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The Phoenix Suns have had a quietly efficient offseason. They brought back Chris Paul, Cameron Payne, Abdel Nader and Frank Kaminsky on pretty terrific deals. They added a bench shooter in Landry Shamet, addressed the backup center spot with JaVale McGee and generally spent their summer fine-tuning a young roster coming off an NBA Finals run.
But as much fun as we’ve had grading the Suns’ offseason, their final grade still feels incomplete to a certain degree, and the reason is Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are still waiting on their rookie-scale contract extensions.
We’ve already poured over potential options for Ayton’s next deal and whether he deserves a max extension, but Bridges is an even more interesting case. After a beastly debut playoff run, DA is going to get the max or something close to it. Bridges’ impact isn’t always as glaringly obvious as Ayton’s was, and there seems to be more room for debate in terms of what kind of deal he deserves. Make no mistake about it though: Phoenix should be willing to pay up to keep Bridges and his Gumby arms in town for as long as possible.
The question is what a potential extension would look like, and the answer is somewhat related to Ayton’s new deal. If the Suns give Ayton the Designated Rookie extension (a five-year max worth $172.6 million), that will limit how much money they can offer Bridges, since NBA teams are only permitted to have two such Designated Rookie max extensions on their roster at a given time (Devin Booker is the first).
That’s not really an issue, since his value wasn’t going to approach max territory anyway. But if Bridges isn’t getting that five-year Designated Rookie extension, that means the most the Suns can offer him is a four-year deal for up to $133 million. Since that figure is too high, figuring out the right value for a promising two-way player with immense room for growth is difficult, especially after a summer that sets up Phoenix to shell out considerable money to Booker, Paul, Ayton and Bridges for the foreseeable future. James Jones hasn’t handed out those last two extensions yet, but they won’t come cheap, and then it’ll be Cameron Johnson’s turn at this time next year.
MIKAL BRIDGES’ VALUE TO THE SUNS
In any case, Mikal Bridges is clearly an intrinsic part of perhaps the best defense this franchise has ever seen. He’s a rangy wing with an all-encompassing wingspan and a high basketball I.Q. that empowers him as one of the NBA’s best defenders (the fact that he didn’t make an All-Defensive team last season is still a travesty).
On the offensive end, he’s quickly become an intelligent, crafty cutter who has great chemistry with both of the Suns’ lead facilitators in Booker and Paul. After removing that nasty hitch from his 3-point stroke, the results came with it in the form of a career-high 42.5 percent shooting on 4.4 attempts per game. The growth in confidence compared to just last year is night and day. Look how quick he’s getting these shots off with zero hesitation! And these are all from playoff games!
Looking at Bridges’ numbers, there was some drop-off once the postseason started:
- Regular season: 13.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG, .543/.425/.840 shooting splits, +7.4 Net Rating
- Playoffs: 11.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, .484/.368/.893 shooting splits, +4.7 Net Rating
- Finals: 12.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG, .531/.429/.917 shooting splits, +0.7 Net Rating
And yet, even though his scoring slightly fell off and his Net Rating wasn’t as prolific once the competition got better, he still managed to be a net positive in a Finals series his team lost, all while posting 50-40-90 shooting splits. Khris Middleton handily won their individual matchup, but there’s no shame in coming up short against the guy everyone in Phoenix should be rooting for him to emulate one day. Bridges only just turned 25 and has already established himself as one of the rising 3-and-D wings in this league. That matters for a team aiming to contend now and five years from now.
The off-the-dribble flashes and ability to create his own shot from the midrange are especially tantalizing. If defenses have to worry about containing Chris Paul and Devin Booker off the dribble, and sending someone to tag Deandre Ayton on his dives to the rim, and stopping Mikal Bridges from either drilling weakside 3s or attacking poor closeouts off the bounce? That is the definition of picking your poison.
Bridges has mentioned Kevin Durant and Brandon Roy as two similarly lanky players he’s watched plenty of film on in terms of being able to get to their spots in the midrange at will. Accelerating that area of growth in his pull-up game off the dribble is crucial, because as much as Bridges was elite finishing around the rim (71.8 percent), he shied away from contact when he did meet resistance among the trees in the paint. His low free-throw rate and only 1.8 free-throw attempts per game reflect that, and as he gets stronger, he’ll need to be better about forcing the issue rather than pulling up for the middy every time.
If Bridges continues to develop as that third guy who can create his own shot off the bounce, he might wind up being one of the best value contracts in the league. His upside is that high, and ball-handling, shooting, playmaking and defensive switchability are all at a premium in the NBA these days. Even if he never approaches the Kevin Durant-Brandon Roy-Khris Middleton echelon of midrange mastery, he’s already one of the league’s best 3-and-D wings for one of its best teams. That should earn him a pretty handsome four-year payday if the Suns are willing to make it worth his while.
MIKAL BRIDGES’ CONTRACT VALUE
Taking a look at a few recent deals around the league provides a decent idea of what to expect. The first name that always comes up as a good comparison is OG Anunoby, another young, elite defender with an improved 3-point shot. But the four-year, $72 million deal he signed last season is tremendous value for the Toronto Raptors, and even with a player option for the fourth year, Anunoby’s agent should feel embarrassed by the figure he got for his client. Bridges will earn more than that.
Terry Rozier’s four-year, $97 million extension with the Charlotte Hornets feels more instructive — not because they’re even remotely similar players from a skill standpoint, but because any four-year extension is going to help set the market while Bridges’ people negotiate with the Suns.
Duncan Robinson’s five-year, $90 million extension with the Miami Heat is structured differently because he went undrafted, but that average annual salary of $18 million is probably the floor for a two-way player like Bridges. Similarly, John Collins is an interesting case study with his annual average salary of $25 million per season, which feels like the ceiling for Bridges. Collins’ five-year, $125 million extension is structured differently because he didn’t get a rookie-scale extension last year and instead got extended in restricted free agency — a dicier proposition the Suns will be flirting with if they can’t get a deal done before the October deadline. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported in April that he was hearing an extension “might approach” $20 million per season for Bridges. That number will have only increased with a Finals run under his belt now, so something in the range of a four-year, $80 million extension feels unlikely.
Bearing all that in mind, a four-year deal in the $90-100 million range seems like the most probable outcome here. Including a fourth-year player option could incentivize Bridges’ people to accept a slightly lower overall figure, but either way, the Suns are probably looking at paying their ultra-fun small forward somewhere in the $22-25 million range per year.
He still has plenty to improve on, including his development as a three-level scorer, playmaker, pull-up shooter and foul-drawer. But the potential to be a backbreaking third or fourth option on a championship-caliber team is right there. He’s already a stifling defender with his Go-Go Gadget arms, is unstoppable in transition, routinely gets easy looks slashing to the rim with off-ball cuts, and is always one big game away from trending on Twitter again. The Suns don’t want a guy like that hitting restricted free agency next summer, and much like Ayton, they’re investing in what he’ll be a few years from now, in addition what he already showed during an NBA Finals run.
Now it’s time for this front office to show how much the times have changed by paying up for Ayton and Bridges in order to build a sustainable, long-term contender in the Valley.
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