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The Phoenix Suns had an opportunity to prove they had learned from last year’s contract extension talks with Deandre Ayton, to lock in their young, “core four” for the foreseeable future, and to put some of the negativity and uncertainty of the offseason behind them. Unfortunately, Cam Johnson won’t be getting a new contract extension, and the Suns will watch another key player enter restricted free agency next summer.
Monday’s deadline for Johnson’s extension came and went without any rumblings of a potential deal, although the fourth-year wing had expressed optimism on that front over the summer. Even so, he was still aware of the “business side” of these negotiations.
“What I’ve learned is that the business side will do what’s best for the business side, and the personal side will do what’s best for the personal side,” Johnson said over the offseason. “The team will do what’s best for them, and the players do what’s best for them. So I’m always highly aware of that, but at the same time, I do love being here, so if we can get something done, I’d love it.”
Last year, Johnson averaged 12.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game while shooting 46.0 percent from the floor and 42.5 percent from 3-point range — all career highs. He was due to be moved into the Suns’ starting lineup, which may have contributed to Jae Crowder’s trade request, but either way the team’s new starting five figures to be one of the best offensive lineups in the NBA.
In 16 starts last year, Johnson put up an impressive 16.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals per game, shooting 49.2 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range on 7.4 attempts per game. According ESPN’s Bobby Marks, he averaged 17.3 points on 50 percent shooting and 44 percent from 3 in games where he played at least 30 minutes.
Of course, it wasn’t just Johnson finding individual success; the Suns’ usual starting lineup kept chugging along with him in Crowder’s place. Per NBA.com, the Chris Paul-Devin Booker-Mikal Bridges-Johnson-Deandre Ayton lineup boasted a +41.3 Net Rating in 24 minutes together during the playoffs, making it the Suns’ third-most-used lineup, as well as a +29.5 Net Rating during the regular season. That came in a surprisingly low 42 minutes, but it was easy to project success for this group.
“He puts the work in, and he’s accepting the role that, over the course of the season, has changed,” coach Monty Williams said last December. “He’s been a role guy off the bench, he’s been a starter, now he’s back on the bench, but the thing I like about Cam is his mentality doesn’t change. I think our guys look at him as a starter, and I think he’s accepted that responsibility. We don’t feel like when he comes off the bench he’s a role guy or a rotation guy off the bench, we feel like we’re bringing another starter in the game.”
Unfortunately, the Suns missed a golden opportunity to lock in a solid two-way wing who’s one of the game’s elite 3-point snipers, which would have solidified their core for the long haul. Projecting an extension for Johnson based on similar contracts in the league pointed to somewhere in the $70-80 million range over four years, and while $20 million annually for a bench player who’s missed 15-22 games every season seems steep, it’s the going rate for interchangeable wings in the NBA now.
Even if that wasn’t the case, a slight overpay for Johnson would’ve made sense, given the imminent salary cap spike once the NBA’s new TV deal arrives in 2025. Even if the league tries to smooth out that jump, it’ll still be significant enough to make Johnson’s new deal look like a bargain in a few years.
That’s what makes the alleged minuscule gap between the parties even more frustrating, because $13 million spread over four years really won’t matter a few seasons from now. Barring significant injury, his price tag is about to go up.
The Suns would’ve been hit with a hefty luxury tax bill next season, when Johnson’s extension would’ve kicked in, since Phoenix already owes $36 million to Booker, $32.5 million to Ayton, $30.8 million to Paul and $21.7 million to Bridges. Only $15.8 million of CP3’s deal is guaranteed, but with the Suns already in tax territory this year and Booker’s supermax kicking in for the 2024-25 campaign, the Suns would’ve been poised to be a tax-paying team for the foreseeable future.
Even so, it’s worth it to keep the core of a contender intact for the next half-decade. There are reasonable questions about how much authority general manager James Jones has to make basketball decisions with owner Robert Sarver currently looking to sell the team, but Jones said at Media Day those powers still lie with him under interim governor Sam Garvin. Jones had also gone on record during his exit interviews about being willing to dive into the luxury tax to keep a good thing going.
Whether this misstep lies with Sarver, Garvin or Jones, the fact of the matter is, Johnson stands to boost his league-wide value this season. Even if he misses 15-20 games again, his 3-point shooting, improved ball-handling and positional versatility in a starting role should generate larger offers in restricted free agency next summer.
The Suns would still have the power to match in that situation, but didn’t we just learn how that can affect players on the emotional side of things? Phoenix got a discount with Ayton’s new contract by matching in the Indiana Pacers’ offer, but at least in that case, they were saving tens of millions of dollars and an extra year on a max contract.
Johnson was never going to fetch a five-year max, so now, they’re inviting other teams to make a pricy four-year offer a tax-strapped team that may find itself less than ecstatic about matching. You rarely know the full extent of what’s discussed behind closed doors, but it’s not hard to see the similarities between last year’s handling of Ayton’s situation and now Johnson failing to get an extension of any kind.
“Control what you can control,” Ayton replied when asked about his advice to Johnson going through the process. “Everybody knows that patience rule when it comes to things like this. Cam is a smart dude. What he does best is focus on him. He’s focused on his game and letting his guys handle that. He’s a guy who trusts his team, and I’m sure he’s in good hands. Cam’s a strong-headed dude who loves being in the Valley, and, he’s just Cam. Cam is chill. He hasn’t come to me with any of that stuff, and I just know he’s been putting his head down and working.”
For his part, Williams understood there’s an emotional aspect to these types of situations.
“It’s an area that I try to steer clear of unless the player wants to talk about it,” he said at practice on Monday. “James keeps me up to speed on what’s going on, but for the most part, I can feel what they’re going through. I’ve been through contract negotiations as a player and a coach, and there’s a level of emotion that goes with it, but at the end of the day, they’re all business decisions. You try to separate the two, but it’s hard, especially when you’re emotionally attached to a team, it’s hard to separate.”
Failing to extend Cam Johnson may also limit the Suns’ flexibility moving forward. A contract extension would’ve added a poison pill provision to his deal, making him more difficult to trade, but not impossible. Re-signing a restricted free agent comes with temporary restrictions on trades, much like Ayton’s new deal.
Is Johnson worth $20 million annually in a vacuum? Probably not. But these negotiations never take place in a vacuum. Context is important, as is market-place value and the simple fact that good franchises don’t typically drag their key players through an ugly, uncomfortable restricted free agency process just to save a few bucks.
Doing so when the NBA’s new TV deal is about to spike the salary cap through the roof is even more regrettable — especially for a useful two-way player with room to grow who wants to be here.
“With things like this, I feel like if you obsess over it, get yourself all wrapped up mentally in it, it’s only detrimental,” Johnson said at Media Day. “I feel the process will play out as it will and as it’s supposed to. It’s the reason why you have agents and people in your corner to help you negotiate these things. I love being here, I love playing in the city. The city has been great to me. I’ve loved what we’ve been able to accomplish as a team, and I’m looking forward to continue that.”
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