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Why now and what’s next? Booker’s extension and Suns’ 2019 free agency

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Is it too early to peek a year into the Phoenix Suns’ future?

We’re only a few Deandre Ayton Sin City steps into his NBA career. Hope, or at least interest, is more plentiful with Ayton joining the team’s core of lottery picks dominating the storylines in 2018-19.

Still, 2019 is that summer, the one that will likely be the last chance for Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough to put the finishing touches on a plan for a team that since 2010 has starved its fans of a playoff appearance.

Devin Booker signed a five-year, projected $158 million contract extension on Sunday, and it was the last major step in projecting how much money Phoenix will have to spend next summer.

First, let’s get this out of the way: The Suns had to sign Booker to a max deal — that’s his value. It’s better to do it this summer than next.

There was only one advantage to waiting until 2019. Booker could have signed a contract that pushed Phoenix over the projected $109 million salary cap — by however much — because the Suns own his Bird rights. That would have, in practice, allowed them to sign a big-time, max free agent in addition to Booker.

But waiting risked a lot. It risked hinting to Booker that maybe he wasn’t worth all that money. It risked him talking to other teams as a restricted free agent coming off a rookie deal.

Even though Phoenix could match any contract offer given to the guard, Booker signing an offer sheet would be another black eye to the franchise that under McDonough held a Cold War-esque negotiation period with Eric Bledsoe and has repeatedly turned players into disgruntled, loud distractions who forced their way out of town.

Booker, as a 21-year-old who can efficiently score 25 points a game without NBA-caliber talent around him, all while heading into a free agency period where nearly half the league could attempt to sign him, would’ve made max dollars.

Guaranteed.

First-year Suns coach Igor Kokoskov explained the easy decision to extend Booker best.

“My grandfather used to say, ‘Don’t tell me you love me. Show me,’” the Suns coach said Monday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Bickley & Marotta. “We showed Devin how much we love him and how much we believe he is the face of the franchise.”

Signing Booker now is also about selling next offseason’s free agents on the franchise. Booker on the recruiting trail makes any pitch to turn around the Suns much better.

“You saw what they did going out and getting Trevor (Ariza) on a one-year deal,” ESPN’s Bobby Marks, a former Nets executive, told Doug & Wolf on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station. “The ability to try to sell something to free agents is going to be key this season. I do expect them to have some type of appeal.”

And the 2019 free agent market is deep.

Outside of stars with player options — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler, Marc Gasol among them — are restricted free agents like Karl-Anthony Towns (as of now) and Kristaps Porzingis.

Among Class B stars, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Kemba Walker will enter unrestricted free agency.

Ricky Rubio (unrestricted), Tobias Harris (unrestricted), Khris Middleton (player option), Malcolm Brogdon (restricted), Terry Rozier (restricted), D’Angelo Russell (restricted), Kevin Love (player option) and Paul Millsap (team option) could be had on the market at positions of need.

How much do the Suns have to spend?

Booker’s approximate $28 million owed to him when his extension kicks in next July will limit the Suns significantly. Where some teams like Dallas with its core of Luka Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes could easily open upward of $50 million to spend, Phoenix only can find room for just under $20 million.

That’s if it doesn’t re-sign its own free agents: Troy Daniels, Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley and the recently-signed Trevor Ariza.

Still, even in a more active buyer’s market, that could be enough to, say, sign a player the caliber of the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon, who inked a four-year, $84 million deal this summer.

Finding room for a max contract might not be difficult. It would require tough decisions, however.

Move around a few million via trades and/or minor cuts during the upcoming season and the Suns could find themselves on the verge of having enough space without any major moves.

One potentially telling sign about Phoenix’s intentions? Upcoming decisions on Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender, whose team options for 2019-20 must be picked up by the end of this October. At $4.1 million and $5.9 million, respectively, the Suns opening up themselves to losing one of the young forwards would generate a good deal of the needed cap space. That’s only if a run at signing a max player in 2019 is in order.

The Suns could also bank on searching for a trade of some of their young pieces under contract to open enough cap room.

With many young pieces on the roster sitting on lottery-sized rookie contracts, Phoenix is surprisingly not as flexible as some other teams, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted in his early 2019 free agency preview.

It’s partially by design. The Suns have already committed to betting on their young core group. They’ll hope that by the end of 2018-19 it’s a more enticing collection of talent than what a large majority of NBA teams ready and willing to spend can present in luring free agents.

Phoenix will finally have a chance to flex its foundation in the free agent market during a summer that could reshape the power balance of the NBA.

And we’ll finally find out just how powerful the pull of a Booker-led core in the desert really is.

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