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Phoenix Suns’ MLE options for bigs in 2022 NBA free agency

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 30, 2022

The madness of 2022 NBA free agency is already upon us, and the Phoenix Suns have big decisions to make. At the forefront of their busy offseason is figuring out what to do with their former No. 1 overall pick, Deandre Ayton.

As a restricted free agent, Ayton faces a tougher market than expected. The pool of teams projected to have max cap space and be interested in making a run at Ayton have dried up.

On draft night, the Detroit Pistons landed Jaden Ivey and another mobile big man in the lottery with Jalen Duren, filled some of their cap space with a Kemba Walker trade, and then dealt for Nerlens Noel, another rim-protecting big, to eat further into their cap space.

The San Antonio Spurs announced their intentions to tank for Victor Wembanyama by trading Dejounte Murray for Danilo Gallinari and a handful of draft picks. Although they could still make a move for Ayton with max cap space, they may not be interested in a player who will help them win a few more games next season.

However, the Toronto Raptors have been repeatedly mentioned as a potential sign-and-trade partner for DA, and even after dealing for Murray, the Atlanta Hawks could still put something together. The Indiana Pacers remain an underwhelming but viable sign-and-trade partner too.

Free agency is unpredictable, and sign-and-trades can materialize at any given moment. Every day we hear a different report about Phoenix’s willingness to match an offer for Ayton, or how they’re ready to pursue sign-and-trades. In the event Ayton leaves, and the Suns don’t get a starting-caliber big man back in a sign-and-trade, they’ll need to put their mid-level exception to good use on that position.

JaVale McGee isn’t the answer as a starting big man, and the Suns will have competition for his services given his desire for a multi-year contract. Bismack Biyombo is a high-caliber third-string center, but like McGee, slotting him in as the starter would be a major step backward.

The Suns currently have $129.2 million on the books for next season, with the luxury tax line projected at $150.3 million. The Suns will cross that threshold with any reasonable Ayton extension, and will probably do the same taking back salary in a sign-and-trade. If they can put their MLE to use before that point, they’ll have access to $10.3 million in starting salary for the non-taxpayer MLE, which can extend up to four years and $44.1 million.

If the Suns use their MLE after crossing the $150.3 million tax line, they’ll only have $6.4 million to offer in starting salary, and up to three years and $20 million in total.

Bearing all that in mind, and because we’ve already discussed MLE guard options and options on the wing, it’s time to take a look at the bigs — guys who could potentially back Deandre Ayton up…or have to replace him entirely. As we’ll see, if DA is indeed gone, the Suns’ best option for replacing him is probably on the trade market.

Kevon Looney

Finding a quick resolution for the DA situation is a top priority. The reason? If the Suns — armed with only the MLE — intend to swoop in and steal one of the market’s top big men, they’ll need to move swiftly. That directly applies to a guy like Kevon Looney, who will be a hot commodity for the defending-champion Golden State Warriors.

The Dubs reportedly intend to re-sign Looney. The problem is, the Dubs will have their hands full trying to retain Looney, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica. They could be looking at a record-breaking luxury tax bill, so if Looney slips through the cracks of their expensive summer, or if the Suns can outbid them with the non-taxpayer MLE, they could poach one of the best possible DA “replacements” on the free-agency market.

Looney would undoubtedly be a step down, but he showed in the Warriors’ latest title run how impactful he can be simply by holding his own defensively, dominating the boards, setting good screens, finishing around the rim and crashing the offensive glass. Those are all tenants the Suns have emphasized with Ayton in their system, which would help plug in Looney as a seamless fit.

Forget about his mundane averages of 6.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game; last year proved the regular season doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, and Looney produced in a starting role when it mattered most. He has no perimeter or post game to speak of, but he still shot 57.1 percent and is worth a look if the Dubs don’t immediately take care of business.

Isaiah Hartenstein

After landing John Wall, the LA Clippers may have limited means to keep Isaiah Hartenstein. The 24-year-old 7-footer is coming off a breakout year, during which he averaged 8.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in just 17.9 minutes per game off the bench. He shot a tidy 62.6 percent from the floor, made 14 of his 30 3-point attempts and proved he could be worth a full MLE gamble from some team looking for help at the 5.

Starting him at center for a contender coming off a 2021 Finals run and a 64-win season probably isn’t ideal. It’d be a big ask, and he’d probably be better off on a worse team that can afford to pay him more while letting him take his lumps. But Hartenstein’s got plenty of upside if all those flashes translate into something substantial with an increase in minutes.

The Suns would have competition for his services, of course. There’s mutual interest in a Clippers reunion, and the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets are reportedly interested too. But if Wall did take LA’s taxpayer MLE, another team could easily swoop in with a better offer, especially if it’s the non-taxpayer MLE. Maybe Orlando or Houston simply outbids everyone for his services, but the prospect of playing for a contender like Phoenix still means something.

Hartenstein is no DA, but in terms of rim-running and shot-blocking, he’d fit well with the Suns’ system on both ends.

