It is something that Phoenix Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough had talked about doing for several years but never did. This offseason could be the last time that the Suns can trade for an albatross contract to acquire young talent along with it.
For several years now the Phoenix Suns have had cap space available to acquire an albatross contract with the addition of a young player on a rookie contract or a future draft pick. The idea behind such a move is that during it’s rebuild, Phoenix would absorb a terrible contract that another team needs to rid themselves of, while then picking up a sweetener, someone who can help Phoenix long-term.
It is oft-discussed, but rarely pulled off, and it is also something that the Suns could potentially still do this offseason, perhaps for the last time in a long time.
Phoenix has some decent cap space right now, an amount that can grow by not bringing back Alan Williams, Tyler Ulis, and Davon Reed. If they waived and stretched Brandon Knight‘s contract over the next five seasons, as I discussed here, they would open up around an additional $8 million this season and $9 million next. The Suns’ cap space can jump by around $10 million immediately if T.J. Warren is moved for a lesser contract, and it will grow even more next offseason when both Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley come off the books (although that will be offset some with Devin Booker‘s expected contract extension which in and of itself is the main reason why the Suns couldn’t pull off such a trade again after this offseason. His contract will jump by about $20 million next year from this season so even with Tyson and Jared off the books when their contracts expire, the amount of available cap space may not be anywhere near what it can be (with the right moves) this offseason).
By moving any of those contracts in a trade for an albatross contract, the Suns could still also save the other team money this season, as well as next. By moving either Tyson Chandler or Jared Dudley as well in such a trade, their reasonable contracts (Chandler will earn $13,585,000 this season, whereas Dudley will earn $9,530,000) would still save the other team this season (dependent upon the size of the albatross), then a ton in the summer of 2019.
All of these point to this current offseason as the last one that the Suns can snag a young player and/or draft picks while also acquiring an albatross contract that another team can no longer afford.
It is something that while McDonough has not specifically discussed doing this summer thus far, he might be willing to accept such a deal for the right young player, and at the right albatross price.
My presumption would be that the Suns would not accept an albatross with more than two years left on his deal, meaning that he is under contract no farther out than 2019-20.
According to Sportrac.com there are 112 players currently under contract through 2019-20.
The Suns do not have unlimited cap space too, so there is a certain threshold of average salary over the next two seasons that the Suns can absolutely not accept without going into the luxury tax threshold, something that a non-championship contending team should never, ever do.
This is purely speculative, but that would probably be around $23 million on average salary.
There is also the number that the other team is willing to trade a young player with to give up the larger salary – probably around $15 million, but if a team is terribly desperate, than maybe as low as $12-13 million.
Of those players who will be free agents in 2020, and whose contracts fall within the above parameters, there are 38 players ranging from John Henson at $12 million up to Kevin Love at $22,642,650 (although one of those players is Brandon Knight so only 37 who are technically available for the Suns to trade for).
For those teams that might be panicking most, now that LeBron James has opted out of his contract and is an unrestricted free agent again, there are only two teams currently who are projected to be over the luxury tax threshold in 2018-19: the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.
Serge Ibaka is the most expensive potential albatross contract that the Suns could acquire based strictly on the luxury tax complications with an average salary over the next two seasons of $22,469,135.50 – although he’d also be an immediate starter at power forward too, so he wouldn’t be the worst. Jonas Valanciunas is snugly right in the lower end of the zone that I have laid out, as is Washington’s Ian Mahinmi. They each will earn $16 million, the lowest available “albatross” for those three teams.
Currently there are 15 teams with negative practical cap space for this coming season, according to spotrac.com, Toronto, Washington, Miami, Detroit, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland, Charlotte, Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Memphis, Golden State, and Milwaukee.
There is also the Los Angeles Lakers who at the moment are in a similar situation to the Suns having built up a core of youth still on rookie contracts. However, if LeBron, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George are all about to take their talents West, then the Lakers are another team that might have to unload an albatross contract in Luol Deng to make space, and potentially tie in one of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, or Jordan Clarkson to move him out.
I discussed the stretch provision in regards to Brandon Knight before and added the link above, and the same could technically be done with Deng if Phoenix were to acquire him, should they want – although I personally would expect them to just let his contract rest on the cap for two seasons then be done with it. Not only would his yearly average be over a million dollars higher than Knight’s would be, but Knight has a legitimate chance of being re-signed this offseason if waived, even though he is coming off of the surgery. Deng might never play an NBA game again, and will earn over $36 million to do so.
That said, if the Suns were to go that route, the $36,810,000 remaining under his contract would be spread out to $7,362,000 each year for the next five years, through 2022-23.
In the meantime, at least one of those six players listed above could be on the Suns helping them win as part of a nucleus that will be together far longer than the Lakers’ big-three will ever be a thing.
While the opportunity for the Suns to pick up an albatross contract might never come, nor might the right contract/young player combo be available, and too the Suns might not have any interest in such a deal at this point, if they do have interest, and there is a team with a bad contract and a young player that the Suns are willing to pick up, this is probably the last offseason they can do it for a very long time, and the scenario might be something they look to jump on if the opportunity arises.