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Between Deandre Ayton’s restricted free agency, Devin Booker’s no-brainer supermax and a possible contract extension for Cam Johnson, the Phoenix Suns have a busy and potentially expensive offseason lined up.
Ayton’s status with the team is obviously at the top of general manager James Jones’ item list, and even with DA’s future looking murky, it’s highly unlikely the Suns would simply let him walk without getting anything in return for their former No. 1 overall pick.
Outside of finding clear-cut resolution for the DA situation (or situAyton, if you will), however, one glaring weakness revealed itself during the playoffs, and that’s the need for an additional ball-handler and shot creator.
Following a breakout season, Cam Payne disappeared in the playoffs, and his lackluster season as a whole suggests he’s not even the solution at backup point guard next year, let alone Chris Paul’s long-term successor in the Valley. Aside from tweaking their shot profile, the Suns need to ease the burden on Paul’s shoulders by adding another playmaker who can create offense for others and for himself.
Assuming a trade (or an Ayton sign-and-trade) doesn’t materialize, Phoenix’s best avenue to land such a player will be through their mid-level exception. Teams that are not in the luxury tax can offer up to $10.3 million in MLE salary for next season, but the Suns already have $129.2 million on the books between Paul, Payne, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, Landry Shamet, Dario Saric and Torrey Craig. With the luxury tax line projected to be $150.3 million, any Ayton extension would push Phoenix into the tax, which would then restrict their mid-level exception to $6.3 million.
A non-taxpaying team can offer up to four years and approximately $44.1 million using the full MLE. A taxpaying team can offer up to three years and about $20 million. In other words, the Suns will want to try and put that MLE to use before entering luxury tax territory.
Even if they’re not paying DA upwards of $30 million next year, the Suns would still be over the salary cap if they let him walk for nothing, restricting their ability to sign any impactful free agents. They’d also be pushing up against the luxury tax with any sign-and-trade or additional moves to round out the roster.
That makes the addition of a Payne upgrade — either on the trade market or on the MLE — paramount. Regardless of Ayton’s future, finding a high-caliber backup point guard with the MLE could be tough, but there are a few candidates that might fit the bill, especially if they’re willing to take a slight discount to join a contender.
If the goal is to find an established ball-handler who can play alongside Booker, feed Ayton and ease the burden on CP3 in a bench/pseudo-starting role, it might not get much better on the open market than Ricky Rubio.
The 11-year veteran may be turning 32 in October, but he just proved with the Cleveland Cavaliers that he can have an impact in a similar role for a young, upstart team — which is exactly what he did for the Bubble Suns to help set them on their current trajectory. Coming off a season in which he averaged 13.1 points, 6.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game, Rubio put up numbers eerily similar to what he averaged in Phoenix, and even better, he did it primarily in the kind of bench role he’d fill on the Suns if he returned.
His familiarity with Book, DA and Monty Williams’ system would make him an immediate fit. While he didn’t attain Point God-levels of serving up DA on a silver platter, Rubio assisted on 28.7 percent of Ayton’s buckets in their lone season together. He’d also be capable of logging spot starts here and there during the regular season if the Suns have a much-needed conversation with Paul about conserving his energy for a deep playoff run.
What Rubio’s market will look like is anyone’s guess. He’s coming off the last season of the three-year, $51 million contract that Phoenix gave him and is still one of the best floor generals available outside of the expected mega-earners like Kyrie Irving and Jalen Brunson. However, Rubio is also coming off an ACL tear that will likely hold him out for the first couple months of the season, and it’s his second ACL tear in that knee. The Indiana Pacers have cap space to re-sign him, but with Malcolm Brogdon and Tyrese Haliburton already on board, plus free agents T.J. Warren and Jalen Smith to worry about, will they have interest in retaining a player who was injured and logged zero games for them after being traded there?
Rubio is a notoriously subpar shooter, and he hasn’t matched that career-high 36.1 percent mark he posted in his lone season in the Valley since. However, he’s more than capable of breaking down a defense, running the 0.5 offense and filling in for CP3 if need be. If the Suns had a guy like Rubio this season, their 2022 playoff run might have lasted longer than it did.
In terms of projectable upside under CP3’s wing, it might not get better than Tyus Jones. Unlike most of the guys on this list, Jones is still young at 26 years old, with room to grow and the potential to start one day in this league. Unfortunately, other suitors will be aware of this, and the Suns probably can’t compete in terms of the contract or role they can offer.
For starters, Jones can make the most money by simply re-signing with the Memphis Grizzlies, who have the means to re-sign him to a lucrative deal if they so choose. And although Jones preferring a starting role would confine him to a team that can only offer the MLE like the Washington Wizards or New York Knicks, that’d still be more than Phoenix’s $6.3 million MLE if they’re in the tax, which is less than the $8.4 million earned this past season. It’s probably take the non-taxpayer MLE to get his attention.
