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Aprons are a Payne: diving into what the Phoenix Suns can and cannot do in trades

As a second-apron team, the Phoenix Suns are limited in trade rules but can still get things done

2023 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

I pay attention to this stuff and I still forget how the rules are changing each summer due to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, so I can imagine all of you are a little confused on what the Phoenix Suns can and cannot do this summer in trades.

This week, word got out that the Phoenix Suns were interested in acquiring T.J. McConnell from the Indiana Pacers in a trade that would send out Cameron Payne. In effect, swapping backup point guard for backup point guard.

UPDATE 7/16: Cam Payne was traded into cap space (no salary matching). But the rest of the article is still good to read because the Suns are clearly still figuring out their roster.

What makes this more complicated than usual is that the Phoenix Suns are already over the dreaded second tax apron by almost $8 million, so they have some extra special restrictions on the kind of trades they are allowed to make.

Our own John Voita broke down the deal on a talent-for-talent basis, so I don’t need to revisit it here. You either believe McConnell is a huge upgrade or you don’t. Payne is faster, more of a shooter, but also averaged 8 assists per 36 minutes last year. McConnell is more methodical, gets more steals, doesn’t shoot much, and averaged 9.4 assists per 36 minutes last year. And he once went to UofA.

What I want to talk about is the nerdy stuff, specifically two issues.

  1. Can the Suns even acquire this guy?
  2. Is it better to have McConnell’s partially guaranteed contract for 2024-25, or Payne’s unrestricted free agency next year?

Let’s do the second question first.

Fast forward one year. Cam Payne will be an unrestricted free agent in 2024. If you want to keep Payne, the upside is that the Suns will have Bird Rights to re-sign him at a market rate next summer. But the downside is that if he leaves for another team the Suns won’t be able to replace him with another free agent of equal caliber in terms of salary.

Which is why you might trade him for someone already under contract for the next year too. McConnell, for example, already has a market-rate deal worked out for 2024-25, partially guaranteed $9.3 million. The Suns could keep McConnell next year, or could release him with only $5 million guaranteed.

UPDATE: Bol Bol, Cam’s replacement, will be a free agent next summer.

That begs the question: Do they really need yet another player with a 2024-25 contract already worked out?

The Suns are already committed to an incredible 10 guaranteed contracts for 2024-25, plus another two partially guaranteed (Goodwin and Camara). The 10 guaranteed commitments already have them over the scary ‘second tax apron’ for the 2024-25 season which will dramatically impact their ability to make changes to the roster outside of trades.

Payne is one of the mere three players not already under contract for two or more seasons (guaranteed or not), along with Ish Wainright and Chimezie Metu.

Swapping Payne for McConnell right now would give the Suns a 13th player under some kind of contract already for 2024-25, though its only partially guaranteed.

Clearly, the Suns are setting themselves up to be a trading team going forward, but 13 players under some kind of contract is a lot, especially considering the ‘second apron’ limitations.

Now back to the first question — can they even acquire McConnell if they wanted to?

McConnell will make $8.7 million this coming year. Being a second-apron team, the Suns can only do trades that are within 10% on salaries. Payne makes 34% less than McConnell.

So McConnell and Payne cannot be traded for each other straight up. The Suns would have to include a second player (which is still allowed this season) among Ish Wainright, Jordan Goodwin or Toumani Camara.

If I’m the Suns, the only guy I’d consider including in that trade is Ish. Goodwin has a chance to be better than Payne, and Camara has some untapped potential as a big wing.

Still, it comes down to how highly you think of McConnell, and what the Pacers would want in return.

