EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Report: Suns PG Paul could decline option; Ayton might earn max

Jun 3, 2021, 11:17 AM
Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) and center Deandre Ayton (22) talk during a timeout during the fo...

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) and center Deandre Ayton (22) talk during a timeout during the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets during an NBA basketball game in Houston, Monday, April 5, 2021. (Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP)

(Troy Taormina/Pool Photo via AP)

There’s much to sort out this season for the Phoenix Suns before we look down the road. You know, like their first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers.

But how some Suns players do this postseason was going to matter a lot when it finally comes to the team’s offseason. Let’s not skip over that.

Injuries matter. So do individual performances under the pressure of the playoffs.

Free agency will approach quickly, and with that, Phoenix’s front office is likely already preparing to fit a whole lot more money on the books in the next two seasons, at least.

The biggest thing they will have to navigate is this: Bleacher Report cap expert Eric Pincus reports that the Suns might be having to fit extensions for Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges with a fresh new deal for point guard Chris Paul.

Paul has a $44.4 million player option, which according to several sources, he intends to decline with hopes of inking a new multiyear deal (perhaps in the $100 million range over three seasons). It’s unclear if his recent shoulder injury changes his plans.

That reporting obviously comes with the asterisk that Paul’s decision is not yet made up. His current shoulder issue is one of many things that could change things months down the road.

Still, it’s going to be a hot topic this summer because the 36-year-old Paul would seemingly be making the right financial move to search out a longer-term deal. His play this year for the Suns surely hasn’t hurt him in terms of future earning potential.

Paul averaged 16.4 points and 8.9 assists in the regular season, missing only two of 72 games. He shot 50% overall and 40% from three.

The point guard had a seamless transition leading a new club alongside two-time All-Star Devin Booker. They appear to get along with each other and head coach Monty Williams. All seems well.

Meanwhile, Bridges flashed enough to believe he’s not hit his ceiling as a complementary piece, while Ayton’s playoff performance through Game 5 against the Lakers has only bolstered his potential future earnings, according to Pincus’ polling of NBA folks.

“He’s worth the max,” agreed three different NBA sources.

But isn’t the center position dying in the NBA?

That doesn’t seem to be the case this postseason with the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid and the Utah Jazz with Rudy Gobert. The first two are set to earn $31.6 million next season, and Gobert, the least offensive-minded of the three, is projected to take home $35.3 million.

Ayton could potentially have more opportunity to back up those sources’ opinions if the Suns advance in the playoffs and face Jokic and the Nuggets, who as of Thursday have a 3-2 lead on the Portland Trail Blazers.

Meanwhile, Pincus’ culling of NBA sources includes this on Bridges:

In addition to Ayton and Paul, Bridges won’t be cheap, with his next contract likely to be higher than the $20 million a year Jerami Grant got with the Detroit Pistons. He too may seek a maximum deal, which could eventually prove problematic for the Suns if Ayton, Booker, Paul and Bridges are all on lucrative contracts.

Projecting for the 2021-22 season, the Suns will be over the salary cap but in a manageable state regardless of whether Paul opts out. Ayton and Bridges will be on the fourth and final year of their rookie deals, whether they agree to extensions this summer or not.

As it stands, the Suns already have nine players under contract for next year for a combined $125 million. Point guard Cam Payne and Torrey Craig are Phoenix’s own free agents who could be first in line to return on larger deals.

The 2022-23 season is where Phoenix will be squeezed. Sacrifices will have to be made in some form, whether that’s further back on the roster or tough choices with the core group.

Extending Paul beyond next season would put the Suns at the same nine players earning close to $150 million combined, which will surely put the team in luxury tax territory. That means, with taxes, Phoenix would be pushing $170 million in spending with more roster spots to fill out. That’s a steep price, even for the NBA’s elite.

The good news: In NBA terms, there’s tons of time to find cost-cutting measures. And quite a few will be needed if the core four — Booker, Paul, Ayton and Bridges — is kept together.

Suns owner Robert Sarver in May told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo he was committed to keeping that core together.

“From a financial standpoint, I am,” he said. “In terms of the timing of contracts and who and this and that, that’s something that (general manager) James (Jones) and his crew will be working on I’m sure during the summer. But in terms of from ownership, yeah, we’re committed for sure.

“We know that will take more money than this year and that’s OK,” Sarver added. “Listen, we paid the tax three years before, and when you’re at the point we are, you do what you can.”

Salary figures via Spotrac.com.

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Report: Suns PG Paul could decline option; Ayton might earn max