EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns free-agency focus: The center market after Deandre Ayton

Jun 27, 2022, 10:24 AM | Updated: Jun 28, 2022, 9:13 pm

Phoenix Suns forward Frank Kaminsky (8) shoots over Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27)...

Phoenix Suns forward Frank Kaminsky (8) shoots over Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

(AP Photo/Matt York)

Within the next few weeks, we should find out what the Phoenix Suns are thinking.

Do they re-sign center Deandre Ayton to keep their core together? Will they move off any expiring deals? Can improvements be made by shuffling role players around the core group?

To get us ready for whatever changes free agency will bring, let’s look at the player pool to highlight a few targets for Phoenix while considering its current cap situation, along with who fits in functionally and in terms of team culture.

The money situation, briefly, is this: The Suns are already over the salary cap with $128.8 million in guaranteed money going to nine players under contract for next year.

If Ayton re-signs, the Suns will be a luxury tax team for the first time in more than a decade. They will have a $6.4 million tax midlevel exception to consider a rotation-level upgrade, but there is a possibility they could operate at the standard midlevel exception of $10.3 million with significant roster shuffling such as Ayton not returning.

To begin, here’s a look at which centers are on the free-agent market that fit in Phoenix and could be added at those amounts down to the minimum.

Suns’ own free agents

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Deandre Ayton (restricted), 23 years old

2021-22 stats: 17.2 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 63 FG% in 29.5 MPG

JaVale McGee, 34 years old

2021-22 stats: 9.2 PPG, 6.7 RPG 1.1 BPG, 63 FG% in 15.8 MPG

Phoenix can keep McGee at a salary beginning at $7.2 million annually.

Bismack Biyombo, 29 years old

2021-22 stats: 5.8 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.7 BPG, 59 FG% in 14.1 MPG

An offseason that included a visit to the Pope followed an NBA return that showed his value on a winning team after toiling away in Charlotte and Orlando his entire career.

Too-good-to-be-true outside signings

Isaiah Hartenstein (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Isaiah Hartenstein, 23 years old

2021-22 stats: 8.3 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 2.4 APG on 63 FG% in 17.9 MPG

Before getting into it, this section obviously only makes sense if the Suns move Ayton and need a starting-caliber center worth the tax midlevel exception. Hartenstein and fellow Clipper Ivica Zubac split duties for Los Angeles last year making up a versatile tandem, but it was a major step forward for the younger of the two. Hartenstein proved efficient playing for a playoff-caliber squad but also flashed a three-point shot (47% accuracy on 0.4 attempts per game) as well as ball-moving abilities that would entice the Suns.

It’s likely he’s out of Phoenix’s pay range, yet still worth mentioning if the Suns don’t bring back Ayton and can somehow operate with the standard midlevel exception. Even that’s a big maybe if other teams saw the growth to throw big cash at Hartenstein.

Zubac is also a free agent who would be an upgrade in the screen-setting department, but Hartenstein is the better fit in terms of style and has upside.

Kevon Looney, 26 years old

2021-22 stats: 6.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 0.6 BPG, 2.0 APG on 57% shooting in 21.1 minutes per game

The market for a 20-minute-per-game center with tons of experience on a championship-level squad should be fierce. Then again, if you’re only getting 20 minutes per game out of him, maybe there won’t be gobs of money on the table. Looney will be valued for his ability to be in the right spots defensively, rebound and operate in a star-studded offense.

It’s hard to gauge if other teams wouldn’t value Looney as the Warriors or a team like Phoenix should, and that would sway whether he got more than the Suns’ tax midlevel. It’s likely he makes more than that.

Realistic options in the Suns’ wheelhouse

Frank Kaminsky (AP Photo/Matt York)

Frank Kaminsky, 29 years old

2021-22 stats: 10.6 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.8 BPG, 55 FG%, 33 3FG% in 20.1 MPG (nine games)

The no-duh option to lead us off, Kaminsky would have to forgive Phoenix once again for parting ways with him, though his knee health likely made the decision between him or Ish Wainright making the playoff roster an easy one last season. If the Suns feel good about that knee issue that’s hit him twice now, they get their ball-moving stretch center back. That could be even more needed if the team moves Dario Saric’s expiring contract.

Naz Reid (team option)

2021-22 stats: 8.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 49 FG%, 34 3FG% in 15.8 MPG

The T-Wolves drafted shot-blocking center Walker Kessler and could move on from the 22-year-old Reid, who forced his way onto the court thanks to a relentless motor. He’s got a decent shooting stroke on low volume but has made an appearance on USA Basketball’s Select Team as well as some of its junior squads, which is always a good sign.

Thomas Bryant, 24 years old

2021-22 stats: 7.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 0.8 BPG, 52 FG% in 16.3 MPG

He was a double-digit scorer for the Washington Wizards from 2018-21 before he played just 27 games at the end of this past season having recovered from an ACL tear. Bryant’s averages against the Suns in five games over his career are 17.4 points and 10.4 rebounds — basically Ayton’s season averages from a year ago — which are respectively more than 2.0 points and 2.2 rebounds better than against any other NBA team.

I’m just saying, he popped when Suns brass watched him.

At 6-foot-10 and 248 pounds, Bryant is a tad undersized but fits right in the pay range and would be an energy backup big.

Chris Boucher, 29 years old

2021-22 stats: 9.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG , 0.9 BPG, 46 FG%, 30 3FG%

Even more undersized than Bryant, Boucher is a floor-spacing big if you believe his 2020-21 season (38% from deep) is obtainable and not his career shooting from three (34%). A development project who earned a role with the Toronto Raptors, he’d be familiar with new assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, who was head coach of the Raptors’ G League squad and had been an assistant on the NBA staff as well.

Gorgui Dieng, 32 years old

2021-22 stats: 3.5 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 0.3 BPG, 47 FG%, 43 3FG% in 8.4 MPG (44 games with Atlanta)

Devin Booker had been in an Instagram tiff with Jae Crowder and an on-court scuffle with Troy Daniels before those players eventually joined the Suns. I proclaim Dieng a potential Suns free agency target via the “Devin Booker Rule,” as he and Booker have had multiple run-ins. One was an “I’ll meet you in the hallway” double-ejection that led arena staffers to frantically cut off a hallway between the two locker rooms.

Anyway, he’s another energy big to consider on a vet’s minimum. Also, we know he’ll meet opponents in the back.

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