league and someone, somewhere will be available for what the Suns can offer: draft picks, expiring contracts, REAL rotation players.

Here’s just one example. Utah looks to be rebuilding, so what about Jordan Clarkson himself? He’s got a lower salary than Sexton will command, shorter years and is already proven as a bench scorer.

Lots of other teams will be making adjustments in September to finalize their vision for the 2022-23 season, and trades will happen.

The only question is whether waiting for Kevin Durant will preclude any other major moves before opening night.

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