Offseason Preview: Spending the Suns’ Money under a Skyrocketing Salary Cap

Feb 2, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver (left) with general manager Ryan McDonough following the game against the Toronto Raptors at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 2, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver (left) with general manager Ryan McDonough following the game against the Toronto Raptors at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Players and Owners for NBA teams may have serious negotiations in the near future, but they also have two things in common. They are rich, and about to get even richer.

This season, the NBA’s new, nine-year, $24 billion media-rights deal with ESPN and Turner Sports goes into effect. As a result, the already rapidly growing salaries and team values are going to continue their steep climb. NBA teams are going to have more money than they may be able to spend (Portland almost missed the NBA salary floor in 2015). The reason is the salary cap is based off of the NBA’s revenue the previous season and because the NBA is about to see a revenue spike when their new TV deal goes into effect. The salary cap is also scheduled for a dramatic rise.

This season, the NBA cap came in at around $70 million. The 2016-2017 cap is projected to spike up to $92 million. One of the effects this will have, is it will dilute the percentage current contracts makeup of a team’s total salary cap. Another, it will create what could be the largest seller’s market in NBA history.

Each team is essentially getting an additional max contract added to their books. The average NBA player is going to be paid like a top-tier starter from one year ago. For example, Eric Bledsoe got close to a max contract, culminating in 15 million dollars in the final year (2018-2019). Out of what will definitely be a cap over 100 million dollars, Bledsoe’s contract looks amazing. On the “Dunc’d On Basketball Podcast” with Nate Duncan (an awesome resource) NBA salary cap expert Larry Coon estimates the average starting player is going to be getting paid approximately $15 million per year.  With the cost of average players going up, it is going to be crucial that the Suns have and stick to a strategy centered around building on their young core, and not signing any long-term contracts at high dollar amounts unless signing a star player. *Cough* Tyson Chandler *Cough*

The Suns are buyers in a seller’s market. Which can create potential pitfalls and cause some GM’s to panic if/when the top free agents sign elsewhere. Danny Leroux of RealGM discussed the Suns

Another team that has more money than they known what to do with

on the “Dunc’d On” pod yesterday, pointing out the Suns are, “another team that has more space than they know what to do with, given where they are in the rebuilding process.”

The Suns are going into the off-season with a lot of cap space, a significant number of players under contract, and a ton of draft assets. In terms of straight cash, the Suns will have between $28-32 million after projected draft salaries. The four million dollar discrepancy is impacted by the Suns decision regarding P.J. Tucker. Tucker has merely $1.5 million guaranteed for the upcoming season, and a salary of only $5.3 million, low enough that the Suns could just keep him at a low price and wait to trade him. If the Suns release and/or trade Tucker, and can find a home for Tyson Chandler’s contract, the Suns could have upwards of 45 million in cap space this summer.

While there is not quite enough money for two maximum salary players in free agency, the Suns will have the ability to be active in free agency and trade markets. The question is, how active should they be? Phoenix isn’t close enough to championship contention to warrant over paying free agents on long-term deals. The mistake teams make is settling for lesser talent at longer contracts because they want to spend at least the required minimum or show their fan-bases that they are dedicated to winning. The minimum a team is allowed to spend on their roster is 90% of the salary cap. For example, with a cap of $70 million, the NBA salary floor this season was approximately $63 million. Teams who didn’t spend at least $63 million are forced to pay the difference between what they spent, and the salary floor to the players on their existing roster. Since the penalty for not meeting the floor really isn’t all that bad, the Suns should not worry about spending the minimum. Leroux explains, “All of the sudden you are talking about awful contracts being handed out to players who absolutely don’t deserve it. So the best thing that teams can do in this situation is avoid panicking.”

He expands on how this applies to Phoenix specifically, “The worst thing that they (Suns) could do is panic,” Leroux said. “If they happen to land one of the top-tier free agents by some miracle, then great. If not, then the worst then they could do in this seller’s market is overpay for a free agent.”

So, now that we know what the Suns front-office shouldn’t do this off-season (sign non-stars to long-term deals or stress about reaching the salary floor), let’s examine what the Suns front-office can do to expedite the rebuild.

The Suns lack elite talent at either forward position, with T.J. Warren just starting to run in his return from a foot injury, P.J. Tucker being 31-years-old, and no power forwards, the Suns will be looking to upgrade both positions. They should be looking to sign only the elite tier of free agents to long-term deals (I.E. Al Horford, Nicolas Batum, Kevin Durant, Hassan Whiteside, etc.). Anything less than the Suns top choices should only be signed to one-year contracts because next year’s free-agent class is supposed to be substantially better, and the salary cap is set to go up again. Locking up salary while “settling” for a non-transformational player is not a way to create a championship roster.

Here are some of the moves the Suns could make to both meet the salary floor requirements and not jeopardize the progress they have made in rebuilding the team with young talent.