This is a probably a nonstarter, but if the market is somehow more tepid than expected, or if the Suns brass can work some of their recruiting magic, Jones would be a terrific backup. He’s historically been a mediocre 3-point shooter (35.2 percent for his career), but he’s coming off a season in which he canned a career-high 39 percent of his triples, albeit on low volume. Between his age, upside, playmaking and floater game, he’d be a more trustworthy option in a heated playoff series.
Patty Mills may similarly be a no-go given that he has a $6.2 million player option that would keep him with the Brooklyn Nets if he opts in. But since James Harden left, the Nets got swept in the first round and the timeline for Ben Simmons’ return remains uncertain, perhaps Mills would prefer to opt out, bolster the roster of a title contender and earn slightly more money than his player option?
Again, $6.3 million isn’t that much of an improvement over $6.2 million, and if he opted out and just re-signed with the Nets, he could make $7.3 million instead. But the Suns would offer him a better chance to compete for championships again than Brooklyn, and there’s no question they’d be a better team with his sharpshooting off the bench. If they worked out the rest of their offseason right, they could land him before entering the tax as well, though that’d probably be a bit of an overpay at that point.
As a career 38.9 percent marksman from deep over his 13-year career, Mills is a reliable catch-and-shoot threat. He just canned 40 percent of his career-high 7.0 triples per game for the Nets, and while he’s not a high-level playmaker (2.3 career assists per game), he’s capable of spacing the floor and hoisting 3s at a high volume — something this Suns offense badly needs.
Gary Payton II
Technically speaking, Gary Payton II isn’t a point guard or a floor general. He’s primarily used as an off-guard with the Golden State Warriors, and as his 0.9 assists in 17.6 minutes per game suggests, he would do nothing to solve Phoenix’s need for an additional facilitator.
However, in the world where the Suns can plug that hole on the trade market, Payton becomes an intriguing MLE candidate. He’s on a $2 million expiring contract with the Dubs, and should cap off their playoff run with one more win and a championship, perhaps they dive even deeper into the luxury tax to keep this group together.
But that will certainly get expensive, and although Payton’s tenacious perimeter defense, hustle plays and serviceable 3-point stroke are boosts off the bench, he may have played himself out of Golden State’s price range. If that’s the case, the Suns certainly wouldn’t mind having him to harass opposing guards up and down the court for 15-20 minutes a night. GPII is a low priority if the Suns can’t trade for another shot creator, but if they address that need, Payton’s relentless perimeter defense could be a useful weapon come playoff time.
Admittedly, this isn’t an enticing option. After wearing out his welcome with the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, Dennis Schroder is a bit of a fixer-upper. It’s anyone’s guess whether he’d embrace a lesser role on another contender or if he’d prefer to continue being one of the main options on a Houston Rockets team devoid of expectations for next season.
However, if he were willing to accept that kind of sixth man role again, we’ve already seen how productive he can be backing up Chris Paul. In fact, his best season came in that 2019-20 campaign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, when averaged a career-high 18.9 points and 4.0 assists per game on .469/.385/.839 shooting splits off the bench.
That was two years ago now, and his shot-happy approach often leaves a lot to be desired on the other end. But if the goal is to find reliable scoring and shot creation off the bench, Schroder might be one of the better options remaining, especially since he’d fit in that $6.3 million price range after playing out the 2021-22 season on the taxpayer MLE.
Delon Wright’s market will be fascinating. Like Tyus Jones, he once fit the role of “promising backup who might not be quite good enough to be a starter,” but unlike Jones, he’s not coming off a career year. In fact, his 4.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 18.9 minutes per game for the Atlanta Hawks probably won’t convince anyone he should be a high-priority target.
However, despite what the raw numbers indicate, Wright is solid on both ends of the floor. His career 35.4 percent shooting from downtown isn’t encouraging, but he’s upped that number to 37.5 percent over the last two seasons, and when he’s been given ample minutes over the last four years, he’s proven he can be a creator and scorer, averaging double-digits in the scoring column in two of those seasons.
He’s on an $8.5 million contract with the Hawks, whose books are already jam-packed as it is. Between that, his age at 30 years old, and his paltry numbers on the stat sheet, Wright will be fairly affordable and available. The question is whether being a solid, understated backup with a penchant for racking up steals would be enough of an upgrade to earn the lion’s share of minutes over Payne.
Goran Dragic was one buyout candidate floated at last year’s trade deadline, and the suggestion was met with a fair amount of pushback due to how he left the franchise back in 2015.
Three words, especially after watching him morph back into the Dragon for an overmatched and injury-laden Nets squad: Get over it.
While there’d be understandable concern over investing money in another 36-year-old point guard to back up the Suns’ 37-year-old point guard, Dragic can still be effective, get his own shot and create for others. He proved as much in the playoffs, averaging 10.5 points per game on 56.3 percent shooting against a stingy Boston Celtics defense that smothered Brooklyn’s other primary threats. That was far more than Payne offered.
A feel-good reunion cemented by a title run would help mend old bridges, and although there’s a possibility some team will overpay for his services, Phoenix’s mid-level exception — and not even the full amount — would probably outweigh the veteran minimum offers he’s more likely to receive.