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What it means for the Suns to operate over the cap after Chris Paul trade

James Jones, Suns general manager (Matt Layman/Arizona Sports)

As Chris Paul’s trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Phoenix Suns became official on Monday night, word is leaking out about further plans by Phoenix general manager James Jones moving forward.

The Suns have finalized the trade of Paul and wing Abdel Nader coming to Phoenix in exchange for Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre Jr., Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque and a protected 2022 draft pick. Doing so before reaching free agency instead of after alters what money the Suns have to spend.

With the salary cap set at $109 million, the Suns are expected to operate as a team over the cap but well under the $132 million luxury tax threshold, reports Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro and ESPN.

Here’s what we know and what money will be left for them to fill out a roster.

What if the Suns had waited on the Paul trade?

The Suns could have opened up much more cap space if they waited on making the blockbuster trade until after they signed free agents during a period that begins Friday.

Had Phoenix held off on the deal and renounced itself from cap holds on free agents like Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and Jevon Carter, plus waived options and non-guaranteed deals to Frank Kaminsky, Cam Payne, Cheick Diallo and Elie Okobo, Jones could have found close to $18 million in cap space to be aggressive in free agency.

Holds are dollar amounts counting against a team’s salary cap to keep free agents’ Bird rights, which allows teams to re-sign players above the salary cap. They are a placeholder that limits a team’s ability to use cap space before re-signing their own free agents so easily. In other words, teams must make a choice.

Releasing all their holds and declining options would have allowed the Suns to go after pricier players like Thunder free agent power forward Danilo Gallinari or the Nuggets’ Jerami Grant, the latter of whom reportedly opted out of a $9 million contract with Denver on Monday. Both are expected to seek out contracts more than $10 million a year.

Phoenix could have signed them and then gone over the cap by making a trade for Paul. But then the Suns would be forced to fill out many more roster spots with veteran’s minimum deals while losing players from last year’s team.

Instead, the Suns have already shipped $35,196,021 in salaries to the Thunder while taking on Paul’s and Nader’s combined $43,111,764 salaries, eating into nearly $8 million in available space compared to waiting on the deal.

What does Phoenix have to work with financially after finalizing the Paul trade before free agency?

If the Suns keep some cap holds and draft a player No. 10 as expected, they can be above the salary cap.

While doing the trade now to work as an over-the-cap team may appear to be about spending more money, it’s not. Instead, the Suns are foregoing the chance to go after a higher-level free agent target to seek out more reasonable free agent deals via larger exceptions, all while keeping the ability to bring back more players that were on last year’s team because they can be over the cap to do so.

Not only does Paul’s contract cut into potential spending money, but the Suns could also bring back one or both of backup big men Dario Saric or Aron Baynes. Gambadoro and ESPN believe the Suns will attempt to keep Saric, who is a restricted free agent.

To retain Saric’s Bird rights and keep him as a restricted free agent for them to match any offer from another team, there is a cap hold of $10,445,958 weighing Phoenix down. Because they want to keep him, that’s another chunk of money that would have limited the cap space available to sign a new player.

If the Suns keep other holds, regardless of who ends up ultimately re-signing, they have two more chunks of change to spend via exceptions:

– Non-taxpayer mid-level exception: $9,258,000

– Bi-annual exception: $3,818,000

If the Suns were under the $109 million cap, they would have some cash to spend but a smaller, room mid-level exception worth just more than $5 million instead of the non-taxpayer mid-level exception worth nearly twice as much.

Being over the cap as free agency begins at 4 p.m. MST Friday gives them the ability to still sign two quality rotation pieces and the potential to bring quite a few guys back from last year.

Which bench players might return?

The good news for the Suns is they can re-sign any players currently on the roster and keep edging above the cap because they own their Bird rights.

One would expect they want Carter back as an undersized, bullying presence to play off the ball at guard. Payne’s bubble performance makes him an ideal candidate to return as a backup point guard. Even if they sign or trade for a No. 3 combo guard, both of Carter’s and Payne’s salaries should be reasonable to keep around.

Baynes may be aging but is coming off his most productive season as a pro. Okobo, Kaminsky and Diallo all have familiarity under head coach Monty Williams and would act as decent end-of-bench depth players.

Saric’s bubble performance as a backup power forward or small-ball five leads us to believe he can build on that aggressive role even if the Suns go with dual-wing starters or sign a free agent power forward.

Who returns, of course, depends a lot on how the Suns use the exceptions and which positions they fill with them.

The fact that the Suns are reportedly going to work over the cap indicates that, while the Paul trade shakes things up for sure, they still want to bottle last year’s successful bubble run and keep a relatively good amount of roster continuity.


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