Chris Boucher

Chris Boucher could very well earn more than the non-taxpayer MLE, simply because he’s a freak athlete who feels like he’s just tapping into his full potential. Then again, he’s already 29 years old, which means he could be available somewhere in between the taxpayer and non-taxpayer MLE.

Boucher’s numbers took a slight downturn from his career year in 2020-21, but he still put up 9.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 21.1 minutes per game. His 3-point shooting fell off a cliff after making 38.3 percent of his triples the year prior, but he routinely made an impact on a 48-win Toronto Raptors squad.

There are ample reasons to question whether he’s good enough to be a starter in this league. Boucher is a terrific shot-blocker, imposing rebounder and efficient interior scorer, but he’s also undersized (6-foot-9) and scrawny (200 pounds) for a center. He’s quite possibly the biggest boom-or-bust candidate on the list.

Bobby Portis

Coming off a championship run, Bobby Portis gave the Milwaukee Bucks a steep discount in free agency last year. Coming off a second-round playoff exit this year, he’ll be declining that $4.6 million player option and testing the waters.

This doesn’t mean he’s leaving Milwaukee by any stretch. The Bucks could be prepared to re-sign him for a four-year, $40 million extension, as Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reports. But if that doesn’t come to fruition, Portis did an excellent job holding down the starting center gig for an injured Brook Lopez last season.

Averaging a career-high 14.6 points and 9.1 rebounds per game on .479/.393/.752 shooting splits, Portis proved he can be a starting-caliber big in this league for a winning team. The Suns would gladly take that if DA leaves, though it certainly seems like he’ll be staying in Milwaukee as of right now.

Thomas Bryant

There’s a chance post-ACL Thomas Bryant just isn’t the same player he was before his injury in January 2021. In his limited, 27-game return for the Washington Wizards, his averages dropped to 7.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in 16.3 minutes per game. Though he shot 52 percent overall, he made only 28.6 percent of his 3s.

That represented a significant departure from the 13.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 24.9 minutes per game he averaged during his last healthy season, shooting 58.1 percent from the floor and 40.7 percent from long range.

Unfortunately, even in his “last healthy season,” he only played in 46 of a possible 72 games. The following year, he played 10 games before tearing his ACL. And last year, he spent the majority of the season recovering before making his return. That could lower his asking price on the market, and he’s still only 25 years old, but if the goal is to find a full-time starting center, Bryant would come with a ton of risk for a team in Phoenix’s position.

Serge Ibaka

A year ago, Serge Ibaka would’ve been at the very top of this list. Due to lingering injury woes that saw him traded from the Clippers to the Bucks and struggle to find productive minutes for either team, it’s fair to question what he still has to offer.

Though Ibaka will only turn 33 in September, back problems are a beast to deal with, and they’ve prevented him from looking anything like the key contributor he was during Toronto’s title run in 2019. His rebounding, shot-blocking and overall athleticism have fallen off a cliff, and he’s been an inconsistent floor-spacer as well.

Maybe Ibaka still has something left in the tank, but this would be a buy-low bounce-back candidate who might be a better fit on the bi-annual exception instead.

Robin Lopez

The taxpayer MLE or even the bi-annual exception are probably better options for a 34-year-old who may be on his last legs, but Robin Lopez may not have been able to show his full worth over the last two seasons with bad teams in Washington and Orlando.

Though he’s an underwhelming rebounder, Lopez has grown during his time in the NBA as a post scorer, and he’s been around long enough to know his role on both ends of the floor. He’s still capable of giving a team 15-20 productive minutes a night.

However, this would be more of a depth move than finding a true DA replacement. Even on the Wizards and Magic, Lopez rarely started at the 5, and the same was true the two years before that in Milwaukee and Chicago. He hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2017-18, so chalk this up to a last resort/backup addition.

Mo Bamba

There’s a highly productive, starting-caliber big buried somewhere in Mo Bamba’s 7-foot frame. Maybe with a more stable culture, in a system that just needs him to defend, block shots and serve as a rim-runner, guys like Chris Paul and Devin Booker would help him unlock and unleash that player.

True, it’s alarming the Magic aren’t even tendering the 24-year-old the $10.1 million qualifying offer it’d take to make him a restricted free agent:

But their frontcourt is plenty full between Wendell Carter Jr., Franz Wagner and the returning Jonathan Isaac, and that’s before even considering the new No. 1 pick, Paolo Banchero. Bamba has raw potential that’s verging on becoming real, but the Magic have enough players fitting that description.

Coming off a season in which he put up a career-best 10.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game in the starting role, it’s clear Bamba can produce. He shot a tidy 38.1 percent from 3-point range, though his 48 percent shooting overall leaves a lot to be desired.

Even so, playing next to the Point God will help with that efficiency problem, and he’d provide the Suns with a more active shot-blocker and burgeoning floor-spacer. If the Suns could find a way to keep him motivated and engaged (and out of foul trouble), he may be worth a gamble on the MLE.

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