Here’s a recap of the trade and signing rules impacting the Phoenix Suns this summer, as a second-apron team:

  1. Can still aggregate players both directions in trades (2-for-1, 1-for-2, 2-for-2, etc.) — though the only players the Suns can aggregate right this minute are Durant, Booker, Ayton, Payne and Wainright
  2. Can take back up to 10% more in salaries than they send out in trade through the end of this season (after which that becomes 0%)
  3. Can acquire a player via trade into their $4.9 million trade exception (player’s salary can be up to 10% higher than the trade exception value). Use of the trade exception is limited — can only be used to acquire a player via trade who fits inside that salary slot, and the Suns must send out a future draft pick or cash in return (not a player).
  4. Can send out up to $7 million in cash to help close any trade (Update: some was used in the Cam Payne salary dump to Spurs on 7/16)
  5. Can use up to three second round picks, via Memphis (2025, 2028 and 2029). (Update: Suns now have 5 second round picks, after a trade with Orlando on 7/16)
  6. Can offer even more first-round swap rights to their 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 first round picks. They’ve already given up multiple swap rights to their picks in 2024 (WAS, then MEM, then PHX), 2028 (BKN, then WAS, then PHX), 2030 (WAS, then MEM, then PHX). The Suns will still be picking in the first round in those years, but only after the other teams decide whether to swap spots or not. (Update: the Suns indeed gave secondary swap rights to their 2026 pick on 7/16, getting three more seconds back in return).
  7. Can offer veteran’s minimum salary to free agents, preset in the CBA based on years of service (Update: the Suns indeed used this to sign Bol Bol to a veteran’s minimum salary on 7/16)

Here’s what the Suns CANNOT do that lower-spending teams can, like

  • Cannot sign a bought-out player whose salary was greater than league average ($12.4 million this season)
  • Cannot offer any more than the league minimum to free agents
  • Cannot take back more than 10% in additional salary as a result of a trade through this season, then 0% more after the final day of the 2023-24 season
  • Cannot receive any player in trade who is signed-and-traded (i.e. a free agent who signs a contract with another team and is immediately traded to the Suns as part of a sign-and-trade)

And then there’s the things that have always been in the CBA, that would limit the Suns from trading most of their roster right now.

  • Cannot trade a newly signed draft pick for 30 days (Toumani Camara, till early August)
  • Cannot trade a newly signed free agent until at least December 15 (Josh Okogie, Damion Lee, Eric Gordon, Drew Eubanks, Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Chimezie Metu)
  • Cannot trade a player who signed the veteran’s minimum at any point during the deal without their approval (all those vet mins in the prior bullet)
  • Cannot aggregate a newly-acquired player via trade in another trade for 30 days (Goodwin, Beal, till late July).

What does this mean, Dave?

Let’s use the rumored Payne-for-McConnell trade. It means that the Suns CAN do a small deal to acquire T.J. McConnell and his $8.7 million contract from the Pacers by sending out 2+ players that add up to $7.83+ million or more. But the only deal that actually works right now is Cameron Payne ($6.5) + Ish Wainright ($1.9). In a few weeks, the Suns could include Goodwin or Camara instead of Wainright.

Of course, the Suns can still trade Deandre Ayton (his veto rights have expired), but it looks like the Suns have decided Ayton is the best 4th option out there for now. They need his size, rebounding and defense to balance out the score-first perimeter attacks of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. If the Suns can replace those contributions with someone else, great. But there’s not a lot of options out there.

So, the only trades we see this summer from the Suns are likely with Cam Payne, Ish Wainright, Toumani Camara and/or Jordan Goodwin in the deal.

Bridges, now in Brooklyn, and Payne have been working out in Phoenix together this past week and just yesterday had a cryptic exchange on twitter that got fans all in a tizzy (but was likely just about that day’s workout).

Stay tuned.


Remember this? Back in 2020, right after the Suns had that 8-0 Bubble Run, Mikal was still on his rookie contract and Payne had just found a home with the Suns in Orlando. The Suns finished that season 34-39 but felt great about their late-season progress. This desire to stay in Phoenix forever was three months before the Suns traded for Chris Paul, and 12 months before their NBA Finals run.

If Payne is traded, the only players left from the 2021 Finals just 24 months ago would be Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

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