EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns face complex avenues for potentially moving on from Chris Paul

May 23, 2023, 10:55 AM

Chris Paul...

Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns in the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Crypto.com Arena on April 20, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns know what they want to get done this offseason with what will be some type of roster makeover. It’s just a matter of how the cap situation limits the functionality of that roster, and it’s not solely about making simple choices of bringing guys back or not.

Let me explain with one example.

One of the bullet points on the whiteboard is Chris Paul. With his decline and how the offense is now centered around Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, there are reasons to look into moving on from him and his $30 million price tag. Only $15 million of his $30 million is guaranteed until June 28, by the way.

Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro has been rolling out a few names on Burns & Gambo when it comes to potential replacements if Phoenix decides to get rid of Paul. In addition to Los Angeles Lakers guard Dennis Schroder and Boston Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon, he noted Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent.

The 26-year-old undrafted product of UCSB is having a breakout postseason, averaging 12.9 points and 4.1 assists per game. It is phenomenal timing, with unrestricted free agency coming up for him this summer. After making $3.5 million across his first three NBA seasons, he’s going to make a whole lot more than that in just the next year alone.

Vincent’s name getting brought up is a good excuse to briefly tap our toes in the water for a temperature check of free agency before returning to our poolside lounge chair with a drink in hand.

The Suns are well over the tax, which not only means Phoenix will have to pay a penalty for the second straight year, but it won’t have access to the better tools granted to over-the-cap teams for signing free agents.

And the timing for the league’s incoming rule changes is going to hurt the few teams like the Suns the most.

ESPN’s Bobby Marks notes the new second apron of $179.5 million is one the Suns are likely to hit — just their top four players make $146 million alone — and that’ll mean they don’t even get to use a $5 million taxpayer midlevel exception (TPMLE), with all of these exception numbers per Marks’ projections. If the Suns get through late June’s NBA Draft and enter July without any movement, that will be the case. The new stuff kicks in then.

Phoenix didn’t sign anyone with the TPMLE last offseason when it could have, something we discussed tirelessly on the Empire of the Suns podcast because it allowed the Suns to add another rotation-quality player at a hefty price of further ballooning Phoenix’s tax bill. If you don’t believe it was worth all the fuss, take a look at what Denver Nuggets guard Bruce Brown and Miami Heat wing Caleb Martin are doing right now en route to the NBA Finals. Yep, both of them were signed off that exception.

That spotlights how important it is for Phoenix to utilize everything at its disposal, especially this offseason. And this is a point in saying we won’t know yet but will by the end of June.

The Suns will for sure have Booker and Durant back. The only other players under fully guaranteed contracts for next season are those two, Deandre Ayton and Landry Shamet.

An option for deeply widening the free-agent mechanisms would be waiving and stretching Paul. By doing that, Phoenix could potentially get all the way under the tax if it gets rid of more nonguaranteed money. That would enable the Suns to use the default midlevel exception ($12.2 million) and the bi-annual exception ($4.5 million) instead of only being able to sign players to veteran minimum deals if they are over the aforementioned second apron. The MLE is how Phoenix signed Jae Crowder two years ago.

In addition, the Suns would have more moving room on sign-and-trade avenues.

The debate here is what makes that worth it for Phoenix. The decision on guaranteeing Paul’s $30 million salary number would have to come before free agency. At that point, the Suns would be banking on 1) replacing Paul with a solid starting point guard and 2) making it worth it by signing the right guys with those tools. That’s more of an unknown and hedging a bet during an unpredictable time. The Suns could think it’s a smart move because player X is a safe bet to sign, until team Y offers player X more money. Then the plan is kaput.

Vincent might have gone for the TPMLE six weeks ago, but after the playoff run he’s having while heading toward true life-changing money for the first time in his life, the regular MLE might be a more reasonable guess as to what he goes for.

I can’t believe I have to type this, but Vincent is definitively not a better player than Paul. He is, however, more of a combo guard and that makes it easier to fit him into the offense alongside the ball-dominant Booker and Durant. This is just one of many hypotheticals the Suns front office is surely already sifting through to assess how to really pull this offseason off.

I would not move on from Paul. He will adapt far better to the role with a full season knowing what it is going to be, and it’s very unlikely Phoenix would be able to replace him with a better player for next year.

Short-term thinking reigns supreme in the Durant era. How that looks for the Suns, though, is open to interpretation, and we’ll know in six weeks.

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Suns face complex avenues for potentially moving on from Chris Paul