The Phoenix Suns have recently finalized a number of long-term contracts that solidifies the core of the team for the foreseeable future. Next up for negotiation is backup forward Cameron Johnson, who is eligible for extension as he enters the fourth and final year of his eminently affordable rookie-scale contract.
Over the past year, the Suns have committed to Devin Booker for six years through 2028 and to the tandem of Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges for the next four years through 2026. All, like Cam, are 26 years old or younger and just now entering their half-decade primes as NBA players.
With those three players factored in, the Suns are already projected to be over the league-mandated salary cap for both the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons and there’s only six (or fewer) players accounting for it in those seasons.
*Salary cap estimates for 2023+ are estimates and won’t be finalized until the beginning of each league year
A new Cameron Johnson contract would begin in the 2023-24 season, blowing right through much of the space between the cap and the luxury tax threshold. With only six players under contract — Booker, Paul, Ayton, Bridges, Shamet and Payne — the Suns are already set to exceed the salary cap*, leaving them only about $24 million before hitting the luxury tax threshold. Johnson’s cap hold itself would be $17 million of that if he doesn’t sign and extension.
*There’s always caveats: Paul’s and Payne’s contracts are only partially guaranteed, but I am counting the whole thing because they will either be on the roster or their salary will be replaced by someone else. Sure, the Suns can get cute and find a starter and backup at PG for less than $36 million combined, but that’s a topic for another day. Not today.
Teams can continue to spend over the salary cap by using negotiated exceptions (mid-level free agent exception, loose salary-matching in trades, extensions/new contracts to incumbent players commonly called Bird Rights, etc.), but at some point they are charged a ‘luxury tax’ for the privilege.
The NBA’s salary cap is like a speed limit on the highway, where the posted speed limit acts as the minimum speed for 95% of us, with a 7-ish mile-per-hour buffer before we start getting huge penalties in the form of speeding tickets.
The Suns are already one of 11 teams set to pay a luxury tax this season, which currently adds up to over $620 million across those 11 teams. If that number stands through the end of the season, that $620 million will be divvied up among the league office and the other 19 teams who stayed under the threshold.
Assuming the Suns don’t blow up their roster (they won’t), they are set to pay just over $34 million in luxury tax payments after this season. Well behind the Clippers ($144 million) and Warriors ($158 million), but still the 6th most in the league and more than twice as much luxury tax as the Suns have spent throughout history since the tax was first introduced in 1999. The first five of those years were under Jerry Colangelo and the last 17 have been under Robert Sarver.
The big worry now is the looming ‘repeater’ tax. It’s possible that teams would stay perpetually in the luxury tax zone, except that their penalties skyrocket if they stay in that zone for three straight seasons. The Suns are currently set to do just that for the first time ever if they keep Cam Johnson (restricted free agent) and Chris Paul (partial guarantee) around for both seasons.
I’m only focusing on 2023-24 and 2024-25 right now because a new television-rights deal will kick in for the 2025+ seasons that could at least double the salary cap and make us all forget about the luxury tax at least for a couple of seasons until league-wide player salaries catch up.
In the interim, every dollar they pay Cam Johnson is a dollar closer to that luxury tax and the dreaded repeater tax that would apply at the end of the third of this upcoming three-season stretch.
How much can Cam get?
“We’re having discussions,” Jones said. “Cam is a big part of what we do. Really excited for the progress he’s shown over the last few years, especially last year. I think he’s primed to take some steps forward.
He’s definitely someone we’re going to need to have take another step if we want to continue to progress and grow as a group.”
Speaking of taking another step, we at Bright Side have run a series of ‘Big Leap’ articles recently on which Suns player improvements could make a real difference in another Finals push. Cam Johnson is one of those players.
Can Cam Johnson keep improving? Of course. He’s already a great three-point shooter with a quick release who, on the catch, can get the shot off faster than a defender can handle. He’s also a league-average defender, which is unusual for a great shooter, and is improving his ball-handling skills each year.
A good comparison would be Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic, who makes $19 million as an 18-points-per-game starter for the past several seasons doing a lot of what Cam does. The only difference is the starting pedigree and the overall shot attempts.
Take a look at Bojan, Cam and incumbent Suns starter Jae Crowder, on a per-36-minutes and per-100-possessions basis.
Jae makes $10 million this year and Bojan makes $19 million this year. The difference between Bojan and Jae, statistically, is their offensive game. Jae is a lot better defensively, but it’s offense that gets paid. Just ask DA and Book.
Cam’s stats have improved year over year since joining the league three seasons ago, becoming an increasingly larger part of the Suns top-five offense.
His only drawback, contract-wise, is that he’s not a true, full-time starter. Players like Cam who come off the bench have a ceiling on their contract that averages around $16 million per year.
From this group, players like Jerami Grant, Derrick White and Marcus Smart were either signed to become a full-time starter or had the job waiting for them already.
However, Cam Johnson does not have any starter job in the bag, yet. He’s still a poor rebounder (career high 4.1 boards in 26 minutes per game last year) and would flank Deandre Ayton with another poor rebounder in Mikal Bridges (career high 4.3 rebounds per game in 2020-21).
The Suns are already barely adequate in rebounding — 13th (of 30 teams) in rebounding percentage in the regular season, then dropping to 10th (of 16) in the playoffs last year — so putting Cam Johnson in the starting lineup would only make matters worse.
Incumbent starter Jae Crowder is beginning to decline just as Cam enters a contract year, but Jae is still a better rebounder (5.3 per game last year) and more stalwart defender against bigger opponents.
Cam’s best career-long position might just be Sixth Man as long as he’s playing with Mikal Bridges and Devin Booker, though the Suns might give him that power forward role this season anyway.
If Johnson signs an extension this fall — deadline is not until late October — the number will almost certainly top out around $16 million per year. That would line him up with similar bench shooters like Kevin Huerter, Luke Kennard and Doug McDermott.
You can understand why Cam might rather be compared to Bojan Bogdanovic, Collin Sexton and Anfernee Simons. That’s what makes the upcoming 2022-23 season so important for Cam. If he can earn a full-time starting job by the end of the season, his new contract could jump into a new tier of starters — below the max, but well into the $20 million per year range.
Just this summer alone, a number of new contracts were signed by young starters ranging from Mitchell Robinson’s $15 million per year to Jalen Brunson’s $26 million per year.
And then just last week, Cam’s 2019 Draft got its first below-max extension on the books when R.J. Barrett signed a 4 year, $107 million extension with the New York Knicks. Barrett’s contract has incentives to push it to $120 million, a $30 million average annual value.
Where does Cam rank among these guys?
Is he better than Collin Sexton, who just got $18 million per year to replace Donovan Mitchell as an undersized scoring guard for the Utah Jazz? Or Lu Dort, who got $18 million from the Thunder? They both basically got the bad-team bump for being one of the two really good players on a tanking team.
Is he better than Anfernee Simons, who got $25 million per year to become Damian Lillard’s latest undersized shooting partner?
I don’t think Cam Johnson would sign a $16 million per year extension this fall as a super-sub off the bench if he thinks he could earn a starting job this coming season and get $20+ million next summer in restricted free agency.
Sure, there’s an injury risk involved in waiting, but otherwise it’s simply about being the last person to blink. A year ago, Mikal Bridges took the good money — many thought his extension was a steal for the Suns — while Deandre Ayton waited a year longer to get great money.
Will Cam Johnson go the way of Mikal and take less for long-term security?
Or will he wait it out like Deandre Ayton, and force the Suns into matching a bigger contract next summer?