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The Suns don’t have a pick, but the NBA Draft could be pivotal to this season anyway

Even without a first round draft pick, the Phoenix Suns could make big moves in the 2023 NBA Draft

2023 NBA Playoffs- Los Angeles Clippers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns already traded away their first round draft pick in the Kevin Durant trade, and they probably don’t want to rely on a 20-year old rookie next season anyway.

Yet what happens on and around NBA Draft Day this month, June 22, will likely shape their contender status for next year.

Why would I say that? Here’s why:

Reason 1: James Jones history

Surprised or not, James Jones and his front office team of Morgan Cato, Trevor Bukstein and Ryan Resch are all still in place. New owner above them. New coaching staff below them. But James and his guys survived the initial purge to get at least one more chance to build a team that wins the championship.

Jones made a big splash on his first draft day in 2019. He turned that year’s first round pick and a future extra pick into four players — Cameron Johnson (11th), Ty Jerome (24th) and veterans Dario Saric and Aron Baynes — three of whom were key players to help the Suns climb back to respectability the next season.

Earlier that day, he had sent starter T.J. Warren and a second round pick to the Indiana Pacers for cap space he ended up using in two different ways. In the interim, he used Warren’s current-year salary to offset the incoming salaries of Saric and Baynes. Two weeks later, he used Warren’s next-year salary along with space created in another trade to sign point guard Ricky Rubio on the open market.

Added together, he’d traded three young players and some draft picks for five important rotation players (Johnson, Saric, Baynes, Jevon Carter, Ricky Rubio) who helped bring the Suns back to the land of relevance.

Just ahead of the 2021 Draft, he traded his late draft pick (#30 overall) for what they thought was a good young veteran in Landry Shamet who could be a key playoff rotation player worth more than the mid-level exception. The 2022 and 2023 picks were included in the trades for Chris Paul and Kevin Durant.

The only time he actually just stood pat and took a player (Jalen Smith in 2020), he whiffed.

This year, Jones doesn’t have any first round draft picks to trade, but he does have his second round picks and has incentive to use the hustle and bustle of Draft Day to make some trades with this year’s roster (more on that incentive in the next section). He’s got a really good roster, but it’s top-heavy with 2 stars, 2 high-level starters and a big gap between those four and a handful of low-level rotation guys.

The Suns could use second rounder(s) to acquire a rotation player or two, but could get better value by trading one or more of his veterans under contract using current-year CBA rules.

Reason 2: Salary-matching changes

There’s a new Collective Bargaining Agreement being phased in over the next two offseasons that will limit big spenders like the Suns. Most of the harshest penalties won’t apply until the following offseason, 2024.

However, one new wrinkle will come into play this summer that could impact the timing of some NBA deals: salary matching.

Right now, teams have varying flexibility on salary-matching in a trade. Even the biggest spenders can bring back up to 25% more salary than they sent out in trade. For example, the Suns were already well past the luxury tax line but brought back almost 20% more salary in February’s Durant trade than they sent out. Their only penalty was a higher luxury tax bill.

Starting July 1, the Suns won’t be able to make a trade like that again.

Under the new CBA, any team that takes back more than 10% additional salary in a trade will be immediately hard-capped at the tax apron, which will be $169 million in salaries in the 2023-24 season. That doesn’t mean much to, say, the Rockets or the Thunder who won’t come near that number, but it’s stifling to a third of the league, including the Suns.

For example, Golden State already spent well over that number and has been for the last few years. How is that possible? Because they never hard-capped themselves. You can keep spending over that magic number as long as you don’t hard-cap yourself.

The Suns currently have $165 million committed to just 7 players for the 2023-24 season (Durant, Booker, Ayton, Paul, Shamet, Payne and Wainright), and will need to spend at least another $15 million just to fill out the roster with the minimum number of bodies, which puts them over that scary apron.

I know you’re like ‘Chris Paul is getting released!’ and wanting to skip ahead, but please don’t. First let me explain why the Suns really don’t want to be over that $169 million before free agency and trade season starts.

If they keep Chris Paul at his $30.8 million number, they are severely strapped on spending options for the summer. Keeping Chris Paul puts them at or over the apron, so they cannot do any of these things:

  • acquiring a signed-and-traded player
  • using the entire mid-level exception
  • using the bi-annual exception

Starting July 1, a fourth reason is added:

  • taking back more than 10% more in salaries than you send out

The Suns did none of those things last summer, so they are not hard-capped yet this year (2022-23). That’s why why were able to bring back more money in the Durant trade, and why they can still do so through the end of this month.

Reason 3: Chris Paul’s guarantee date

I was writing this article three days ago just as the news broke that the Suns are ‘talking’ with Chris Paul about his future, which may (and probably will) include them releasing him before June 28 when his salary would become guaranteed at the $30.8 million number.

If they release him, their salary obligation drops by $15 million. That’s a LOT of money, and puts the Suns into much more flexible territory this summer for making roster changes.

That flexibility starts now, even before July 1.

The Suns are either going to trade Paul or release him by June 28.

Any trade involving Paul this month would only count his $15.8 million guarantee — believe me, folks, I’ve checked with three cap guys on that — but that’s better than nothing if they release him.

If the Suns cannot find an agreeable, to Paul and them, trading partner between now and June 28, they will release him, after which he would be free to sign with another team. Any contract he signs with another team would be partially offset against the Suns obligation, but still worth something. For example, if signs an MLE deal for $12.2 million, he would get the Suns $15.8 million plus a little more than half of the MLE. If he signs for the league minimum somewhere, he’ll get most of it.

The Suns could re-sign him too. If they take the whole $15.8 million cap hit this year, they could re-sign him for a contract that’s partially offset but again, still more than nothing.

Anyway, bottom line is that the Suns have no intention of paying Paul $30.8 million in 2023-24. One of two things will happen: (1) they release him, stretch the hit, and find another PG in trade, (2) release him, take the whole hit, and re-sign him at the vet minimum.

Either way, the Suns will now have a lot more room under the hard cap line to maneuver, even if that’s only in trades.

Which brings me alllllll the way back to the point of this article: through end of June, the Suns can take back up to 25% more salary than they send out. After that, they can only take back 10% more. Them’s the rules, and they are a-changin.

Releasing Paul, freeing up $15 million more space under the apron / hard cap line, gives the Suns a lot more breathing room to take on the +25% in returning salary in trades.

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