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Looking ahead to potential moves for Suns: Trading Tyler Johnson

Tyler Johnson #16 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball during the second half of the NBA game against the Golden State Warriors at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 08, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Warriors defeated the Suns 117-107. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns still have a two-way contract spot open, but for the time being, they are as good as done with shuffling their roster during the offseason. The overhaul is complete and the depth chart is clear.

Looking ahead to training camp through to the trade deadline, however, and there are a couple of moves we could see happen for the Suns that shift the direction of the long-term roster. Empire of the Suns takes a look at a few candidates, including an expiring contract they could use to get better.

At the moment, it feels like the Suns’ roster is on stable ground.

They are building around Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, the two pillars for the team in the present and the future. Mikal Bridges, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ricky Rubio serve as solid role players alongside them and Dario Saric could be another one depending on if the Suns bring him back. The hope is rookies Cam Johnson and Ty Jerome get there sooner rather than later as well.

And in the part of our show where you realize how significant it was to get off of Josh Jackson’s and T.J. Warren’s money, assuming the Suns accept team options on Ayton and Bridges while holding Saric’s cap hold to retain him as a restricted free agent, the Suns would have only $94 million in guaranteed salaries heading into next summer. By the way, if Jackson and Warren were still around, that number would have been nearly $115 million.

While numbers aren’t official yet, the latest projections by the league office have the salary cap at $116 million, meaning the Suns could have $22 million in space in that aforementioned scenario and $32 million if they renounce Saric. That’s enough money to significantly upgrade one spot on the roster, ala signing Rubio for $17 million a year a few weeks ago.

With Saric (restricted free agent) and Frank Kaminsky (team option) on potential one-year deals, there isn’t a clear piece in place at power forward.

Meanwhile, there are four at the two wing spots, one at center and two at point guard.

Thus, the most obvious place to bolster the roster is with a legit four-man, and as always, the easiest way to do so will be via trade.

That’s where we finally arrive at Tyler Johnson’s big ‘ole $19.2 million expiring contract.

Johnson is arguably the Suns’ best trade asset they’d be willing to move. If he were dealt around the trade deadline, he’d offer a team instant cap relief.

That’s the spin but there are several asterisks to get through when it comes to potentially moving on from Johnson.

For one, the aforementioned team receiving Johnson would have to get cap relief because someone else takes on long-term money. Whether that’s the Suns eating that money and receiving draft picks in return or acquiring a good player while giving up more in the deal, that’s how the deal would function.

So now we’ve got to find the player the Suns would be willing to take on to sacrifice all that comfy leg room they created for themselves in 2020 and beyond.

The two names that match from a potential availability perspective and what the Suns could want are the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love.

Gordon is still only 23 years old and has established himself as a productive player. The problem is that his play suggests he wants to be Kevin Durant, when given his skill and athleticism, he should want to be Draymond Green.

The former No. 4 overall pick’s advancements as an off-the-dribble scorer are encouraging but the fact that he can capably switch onto three positions, distribute (3.7 assists per game last year!) and rebound (over seven a game the last two years!) point towards a true breakout as a superstar role player if he wants it. The jumper, as well, has at least progressed to viable at over 34% on 3-point attempts the past two seasons. Even take out the obvious Arizona Wildcats links and you’ve still got a pretty awesome skillset as Ayton’s frontcourt partner.

It’s an expensive question on Gordon to answer, though, whether he is more KD or Draymond. He makes $19.9 million next season, with his salary decreasing to $18.1 million the year after and $16.4 million the last season.

Given the way the Magic have operated, everything points towards them not valuing Gordon as a true building block. His contract extension being structured that way makes him easier to trade and Orlando has added Jonathan Isaac (2017 draft), Al-Farouq Aminu (2019 free agency) and Chuma Okeke (2019 draft) at his position. Flashbacks to the Suns drafting Jackson and Bridges with Warren on the roster, eh?

In regards to the other name, the thinking is the Cavaliers would be ecstatic to get off Love’s contract. He makes at least $28 million (!) each of the next four seasons and he has not played in over 60 games three straight years, including 81 total the past two. Yikes!

But Love adds up to precisely the type of player James Jones has been coveting this offseason. He has not one premium skill, but two. He’s one of the best shooting and rebounding bigs in the league, on top of being a pretty great scorer too.

Surely with Cleveland heading nowhere, they’d simply accept a team taking on Love’s money. You could argue they’d need to attach a pick or three on top.

But the thinking on acquiring Gordon would be different. The Suns would likely have to give up more than Johnson, and that’s where it gets complicated. Phoenix owns all their first-round picks in the future and those are by far their best trade chips. But should the Suns even peek inside that war chest before winning 30 games? Probably not, right?

No one else on the roster provides much value. Cam Johnson and Jerome weren’t top 10 picks and won’t potentially eclipse that value until they play. Saric might be a little something if a team wanted to re-sign him and who knows what GM is still infatuated with Elie Okobo. It’s dire and the Suns should not even consider Bridges in a deal unless it’s a substantial one, and even then, I’m talking about just considering.

But Johnson at least positions them to get hypothetical if a specific name they fancy gets on the market. Philadelphia retaining Tobias Harris on a max deal only to give 33-year-old Al Horford nearly $100 million could signal one of their exits if things go awry in year one of that experiment. The rumblings out of Indiana and Domantas Sabonis being the odd man out continue. And there are a few names that will come out of nowhere like they always do.

Make no mistake, though, that Jones’ pivot in asset value means this is not the days of general manager Ryan McDonough hoarding assets and waiting for the right deal to come. That deal never came anyway but he had always positioned the Suns to have enough to offer if it did.

It’s not a good or bad thing that Jones has taken this approach, but rather, the Suns’ reality on the trade market for now.

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