Drafting No. 1 overall was just the beginning of the Phoenix Suns’ summer, as they’ll likely have more than $15 million in cap space and one particularly glaring hole: point guard. Stocked with young depth at nearly every other position, the Suns will reportedly move on from potential restricted free agent Elfrid Payton this summer after picking him up for what became the 41st pick in last week’s draft at the 2018 trade deadline. With just Tyler Ulis, the oft-injured Brandon Knight, and second-round pick Elie Okobo capable of playing the point guard position on a full-time basis, that spot will be the focus of free agency for Ryan McDonough and his staff.
Phoenix got a jump start on their July plans on Sunday, when they reportedly agreed terms with Okobo on a four-year deal worth $6 million. In a similar fashion to the Orlando Magic last season with 33rd overall pick Wesley Iwundu, the Suns will probably give Okobo more money up front in order to secure his signature to the four-year deal, which reportedly will include two non-guaranteed years in addition to a team option on Year 4, so they can opt out and make him a restricted free agent in 2021 if they so choose. To get him to $6 million in total money with three minimum years on the back end, they’ll give him a raise of about $328k in 2018-19.
Okobo’s deal leaves the Suns with a maximum of $17.6 million in cap space for 2018-19, but they can only get there by cutting ties with four non- or partially-guaranteed contracts: Ulis, Alan Williams, Shaquille Harrison, and Davon Reed. Williams is the key deal to watch: at $5.5 million, if they were to keep him on the books, it would indicate that they are instead going to operate as an over-the-cap team, retaining their mid-level and biannual exceptions instead of cap space. They could keep Williams and still have about $12.1 million in space, which is more than the mid-level and biannual combined, but that would require cutting Ulis, Harrison, and Reed, which doesn’t make a ton of sense for the team on the floor. Instead, it’s likely that they’ll hold on to everybody but Williams and make cuts as needed later in the summer. Ulis agreed to move his guarantee date back from 6/24 to 6/30 to give the team more time to make a decision on whether or not to keep him, but both Harrison and Reed don’t have guarantees triggered until later on in the summer.
On the free agent market, the Suns are looking for a very specific type of point guard to round out their roster. Since the ball will be in Devin Booker’s hands on a lot of possessions, they’ll need somebody next to him in the backcourt who can space the floor while retaining the playmaking ability to play a co-primary ball handler role with Booker. In a similar vein, if they are going to feature Ayton heavily in the post, it will be best to have as many shooters around him as possible to let him take advantage of the extra spacing and give him more targets with his wonderful passing in those spots. To compound problems, they also need that guy to play defense at a high level, since that’s not exactly Booker’s forte.
In a particularly weak class for free agent point guards, the only player who really fits every one of Phoenix’s requirements is restricted free agent Fred VanVleet. The Suns could use their cap space to bowl him over with a large offer over four years to make him their point guard of the future, but perhaps there’s a more patient course of action that makes sense for a very young Phoenix roster.
At the top of their roster, only Knight extends past 2018-19, as Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley will come off the books this time next year. Combine that with a particularly interesting extension for T.J. Warren and Booker’s upcoming restricted free agency in 2019 and a long-term plan emerges: save their bullets this summer and prepare for an onslaught of spending next year. Warren’s extension, which kicks in for the 2018-19 season, totals four years and $47 million, but the structure might give away the Suns’ plan: his deal starts at $11.8 million but dips in 2019-20 before coming back up the next two years. Given that Phoenix knew they’d have cap space this summer when they negotiated that extension with Warren, it’s likely that McDonough is looking further out into the future than this year. Booker’s cap hold will be $9.9 million in 2019, a far cry from the max or near-max contract he’ll command this time next year, when they project to have somewhere in the neighborhood of $38 million in cap space. In addition, they’ll be able to use the protected first-round pick they got from Milwaukee for Eric Bledsoe to move Knight’s $15.6 million, getting them awfully close to double max space with a move or two on the periphery. The 2019 free agent class looks to be chock full of talent, including players like Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Al Horford (player option), Kyrie Irving (player option), Jimmy Butler (PO), and Kawhi Leonard (PO). Add one or two of those guys to a roster with Booker, Ayton, and Josh Jackson and there’s a real chance the Suns are back in playoff contention as early as 2020.
With the view toward 2019 free agency, two fourth-year rookie-scale team options will be very interesting to watch as we get closer to October. Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss are owed nearly $10 million combined for 2019-20 but the team can decline those options between now and the beginning of the 2018-19 regular season to clear that salary off the books and get them closer to that tantalizing double max space. While usually inadvisable to decline these team options unless the players are absolutely useless, neither Bender nor Chriss has shown a ton in their first two years to indicate that they’ll be long-term pieces on the Suns. Both players have intriguing ceilings and are still incredibly young, but given that they play the same position and the extra 2019 space Phoenix would generate by opting out, it could be a touch-and-go decision for both players.
At this point in their franchise’s cycle, paying a premium to dump salary in 2018 doesn’t make sense for them. With Chandler and Dudley coming off the book next year, it would take a great deal for Phoenix to want to trade those guys and take on future salary and while those deals will be out there for them, going all-in on 2019 free agency might be the smarter play, depending on what their intel tells them about where they stand with those big-name free agents. Phoenix is not traditionally thought of as a destination for stars but another step forward from Booker, a ROY campaign for Ayton, and considerable development from Jackson or one of the other youngsters on the roster would quickly vault them onto the list of up-and-coming young teams that a star or two could take over the top.