1.) Go after a Max guy (Horford, Batum, and Whiteside).

If the Suns were to offer Hassan Whiteside a maximum contract, and he accepted, they would improve the defense dramatically and would bookend their roster with talent (Bledsoe, Booker,

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Knight at Guard, and Whiteside and Len at Center). That would leave the wing position left to address via draft or trade. Being able to target just one area, Forwards, allows the Suns to try out multiple options to find the right fit with the highest potential. Mock Drafts have the Suns possibly taking forwards with all four of their selections in the top-34. Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender, Denzel Valentine, Thon Maker, and Marquese Chriss are all linked as possibilities for Phoenix at various draft slots.

Here is what a potential line-up could look like:

PG- Eric Bledsoe/ Brandon Knight

SG- Devin Booker/ Archie Goodwin

SF – T.J. Warren/P.J. Tucker/ #13 pick – Denzel Valentine or Deyonta Davis

PF – Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss

C – Hassan Whiteside/ Alex Len/ Tyson Chandler (if not able to trade)

2) Imagine the Suns signed Whiteside and then immediately traded the #4 pick, #28 pick, Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight to the Nuggets for Danilo Gallinari and a contract dump – a PF, who fits almost perfectly into the Suns system.

The Suns would be starting Bledsoe, Booker, Warren, Galo and Whiteside. If the Suns can use the 13th and 34th picks to add depth and versatility at forward with a player like Denzel Valentine, Deyonta Davis, or DeAndre Bembry, the Suns could be in a great position going into the 2016-2017 season. Finding a deal for Galo is something I’ve been high on since midway through last season with Danilo showing that he was fully recovered from serious ankle surgery. His abilities as a dynamic offense player at both small and power forward make him an ideal fit in an up-tempo offensive system like the one in Phoenix.

Potential Depth Chart:

PG – Eric Bledose / Isaiah Cousins or Malcolm Brogdon with pick #34

SG – Devin Booker / Archie Goodwin

SF – TJ Warren / Deyonta Davis/ DeAndre Bembry or Denzel Valentine with pick #13

PF – Danilo Gallinari / Jon Leuer (see below) or Petr Cornelie /Stretch-4 with pick #34

C – Hassan Whiteside / Alex Len

3) Re-sign Jon Leuer.

He is only 27-years-old and the Suns have his full Bird Rights (They can exceed the cap if needed to sign him, so it’s a low risk proposition). Leuer has a  cap hold of only $2 million. Leuer showed the ability to be an average big man at power forward and center last year. If the Suns were to offer a 1-year, $6-7 million contract, it might accomplish filling out the roster without over-spending.

4) Sign exclusively one or two-year contracts depending on the size.

Assuming the Suns strike out in the top-tier of free agency, they should consider making 2016-2017 a “lost season.” Phoenix can use all four picks on prospects with the highest upside/ best player available to fill out their roster. With few roster spots needing to be filled, the Suns can afford to offer high-potential players large, but short contracts to see if their upside is fulfilled with hopes to re-sign for longer the following year. For example, it wouldn’t be out of line if the

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Suns overpaid for Chandler Parsons, Dwight Howard  Marvin Williams, or Bismack Biyombo on a 1 year – $20 million deal. This type of option will present itself to Phoenix as free agents start to sign contracts. That way going into next year, the Suns will have hopefully maximized the value of their own draft picks, and remained highly flexible going into a much better free agent class.

The other type of short-term contract I see as valuable to Phoenix is re-signing Jared Dudley. Dudley can add defensive ability against wings and small-ball PF’s, and shoots a near-elite percentage from 3-ot range. His fit is so natural it almost outweighs the fact that Dudley would only be a short-term solution at the wing. 1-year/ 6-7 million per year or a 2-year/ $15 million dollar deal would have value on the trade market and could appeal to Dudley, who is familiar with the city and Suns style of play.

5) Blow it up.

Package Eric Bledsoe, Tyson Chandler, and/or Draft assets for the best combination of high-value draft picks, a star player at SF/PF and cap flexibility. The Suns have so few elite assets. They could decide to move forward without many of the current players on the roster. No one on the Suns is off-limits. Chad Ford recently theorized a trade where the Suns send Bledsoe to Cleveland, Brandon Knight, Alex Len, P.J. Tucker, Archie Goodwin, picks #4 and #13 to the New York Knicks and the Suns would get Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in return. While many Suns fans expressed their skepticism because of how wild the trade is, it shows what a “blow it up” type of trade would look like, and for Phoenix, everything is on the table.

The Suns know that if they want to bring a championship to Phoenix, a star player is a proven necessity. Phoenix should do everything they can to hold on to their absurd amount of draft picks, players with high potential and cap space for an off-season that presents far more intriguing options in both the draft and free agency.

If Phoenix can take this rebuild as slowly as required to make sure the next playoff push in Phoenix isn’t just for the eight seed, the Suns future could be bright.

Next: Suns' Draft Night Options