EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns offseason primer: Royce O’Neale’s contract, Bol Bol’s market among roster questions

May 3, 2024, 10:46 AM

Mat Ishbia may be receiving criticism for his Phoenix Suns’ roster construction, but nobody can argue he hasn’t invested in the roster-building with his money and his willingness to spend on taxes.

He’s blown past the still pretty recent Collective Bargaining Agreement rules which created a second tax apron. In all scenarios, regardless of the Suns moving a member of the Big Three or keeping it together, Ishbia will pay up the wazoo.

“Not even these Golden State teams that blew through the payroll (to win titles) has paid basically $400 million in payrolls combined in players and luxury tax,” ESPN’s Bobby Marks told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo after the regular season ended. “But like I said, it’s not our money. …  (Ishbia has) basically gone all-in.”

Let’s not concern ourselves with the final salary cap total. A lot has to happen for that to firm up, but it’s what has to happen that could alter Phoenix’s roster looking ahead.

We’re also going to jump into this summer assuming the Big Three will return, even though head coach Frank Vogel’s job status as this is written Friday is quite unclear.

Grayson Allen’s contract extension at the end of the regular season further locked the Suns into having its core group return. But let’s look at the three in-house roster themes that will shape the team around the Big Three: Royce O’Neale’s long-term future, a set of player options and Bol Bol’s limited pay if he returns.

Phoenix Suns salaries by rostered player and free agents for 2024-25 as of May 3, 2024.Phoenix Suns salaries by rostered player and free agents for 2024-25 as of May 3, 2024.

Royce O’Neale’s future

Phoenix added O’Neale ahead of the February trade deadline not only because he was a sure-fire rotation piece who added a little defensive juice, but also because his current contract had Bird rights. Like the Allen extension, that allows the Suns to sign him at any amount, if they’re willing to eat the taxes it’ll add onto the 2024-25 books and beyond.

A three- to four-year deal is expected to be pursued around $14 million annually, according to Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro.

That’s just above the expected non-tax mid-level exception deal that teams under the first tax apron could offer.

If no extension is reached by July, the Suns can still negotiate with O’Neale as an unrestricted free agent because they will still have his Bird rights.

And like Allen’s deal, the $10-20 million contract for O’Neale could help the Suns maneuver after trade restrictions on recent re-signings wear off midseason. They cannot package their own outgoing players’ salaries in a trade for a single player, so trading for another rotation player gets easier with the more diverse set of contracts on the current roster.

That, or O’Neale provides the boost to the current rotation.

This past year in 30 games (eight starts), he averaged 8.1 points, 5.2 boards and 2.7 assists with 38% three-point shooting.

Some limitations of O’Neale showed in the postseason, where he only averaged 5.0 points, 4.8 assists and shot 33% while taking 4.5 of his 5.5 total attempts beyond the three-point line.

Still, here’s a fun fact from StatMuse: Despite being ninth in total minutes played this season, O’Neale was fifth in total plus-minus, notably ahead of Bradley Beal and Eric Gordon.

Which minimum signings from a year ago opt back in?

Filling out the roster last offseason saw Phoenix use a unique technique to convince minimum players to sign: The second-year player option.

Returnees Josh Okogie and Damion Lee, plus rotation players Eric Gordon and Drew Eubanks, hold their 2024-25 futures in their own hands. Some quick words on each of them:

Eric Gordon: He had an odd season at age 35, where it felt like he was too passive. Gordon was one of the first players to openly admit the offense wasn’t what it should be. Still, he ended up shooting 44% overall and 38% from three, playing heavy minutes in 68 appearances and 24 starts. Phoenix would likely be happy to have an 11-point-per-game scorer back — it’s more a matter if that’s what Gordon wants.

Josh Okogie: Okogie is who he is, not a good enough shooter to rely upon unless he’s utilized in hyper-small, switchy lineups as a rim-roller, rebounder and screener. Still, there’s value in what he can bring in terms of physicality.

Drew Eubanks: Of players who had the most mental errors, Eubanks would likely rank No. 1 if we’re going on a per-minute basis. He did not completely earn the trust of Vogel but was necessary to play. Phoenix likely will try to upgrade its center options, where size but also the ability to go small should be priorities. Of Phoenix’s 25 most-used three-man lineup combinations, only five had negative net ratings per 100 possessions. Eubanks was a part of four of them that included combinations of Booker, Durant, Allen and Gordon.

Damion Lee: While he didn’t play a minute, Lee’s more complicated knee injury puts his abilities in question to some degree. Will he be able to return to form as one of the best floor-spacers in 2024-25? In all likelihood, he’ll pick up that option and have a lot to prove. The Suns could use his shooting and his leadership, especially if Gordon opts against returning.

All-in-all, it would be a good bet at least three of these players return to the 2024-25 squad.

Did Bol Bol show enough to get decently paid?

Bol can only re-sign for a 120% raise on his $2.1 million salary or 120% of the league minimum from 2023-24, whichever is higher. That leaves him vulnerable to leave if one team views him as more than a minimum player and has the cash to take the chance he would continue developing.

Last season with the Orlando Magic, Bol did play strong, significant minutes for a team that was on the precipice of leaping into the playoff picture. Pushing out by a roster full of rangy wings and bigs, the market for him wasn’t there then, landing him with the Suns on a minimum deal.

It’s arguable he took a step forward on a star-studded team that found a role for him as a true energy big. Bol complimented that defensive role with 62% shooting and 42% accuracy from three on offense, and this is where things get messy.

It’s hard to gauge what the 29 other teams might say about him. Phoenix surely would consider bringing him back if they saw enough defensive steps of improvement, because that’s where this coaching staff or a new one could find in-house answers if playing small is a priority as it should be. Who the coach is will matter a ton to this conversation.

Let’s just say that Bol’s disclusion from the four-game playoff run until a desperate Game 4 helped the likelihood he could return.

Empire of the Suns

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