Today is the day.
At 9:00am AZ time (12 noon), the shackles come off and NBA teams can make signings official. The self-imposed ‘moratorium’ on actual signings greater than minimum-salary deals is lifted as of today.
Which means the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs, the lone remaining teams with $31+ million in cap space, have the ability to present Phoenix Suns restricted free agent Deandre Ayton with a maximum-salary offer sheet worth $132.87 million over the next four years, starting at $30.9 million this season. (This is slightly higher than was previously projected for Ayton because the league’s salary cap came in a bit higher than expected, and 25% of a higher cap gets you a higher salary.)
Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report says the market for Ayton is still quite murky — and more likely to be resolved via sign-and-trade at a later date — but no one quite knows what the Pacers and Spurs plan to do with their cap space. They will have to use a majority of it, at least, by the trade deadline or simply pay out the unused portion directly to the players on the team next spring as a bonus.
Likeliest, these teams will present themselves as salary dumping grounds for asset collection — meaning, they will take unwanted contracts off teams in salary cap hell in exchange for extra draft picks.
Still, the chance is there that the Spurs or Pacers have been waiting for today to drop the Ayton hammer.
Either team could theoretically swoop in and sign Ayton to an offer sheet today, leaving the Suns 48 hours to decide whether to match it and keep Ayton or simply let him go for nothing. Once Ayton’s signature is on the sheet, neither team can trade Ayton for at least six months.
Assuming the Suns match the offer, because you simply don’t let Ayton walk for nothing, the offering team gets left with their $31 million in hand and no one left to spend it on. Sure there’s Collin Sexton, Miles Bridges and Montrezl Harrell that could be signed, but Sexton is a restricted free agent, Bridges is a domestic abuser and Harrell is a drug felon. Both of the latter two are likely to sit out the season while they deal with legal issues.
A better plan for both teams, if they want Ayton in their team colors next year, considering they each already have a starting center (Myles Turner, Jakob Poeltl) would be to threaten the offer and begin negotiations with the Suns on a sign-and-trade that would send back their starting center to the Suns — or someone else, like the Nets — in the trade. But that discussion could have been initiated any time in the last few weeks.
The only thing new about today is the ability for a ninja move to simply present Ayton with an offer to sign.
For teams with cap space that want to spend as much as possible this summer, the order in which these transactions are done is quite important
- cap space first
- trades second
- signing new players with cap exceptions third
- re-signing your own players with cap exceptions last
If a team like the Indiana Pacers wants to not only spend their $31 million in cap space but also wants to use cap exceptions after that — the ‘room’ exception, trade exceptions and/or Bird Rights re-signings — they will need to follow the order I laid out.
A team like the Suns has no such concerns, since they are so far over the salary cap that all they have left are exceptions. The only issue for a team like the Suns is to avoid triggering the hard cap, otherwise called the Tax Apron, which this year stands at just under $157 million.
If a team triggers the hard cap, they are forced to get under that $157 million and stay there all season. The Suns right now are $20.74 million under that number, and that’s without Ayton resolved. But the hard cap only matters if it’s triggered...
Triggers include acquiring a player in a sign-and-trade, using the full mid-level exception at $10.49 million per year or using the bi-annual exception at $4.1 million per year.
So, just like last year, you will see the Suns using no more than the Tax-Payer Mid-level Exception (TPMLE) at most, which is valued at $6.479 million per year.
As long as they do that, and no more than that, they can end up with a salary sheet exceeding $157 million in value.
Heck, they probably won’t even spend the TPMLE either. There are almost no free agents left out there worth something greater than the minimum salary exception but less than $6 million. You’re looking at the likes of Dennis Schroeder, LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside. Blech...
A year ago, the Suns committed that TPMLE on day two of free agency, for Javale McGee. Now six days in, and four players acquired at the veteran minimum already, and facing a $160-170 million payroll after Ayton is resolved, you probably won’t see the Suns use the TPMLE at all.
Back to Ayton.
If the Brooklyn Nets decide to play hardball and hold onto Kevin Durant, everyone else must move on with their team building. That means the Suns too. Maybe the Suns just simply keep Ayton at the four-year version of his asking price and plan to use him later in trade — at full value — nearer the trade deadline. As long as his deal is four years or less, he’s not subject to the ‘designated rookie max’ rule.
If a team like Indiana or San Antonio wants to swoop in and force the Suns hand, an offer sheet will probably be made today or tomorrow.
If you don’t hear anything new on Ayton today, then he’s still caught up in the Durant trade scenarios and will be waiting around like everyone else to see how it plays out.
In the Suns perfect world, Utah joins in with the Nets and they agree to the following (principal inclusions only):
- Ayton and Ben Simmons to Utah
- Donovan Mitchell and Mikal Bridges and picks to the Nets
- Kevin Durant and someone like Jordan Clarkson or Bojan Bogdanovic to the Suns
But Utah probably doesn’t want to include too much draft compensation in the deal and still holds out hope that Donovan Mitchell wants to wait out a rebuild, the Suns would love to keep Bridges and the Nets still want more for Durant... so we are now engaged in a staring contest. Let’s see who blinks first.