EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

NBA trade deadline can show Suns owner Mat Ishbia’s commitment to continuity

Feb 5, 2024, 1:27 PM | Updated: Feb 6, 2024, 8:05 am

Mat Ishbia traded for Kevin Durant on Day 1 as owner of the Phoenix Suns. He soon dumped then-head coach Monty Williams and traded two starters making max money — but not to balance the roster in terms of depth or salaries as we expected.

Ishbia purposefully blew through the luxury tax threshold and set up Phoenix to be more top-heavy and more locked into massive long-term salaries.

There are few NBA Draft picks to work with and not much in terms of player assets as the Suns approach the Thursday trade deadline.

Thursday could indicate how calculated Ishbia and the Suns will be in terms of creating continuity that hasn’t been part of the early portions of the owner’s tenure. He sure did act aggressively, knee-jerky and with no patience to start. But it’s his coach and players and team in place now — time to determine whether sustainability and continuity are prioritized with his plan more firmly in place.

On Thursday, that could be seen by acquiring rotation players on multi-year deals. Or by doing nothing at all.

It won’t scream “continuity” or “long-term plans” if the Suns are still firing off the little draft capital left for risky half-season rentals. Where does that leave Ishbia, CEO Josh Bartelstein and president of basketball operations and general manager James Jones?

To begin, no, the Suns are not trading one of the Big Three.

Next up in terms of money and importance, Jusuf Nurkic ($16.9 million) and Grayson Allen ($8.9 million) have been too big of complementary pieces for the Suns to this point. Even Allen playing in the final year of his contract would be hard to part with unless it’s for a starting-caliber point guard on a long-term deal.

Nassir Little on $6.3 million hasn’t played to that value, but being under contract through 2026-27 and being still 23 years old could help down the line if Phoenix can develop him into a rotation three-and-D wing. Would another team take a risk and acquire him?

From there, Eric Gordon down to Jordan Goodwin are on one-year deals with player options worth less than $3.2 million annually. Chimezie Metu and Bol Bol will be non-Bird free agents this offseason, making it hard to retain either next year if another team wants to offer them above a minimum deal.

Bird rights exist after a player logs three years under contract, allowing an above-the-tax team to re-sign them at any amount up to the appropriate max deal. Allen was traded from Milwaukee with those rights intact, and that’s an important point to get to in a second.

With Phoenix projected well above the second tax apron next season, the Suns cannot combine two players’ contracts to get a deal done after Thursday. So how do the Suns at least get themselves more wiggle room?

Before the trade deadline, they can aggregate some of those minimum contracts and maybe Little, sprinkling in second-rounders and maybe one of four trade exceptions.

The goal there: add rotation pieces who have their Bird rights traded with them. That would thread the needle of improving this year and building an expensive yet congruous roster that would at least allow for more trade flexibility next year.

Another way to enhance the roster from a long-term perspective will come this offseason. They can pay even more money to re-sign Allen, whose Bird rights they own.

It would make sense to extend him to a Nurkic-like salary, giving the Suns another tradeable, middle-tier contract to potentially trade down the road.

Re-signing Allen this offseason would be $10s of millions in taxes, potentially three times Allen’s salary just to re-sign him. If Ishbia accepts that, it will give the front office a very good player and contract to work with.

The Suns can also grow continuity by retaining veterans like Gordon, Josh Okogie and Damion Lee, who all have player options for next year. Younger guys like Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks and Yuta Watanabe have player options, too.

Those options gave that group an incentive (guaranteed money) while also giving Phoenix early Bird rights if they hang around for two years and keep improving. The Suns would be able to at least nearly double their salary if those players don’t play themselves into contracts pushing eight figures with other teams. That’s potentially eras down the road considering how fast NBA team timelines change.

More immediately, the Suns have only four future second-round picks to offer teams. It’d be best not to burn anything for minor and temporary upgrades. If upgrades are only one of either minor or temporary, maybe.

The question is if Phoenix can get any sure-fire rotation players — at any position — who can help beyond this year.

It’s here where we approach the much-rumored Miles Bridges trade possibility, where we cannot set aside that in May 2022 he allegedly assaulted the mother of his children in front of them. He was ultimately sentenced to three years probation.

To clarify that we are beyond second chances in this story, Bridges allegedly threw billiard balls at the woman’s car while their children were inside in October. A summons was issued for violating a protective order, misdemeanor child abuse and injury to personal property. It was the second time he allegedly violated the protective order. He was not allowed into Canada to play the Raptors this year due to legal restrictions.

Bridges because of his initial assault allegations is playing on a $7.9 million qualifying offer after he entered last offseason seeking a massive deal with no takers. He is currently averaging 20.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.

He does not have Bird rights if traded on that qualifying offer, so any team cannot sign him for more than a 20% increase in pay to retain him beyond this season.

Trading for Bridges would be a half-season rental for any team in luxury tax territory like Phoenix. It was already a potential move that would further hamper the Suns’ future trade assets without even considering fit and the moral discussion we’d have then.

And it’s important to bring up because it would come at a cost that does nothing to advance the Suns beyond this year.

The Suns do have few avenues here to think a little beyond 2023-24.

Doubling down on the current plan finally might be about searching for the perfect fit alongside a Big Three, like Phoenix has found in Allen. It means thinking about the next offseason and trade deadline down the road if the market this year doesn’t throw the Suns a fastball down the middle.

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