Phoenix Suns approaching deadline for necessary roster cuts

Oct 14, 2023, 3:21 PM

Keon Johnson...

Keon Johnson #45 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Jabari Walker #34 of the Portland Trail Blazers during the third quarter of the the preseason game at Moda Center on October 12, 2023 in Portland, Oregon. The Phoenix Suns won 122-111. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Trades so close to the start of the season can complicate matters, and after the Phoenix Suns traded Deandre Ayton in a 4-for-2 swap, it left them with two extra players.

The Suns have wanted to see what they’ve got in this group, choosing to not tidy that up right away shortly after Sept. 27 when the move went down and instead seeing this out through training camp. The deadline for final rosters comes on Oct. 23 at 2 p.m. MST, the day before the start of the regular season.

Phoenix could make the moves at any moment but it feels more likely to not come until after the final preseason game on Thursday.

“The coaching staff will have input and then the front office makes the final decision on who makes the roster and who doesn’t and we’ll go from there,” head coach Frank Vogel said after practice on Saturday.

Phoenix has 17 standard contracts, in addition to having two of its three two-way spots filled by Saben Lee and Udoka Azubuike. Those two do not factor into the number to get down to 15, so they are not a part of the conversation.

With decisions like this for teams in the luxury tax, guarantees on salaries can play a factor. Phoenix’s projected luxury tax bill at the moment is $56.7 million, per Spotrac, and these moves can either keep that figure there or cut it down a few million dollars.

Jordan Goodwin’s $1.9 million salary only has just under a million guaranteed at the moment while Ish Wainright’s $1.9 million is fully non-guaranteed until mid-January. Names like Keon Johnson ($2.8 million) and Bol Bol ($2 million) are a part of this discussion are fully guaranteed already.

Goodwin surely has to be safe. He looked the part of a winning player last season in Washington D.C. and this is just going to be his second full NBA season, meaning the top-notch perimeter defender naturally has some room to improve further. When he made his preseason debut on Sunday, he immediately impacted the game. You noticed him out there. That matters. He’s the one guy we’re talking about that legitimately has a shot at being in the playoff rotation. Can’t be him.

Wainright’s a versatile, strong defender, which is exactly what Vogel likes. Wainright’s offensive game in regards to his 3-point shot and decision-making with space has improved year by year. He has kept getting better since he signed late in training camp two years ago, the start of his NBA journey. Like Goodwin, I don’t see it, but he hasn’t been able to show much to a new coaching staff due to a calf strain that has held him out for all of the preseason thus far.

The coaches, however, did get to see him around the facility all summer.

“He was in here (this summer) more than anybody on our team. Extremely, extremely dedicated hard worker,” Vogel said of Wainright. “Wants to perfect his craft. A good culture guy and our whole organization loves having him around and I’ve enjoyed getting to know him.”

The Suns could explore the trade market with the other names.

Johnson figures to have at least some interest. He was selected 21st overall in the NBA Draft only two years ago, originally by the Los Angeles Clippers before he was a part of the Norman Powell trade with the Portland Trail Blazers at the 2022 trade deadline. Johnson’s best look from a NBA team came last year in his first full season with Portland but that wasn’t exactly the best situation to give you a guarantee his development has been properly given a go.

With Johnson’s off the charts athleticism (he set the NBA Combine’s record for a vertical leap of 48 inches) and defensive potential on ball-handlers, maybe the Suns could get him off their hands without having to give up a second-round pick. Surely it wouldn’t cost more than one if it turned into having to unload him. The fourth and final year of Johnson’s standard rookie scale contract as a first-round pick for the 2024-25 season is a team option is worth $4.4 million and has a deadline of Oct. 31.

He’s been at the bottom of the Suns’ rotation in the preseason and those minutes, while not exactly the most conducive environment to get a proper read on players, haven’t shown much to give the Suns a reason to hold onto Johnson. And in terms of the other two players in the deal beyond Jusuf Nurkic, given what Grayson Allen and Nassir Little could provide the Suns this year as contributors on a contender, it makes little sense to ship them elsewhere.

Bol’s signing was a surprise at the time and is even more of one now in hindsight due to the extra bodies and how it was a fully guaranteed one-year deal.

His first shot at a NBA rotation role in Orlando last year was a mixed bag to say the least, not lending much confidence he could handle spot minutes on a contender in the back-third of the roster. It’s not fair to use the preseason to confirm these observations but the lack of feel and knowhow in those games has been clear. Regardless, Phoenix signed him for a reason, and it could be just having faith it can help him properly grow over the course of the season. Then again, this is Year 5 for him.

The Suns handed out a bunch of one-plus-one contracts this summer that included a player option on the minimum in a second year. If it goes well here, players can decline that option in favor of a much better pay day. If it doesn’t, they’ve got another year to figure it out. Those guys are pretty much out of the question when it comes to getting cut, so that leaves Chimezie Metu as the only other signing without guarantees beyond this season. He’s looked solid in the preseason and the rotations seem to indicate he’s not a candidate to move on.

Damion Lee suffered a meniscus injury prior to camp that required surgery, so his name has come up on social media when looking at this decision. But Lee’s an important, calm voice to have around in the locker room, will be impactful when he eventually plays because of his mentality with staying ready and he’s on a one-plus-one anyway.

That leaves Johnson as Bol as the two most likely guys to get cut. That requires ownership to be OK with wearing that hit on the luxury tax bill but given what we know about Mat Ishbia that shouldn’t be much of a concern if it’s about making this the best possible Suns roster, which is exactly the purpose that would serve. If the Suns want to move the money, though, and can’t find the right deal, Wainright could have the rotten luck.

We’ll know by the night before opening night.

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