Draft day appeared to be about sacrifice. The Phoenix Suns sacrificed assets, trading an efficient secondary scorer in T.J. Warren and a draft pick for cash and future cap relief.
They sacrificed the opportunity to take a stab at drafting a future starter at No. 6 for a one-year rental of a starting power forward in Dario Saric, plus Cam Johnson, who at preset is hard to slot in as a rotation piece.
It was about culture, but also about setting up the possibility for sustainability. More sacrificing will need to be done if the Suns want to swing big in free agency.
It remains dubious as to whether Phoenix wants to be a big free agency player. Backing what 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro has reported, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reports the Suns front office isn’t exactly enthralled with the idea of chasing after the one free agent most often linked to them, Brooklyn Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell.
But one of the biggest voices in the organization sure is.
The Suns will sign a veteran point guard, and Devin Booker has campaigned for Russell — a close friend. But other voices within the Suns may not share Booker’s unabashed enthusiasm, sources say. They have only about $14 million or so in cap space as of now.
At present, Phoenix isn’t in an ideal financial spot, especially considering it is coming off a 19-win season and has less flexibility than a third of the NBA.
For the sake of this exercise, we will attack the Suns’ situation in two ways: by them relinquishing all of their cap holds of their free agents or by relinquishing all the holds with the exception of restricted free agent Kelly Oubre Jr.’s $9.6 million hold.
First, here is the latter, which appears the most realistic, financially prudent scenario:
Relinquishing all cap holds except Oubre Jr.’s
Salary cap space: $13.2 million
Expect that amount to be prioritized for a point guard. The Suns can use this cap space and because they acquired Oubre’s Bird rights in the midseason trade with Washington can go over the salary cap projected at $109 million to retain the forward.
Phoenix also could have a mid-level exception in the $4.8 million range to use if it eats into the $13.2 million in space. Otherwise it will have a larger mid-level exception ($9.2 million) and bi-annual ($3.6 million) exception at its disposal.
And now to dreaming big …
How can the Suns free up more money?
Let’s use Russell for the sake of discussion. There are a few avenues Phoenix can go down to find the money to sign a player of his caliber (or two each in the $13-15 million range).
Trade/stretch Tyler Johnson
Johnson’s positive impact in a small sample size last year certainly means moving him in a trade or with the stretch provision would need to be done with reason.
On a $19.2 million deal with one year left, it appears unlikely the Suns trade Johnson without taking anything back — and that’s assuming they would have to throw a future first-round pick in to make such a deal worthwhile for another team.
The easier route to opening a ton of cap room is with the stretch provision, which would dice up his deal into three equal parts over twice the length of his remaining contract plus one year. That means the Suns would have only $6.4 million on the cap sheet as opposed to the full $19.2 million for the 2019-20 season. However, that would also eat up $6.4 million in each of the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.
Stretching him would nearly double the cap space this summer, allowing the Suns to potentially retain Oubre and then sign a player like Russell with just a little more wiggling, perhaps by moving one of the second-year point guards, Elie Okobo or De’Anthony Melton.
But spending that much and keeping Oubre would be a major surprise for a team that hasn’t been keen to spend big in the past decade.
Offload Josh Jackson’s contract
As the Warren trade to the Indiana Pacers on draft day showed, it won’t be easy. It could, in fact, be costly for the Suns.
Jackson’s offseason legal involvements and on-court struggles over two years certainly could have soured the front office on his future with the Suns. Making $7.1 million this year and $8.9 million next, he’s not on a cheap rookie contract as a No. 4 overall pick.
If the Suns want to treat themselves to non-max players in the Ricky Rubio/Thaddeus Young realm all while keeping Oubre, this is another route to consider.
Would they dare waive a former No. 4 pick? And does any team want to take a flier on him without forcing the Suns to give up too much?
Relinquishing all cap holds, including Oubre’s
Salary cap space: $22.8 million
This appears to be an unlikely scenario with the Suns and Oubre appearing to have mutual interest in signing a long-term deal. But if this drags out or another team surprises Phoenix early and offers Oubre a deal worth upward of $13 million that the Suns do not want to match, having over $20 million in space is enough to sign two starting-caliber players.
Oubre leaving town would also make it easier for the Suns to get close to max money for the likes of Russell, who could earn a max deal starting at $27 million.
As it is with all of the above scenarios, a radical addition will come at a price beyond the monetary value of that player’s contract.