Vol. 3, Iss. 2: What Are You Up To, Champ?
It may not be time to judge the Suns off-season just yet. Or quite possibly, even any time soon.
And We’re Back…..
The Suns have had an interesting off-season so far but it may not be over yet. While this Issue will cover a specific topic, I will be back soon with Max in pod form to talk in depth about all the moves made. More about that in the OT section at the bottom of this page. If you aren’t a subscriber, be sure to change that by hitting the button below & then you’ll get an email as soon as the full off-season wrap up pod drops.
Time To Talk Titles…..
Champ by name, Champ by nature.
The Phoenix Suns General Manager, James Jones, earned his nickname by being a winner. It’s not just the 3 NBA titles Jones won with Cleveland & Miami either.
How about 7 consecutive trips to the NBA Finals? Missing the Playoffs just once in a 14 year career spanning across 5 NBA franchises? Or my personal favourite even - zero ‘losing’ seasons in his entire NBA career? That’s right, Jones’ lone season in Portland ended with a 41-41 record. A .500 season was the most losing JJ had to endure during his impressive professional career. What a chump!
Nah, it’s Champ.
While many will argue Jones hardly played a pivotal on court role in delivering much of the success, his teammates would disagree. Perhaps no more important teammate than LeBron James, who once said “He's my favorite player of all time.” Jones contributed to winning in other ways.
But such is life, the thirst to win is never entirely quenched. Jones now finds himself looking for that 1st NBA Title post retirement as a player. It’s that unique playing career that perhaps makes Jones the perfect man for the Suns job. While there wasn’t a heap of minutes for Champ on the court during the 3 Championship runs, there was a ton of time to observe what ingredients go into the winning recipe.
Specifically, Jones was part of not 1 but 2 teams that went all the way after faltering at the final hurdle the year before. Relevant, you might say.
The brief for the Suns current GM is simple - deliver Phoenix its first ever Larry O’Brien trophy after coming up short in 2020/21. So what do we know about the GM?
Jones often preaches continuity & the Suns current off-season moves certainly exemplify that mantra. Chris Paul, Cam Payne, Abdel Nader & Frank Kaminsky make up 4 of the 6 total moves Jones has made since we last spoke. JaVale McGee & Elfrid Payton being the remaining 2 signings, with just 1 slot left in the Suns 15 man roster.
But what else do we know? James Jones also likes Championships & he hasn’t been afraid to pull the trigger when there is a move to be made that gets Phoenix closer to that elusive goal. See: a certain starting PG we are about to talk about a bit more.
In case it wasn’t clear to you by now - we are here to speculate on what the Suns current moves say about what Phoenix might do in the future.
It’s speculation szn, after all.
Is The Champ Happy To Run It Back?
Let me be VERY clear before we dive head first into all these numbers. Everything below is all pure speculation on my part, after closely following the Suns situation this off-season.
But here’s the thing - I was going to wait on publishing my last prediction in Vol. 3, Iss. 1 until after it potentially happened. Let’s be honest - that would have been WAY less fun, so I am glad I didn’t. In that same spirit, I am going early again. Just. In. Case.
It’s with that previous Newsletter where the follow up theory all starts.
Whilst we nailed the 4 Year / $120,000,000 contract as a whole, the finer details were a little different than expected. And very much in the Suns favour. So much so, that I was a little shocked when the full contract came through.
One reason Phoenix may have reached such a good deal with CP3, including just $75,000,000 in guaranteed money, is because some assurances were made about the Suns front office doing anything it takes to win during his contract.
Yes, Phoenix have a great young core but CP3 is also about to turn 37 before the 21/22 NBA Playoffs. It’s that dichotomy that currently fascinates me. Especially when you add it to the contrast between Jones’ playing career & the team he is now in charge of.
All of James Jones’ NBA Titles as a player came with top tier NBA talent, surrounded by top up role players. Recently Jones has pushed the ‘5x3 Index Card’ philosophy, preaching being 3 deep at all 5 positions. But his history is anything but that. It has been more the ‘3x3’ model. That’s 3 Championships on the back of Big 3s.
Currently, the Phoenix Suns don’t possess a Big 3. Whether you believe they could already have a future Big 3 within their current roster or not, the fact is they did not have one last season. This was no more evident than in the NBA Finals loss to the Bucks. But I am not here to debate that topic today.
