EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Minor Suns trade deadline contract shuffling will have major salary cap impact

Feb 9, 2024, 11:55 AM

We all wondered if the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury under a new owner were going to live the rich-boy life. Or if it was all blustery, big talk.

Thursday did something to answer that question about Mat Ishbia, whose reputation for getting things done in a hurry came from the Kevin Durant deal to the plans to upgrade the Phoenix Mercury’s facilities, to the reshaping of both franchises around their respective stars.

Ishbia moved on from four Suns bench players who failed to claw their way into permanent roles. He added win-now pieces by acquiring Royce O’Neale and David Roddy.

But the Suns dating back to the first free-agency period also come out of the trade deadline looking like they think five steps ahead while also proving they’re putting their money where their mouth is.

“(Ishbia is) kind of putting it on us now, too,” Suns guard Bradley Beal said Thursday after the deadline. “Like, he’s doing his part, now we got to do ours. You don’t see that a lot in our league, you don’t see a lot of owners kind of taking their teams by the horns and like, ‘no, I want to win and I want to win in the right way and the best way with a good team.’ He has that vision.

“Hell, he’s in practices, he’s on trips with us, he’s super locked in. I think that uplifts you as a team, too, just to see his engagement and how much he loves the team, he’s embracing the city, he’s embracing the staff. Trying to learn everybody, trying to learn how he can be better, how the area can be better, how the facility can be better — it’s a brand-new facility and he’s trying to make it better. … We got to put up or shut up.”

While staying a little out of the weeds of the tax bracket levels of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Phoenix only added a handful of millions to the salary sheet.

But the team went from committing more than $40 million in taxes before the NBA trade deadline to pushing beyond the $60 million mark. That’ll jump even more when the Suns add at least one more player to reach the 14-man minimum.

Spotrac has that as now ranking third in the NBA. Their $64 million is way below the spendy Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers, who are well beyond $100 million in taxes. It’s still a bit more than the No. 4-ranked Milwaukee Bucks at $49 million.

The moves Thursday give Suns general manager James Jones’ staff flexibility to keep the roster relatively together next season.

For the next two seasons, Phoenix has Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Beal under contract, as well as Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little and Roddy.

O’Neale and Grayson Allen are unrestricted free agents, but the Suns would have the ability to pay them their true value, around $15 million per season, plus or minus a few million.

Ishbia’s pocketbooks will be tested then.

“You want to continue to build,” Jones told reporters Friday before O’Neale and Roddy were introduced. “Mat’s been consistent since Day 1. It takes what it takes. … His directive since Day 1 is we’re here to win championships. We chase it. If that means we spend more money, we spend it.”

Booker’s contract makes a leap from $36 million this season to beyond $50 million next.

If Allen and O’Neale each get $5 million-or-so raises as projected, there are also minor increments to the deals for all the returning players. Eric Gordon and/or Josh Okogie could pick up their increasing options. In any case, the tax bill will skyrocket even further.

Right now, the Suns are in the fourth tax bracket above the luxury tax line at $3.25 for every dollar up to $5 million above the next-lowest tax bracket. Each bracket spans $5 million before the rate increases $0.50 per dollar from here.

NBA luxury tax brackets 2023 CBA

While the taxes likely balloon next season, for now let’s take it back to the offseason and how we got here.

Cash-strapped, the Suns persuaded Damion Lee and Okogie to return. They added Gordon, Drew Eubanks, Keita-Bates Diop and Yuta Watanabe on minimum contracts with player options for 2024-25 that helped push things across the finish line.

They also added Chimezie Metu and Bol Bol on minimum deals.

Targeting untapped youth was, in hindsight, a smart play. Either those players would outplay their deals and stick in the rotation this year or would still carry value at the trade deadline. If anything, they’re salaries and playable NBA-caliber bench guys.

Time showed those players were tradeable for one reason or the other. Phoenix packaged Bates-Diop, Watanabe, Metu, Jordan Goodwin and picks to land O’Neale and Roddy.

Not trading Little’s larger, multi-year deal in that trade was the neon blinking light that this was far, far away from about saving money (We could also guess the Nets didn’t want his long-term deal since he also hasn’t performed so well this year).

The Suns turned a Band-Aid backend of the roster into a true seven-deep team, with Okogie, Bol, Eubanks and even the rehabbing Lee as viable No. 8 guys. That they aligned themselves to potentially re-sign O’Neale, while Roddy is also under contract for two more years before hitting restricted free agency.

“We don’t want to just compete today. We want to compete now and in the future. … For sure those guys were targeted because they have the ability to stick with us,” Jones said.

They can keep building freely until they find the bottom of their owner’s wallet. So far, they haven’t.

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