Instead - let’s focus for a second on those 2 bridesmaid to bride stories in James’ past. No matter how you want to frame it, this challenge is a little different for the Suns.
2011/12 - With a Big 3 of James, Dwyane Wade & Chris Bosh - the Miami Heat add Shane Battier in FA after losing in the Finals. Battier logs the 6th most minutes for the Heat as they win the title the following season.
2015/16 - With a Big 3 of James, Kyrie Irving & Kevin Love - the Cleveland Cavaliers add Richard Jefferson in FA after losing in the Finals. Jefferson logs the 7th most minutes for the Cavs as they win the title the following season.
Currently, Jones doesn’t sport a Big 3 on the level of either of those teams from his past. Nor has he recently acquired a player possible of cracking the Suns 8-man rotation in a potential Finals return. At least, in my current opinion.
So, back to Chris Paul. *Warning* - this is where the math starts.
After CP3 restructured his contract to earn $13,411,146 less this upcoming season, is he really going to be happy to just ‘Run It Back’ as he put it? And with all due respect to McGee, did Paul do it just so the Suns could sign a backup C & offer his backup PG, CP15, a modest contract that at least appeared to come with its own discount?
Perhaps more importantly, is Jones really happy running it back? Something about the numbers makes me feel like the answer is potentially - no.
Maybe Jones Didn’t Like The Margins?
In the NBA, you win with elite talent & winning on the margins. As we’ve seen, James Jones’ own playing career is proof of that. Even if his executive career hasn't quite mirrored that yet.
But what if you don’t like the margins currently on offer? While Suns fans expected, myself included, the Suns to use the savings presented by CP3 & CP15s new contracts on the full MLE & BAE as a bare minimum - currently Jones has done neither.
Maybe the focus is on bolstering that top 8 of the rotation. And maybe Jones didn’t like what was on offer in FA to do that. What if the focus is instead to lean on what the Suns already have while being setup with some flexibility to make future moves?
Before we move on, I want to make an important clarification. There is certainly a school of thought out there that the Suns are just some #InternalDevelopment away from having their own Big 3 & even a solidified Top 8 Finals rotation. I am not here to argue against that school at all or to say what Jones is doing is 100% right or wrong. Instead, from here on out we will be predicting what Phoenix might do based on what the numbers say.
Enough with the disclaimers already!
Currently, I project the Suns to be $6,562,949 below the Luxury Tax line. That’s even with a Veteran Minimum signing for the 15th roster spot. Why do I find that number to be interesting?
Well, for one specific reason in particular - salary matching in trades.
Let’s say Phoenix want to make a deal before the season starts to bolster the roster. For non-tax paying teams, of which the Suns are currently one, there are 3 rules when it comes to matching salary;
If outgoing salary is < $6,533,333 then incoming salary can be 175% + $100,000.
If outgoing salary is < $19,600,000 then incoming salary can be + $5,000,000.
If outgoing salary is > $19,600,000 then incoming salary can be 125% + $100,000.
Here’s where that $6,562,949 figure gets really interesting. If you look at the table below, you will see it goes pretty close to the maximum salary the Suns can take back if they decided to trade Jalen Smith.
Perhaps even more interesting, if the Suns looked to package Smith & Dario Saric they can take back $5,000,000 extra in salary. That could also be a 2 for 1 trade, meaning Phoenix would then need to fill an open roster spot again. Coincidentally, or maybe not, $6,562,949 minus $5,000,000 is $1,562,959. Almost identical to the cost of a Veteran Minimum contract - $1,669,178. Interesting.
Are there exact trades or player contracts that fit into this whole theory? I’ll let you go find out. To me, it may not currently be about specific players but Phoenix wanting the maximum flexibility they can carve out to make potential moves.
Possible Alternate Ending - Phoenix are saving their exceptions & the tax room for a buy-out candidate or 2. Semi related, Kevin Love once said this about James Jones - “He's probably one of, if not, my best friend in the league.”
Bigger Plans For The Suns GM?
The Suns current salary cap situation even hints that they like the flexibility afforded to make even bigger moves going into next season. These could be ‘instead of’ the above or even, ‘in addition to’.
As it currently stands, Phoenix have only used $5,000,000 of the full $9,536,000 Non-Tax Payer MLE. The Suns also haven’t used the $3,732,000 BAE or executed a Sign & Trade. Why is all that important? Well, because any of those potential moves would invoke the ‘Hard Cap’ & result in the Suns not being able to spend a single $1 over the ‘Apron’ - roughly $143,000,000.
My senses are tingling.
The natural reaction in FA so far has been to question why the Suns wouldn’t use all the avenues available to them to get better. They are there, why not use them? Again, the question I would pose - maybe Jones doesn’t like what is currently on offer?
Okay - back to salary matching rules. There is only 1 rule for tax-paying teams or teams who will go into the tax after a trade;
For any outgoing salary, incoming salary can be 125% + $100,000.
Let’s pivot to the $12,958,949 figure now in the salary cap situation above. If the Suns were ‘Hard Capped’ then they cannot under any circumstances use more than that amount in the current season. And it would already be approximately half of that if they made one of the trades I suggested above.
But they aren’t ‘Hard Capped’.
So for as unlikely as it may seem right now, maybe again they like having that flexibility. Whilst Phoenix look right now to want to avoid the Luxury Tax line (there’s actually somewhat legitimate reasons for that), what if the right trade came along to push you over the top?
Imagine not being able to execute a roster altering trade because you signed a player with the BAE that isn’t even in the rotation. Could Jones look CP3 in the eye & say they did everything to help him win?
Final Disclaimer - Up until this point, I’ve been purposely not talking specific trades in order to not cloud the points I am trying to make. This isn’t about which players I like & don’t like. However, I understand examples can help illustrate the overall point. So here’s an EXAMPLE (don’t kill me) of how all of this could work.
What Are You Up To, Champ?
Let’s say the Suns can successfully trade Smith & Saric before the season starts but want to stay under the tax. The most salary they can take back is $17,968,000. A current favourite target among Suns fans is Thaddeus Young. A possible Battier or Jefferson level rotational piece. Young & his Spurs teammate, Drew Eubanks, can comfortably fit within that maximum together in a trade. Tick.
Further into the season, Buddy Hield then becomes available on the trade market. Phoenix can reach his $22,477,272 salary in a trade by including Jae Crowder, Landry Shamet & McGee. They can even possibly do it by re-trading Young instead of Crowder, if they were reluctant to lose Jae for their return to the Finals push. Tick.
Importantly though, with these moves the Suns would require further signings by way of unsigned FAs or Buy-Out candidates to replenish the roster. While the moves themselves would be choosing talent at the pointy end of the roster over depth, there are still legal minimum requirements on roster sizes. Plus, it’s just smart business to still have some insurance. So after all those moves, Phoenix would be up against or possibly even over the ‘Apron’. Something they can only legally do because they never made themselves ‘Hard Capped’ to begin with. Tick.
Of course, in this make believe theory world a lot of the above moves would be contingent on more than 1 variable becoming true. Has Deandre Ayton created a legitimate Big 3? Is Cam Johnson ready for more minutes at PF? Are the Suns 1 or 2 players short from having a legit Finals ready 8-man rotation? Hell, one could even wonder if any of the Suns more prominent names could be traded under this plan?
Questions all Suns fans are waiting with bated breath for answers to. Myself included.
Possible Extra Alternative - this is an extra nerdy tidbit that many of you may not care about & also one that likely won’t occur. But I am throwing it in anyway. If the McGee contract ends up being announced officially at a little less than $5,000,000, there might be a reason for that. The minimum contract the Suns can give a Rookie with 0 years service in the NBA is $925,258 if they want to go longer than 2 years. The current difference between McGee’s $5,000,000 deal & the total Tax MLE is $890,000. Unfortunately, that cannot apply to Ty-Shon Alexander though as he’s already considered to have 1 years service.
To round out this conversation - whilst I may not be a complete fan of the whole James Jones led off-season to date, I’m not entirely convinced it’s time to play judge & jury just yet. If we’ve come to learn 1 thing about JJ since he’s become GM, it’s to focus on the overall result rather than the individual transactions.
There are signs that Phoenix decided rather than cash their chips in too soon, the Suns instead wanted to bide their time. Now we wait to see if that is in fact true.
One thing is for sure - if the strategy is all about finding the best Top 8 for the Finals, that starts with deciding where the holes actually are. You’ve heard enough from me for now though, so I’ll let you decide where that might be for the current Suns.
A different look for OT this week. Rather than sharing some other recent content, I want to invite you to ask any questions you want answered for future content!
Next Issue will be a Podcast. Drop all your Qs or comments below & we will do our best to touch on all of them in the next Newsletter.