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The Phoenix Suns have a busy offseason ahead after a quiet NBA Draft night. With free agency officially kicking off Thursday at 6 p.m. ET (and unofficially underway already, tampering rules be damned), the Suns have a number of housekeeping items to take care of and an even larger number of possible avenues to consider.
The top priority is figuring out what to do with restricted free agent Deandre Ayton. That resolution to a murky situation could come by re-signing him, matching another team’s offer sheet (unlikely, given the lack of teams with max cap space or interest) or agreeing to a sign-and-trade.
After that, there’s Devin Booker’s no-brainer super-max and a well-deserved extension for Cam Johnson. And that’s without even touching on the need for another ball-handler and shot creator behind Chris Paul.
That’s typically where the Suns’ mid-level exception comes in. With $129.2 million already on the books for next season and the NBA’s luxury tax line now projected at $150.3 million, Phoenix would have to get extremely creative to duck the tax. Any reasonable Ayton extension gets them there, and they’d still have to fill out the rest of the roster.
To that end, if the Suns are a luxury tax team, the starting salary for their MLE will be $6.4 million, and they can offer up to three years and $20 million on the taxpayer MLE. That’s significantly less than the four years and $44.1 million a non-taxpaying team can offer with their MLE, but it’ll still be a useful tool for Phoenix to round out its roster — especially if they can find a way to use it before entering the tax.
Adding more ball-handling off the bench should be the main priority, but there’s no telling how the Suns might look after they handle the DA situation. Will Ayton be back? Will they trade him for another big man, highlighting the need for backcourt help? Or will they deal him for wings or guards, shifting the areas of need to the frontcourt?
It’s impossible to predict at this point, so in the interest of being thorough, here’s a look at a few wings that could be viable MLE targets should the Suns lose anyone in their Mikal Bridges-Cam Johnson-Jae Crowder-Torrey Craig-Landry Shamet grouping. We’ll start with a few pie-in-the-sky options.
Note: Taurean Prince was on this list until ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that he’ll be re-signing with the Minnesota Timberwolves for two years and $16 million.
Pie-in-the-sky target No. 1: P.J. Tucker
Tucker already made the decision to decline his $7.4 million player option with the Miami Heat. That immediately made this Suns reunion unlikely, since he turned down more money than they can offer him in starting salary if they’re in the tax. Then there’s the report from The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey that a three-year, $30 million pact with the Philadelphia 76ers is basically a done deal.
However, there’s a catch: The Sixers won’t have the cap space to sign him if James Harden exercises his $47.4 million player option as expected. For the sake of covering all our bases, let’s live in the multiverse where that happens, Philly can’t clear the requisite cap space with a sign-and-trade or another deal, and the Suns have an opportunity to swoop in.
Tucker is 37 years old now, but Suns fans are familiar with what he brings to the table in terms of versatile defense, toughness and corner 3-point shooting. However, since his last stint in Phoenix, he’s also been to the postseason every single year, with 91 playoff games and one championship under his belt. Throw in his 41.5 percent shooting from 3 last year and that’s a useful two-way veteran the Suns could plug into a number of positions — including as a small-ball 5 — during the playoffs.
Pie-in-the-sky target No. 2: Otto Porter Jr.
The Golden State Warriors seem committed to paying the fortune it’ll take to keep their championship roster intact. As a taxpaying team, they’ll have the $6.4 million MLE to work with in terms of starting salary. However, the Dubs are looking at a hefty tax bill already, and with Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Kevon Looney, Gary Payton II and Nemanja Bjelica to worry about, Otto Porter Jr. could get lost in that shuffle.
According to The Athletic’s Anthony Slater, the Warriors intend to pursue a reunion with Payton and Porter, but if the 29-year-old wing’s price tag jumps to high, he’s considered “obtainable” for outside suitors. The Dubs could bring him back on the same type of MLE deal the Suns can offer, but according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, they’d owe a total of $430 million in salary and luxury tax payments if they gave him the MLE, re-signed Looney and Payton to $6 million per year salaries, and filled out the rest of their roster with first-round picks and veteran minimum deals.
That’s a LOT of money, even for the reigning NBA champs. If there’s an opening, the Suns could do worse on the wing than a rangy 4 who shot 37.2 percent from deep and 72 percent at the rim in a bounce-back year for Golden State. He wouldn’t replace Jae Crowder or Cam Johnson as the starting 4, but he proved he could be useful in a bench role during the Warriors’ title run. That’s worth considering if he slips through the cracks of their expensive summer.
Pie-in-the-sky target No. 3: Bruce Brown Jr.
Brown only averaged 9.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game for the Brooklyn Nets this year, but he’ll probably earn more than the taxpayer MLE. Brown will only turn 26 in August, and he’s coming off a year in which he maximized his role next to Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, shooting 50.6 percent from the floor and 40.4 percent from downtown.
That tidy 3-point shooting came on low volume, but he’s also an engaged defender, an underrated playmaker and a surprisingly good finisher who does the little things to help teams win.
Brown will more than likely stay where he is or get the non-taxpayer MLE from someone, but if Brooklyn blows things up, he’s not the only Net the Suns should keep tabs on.
Taxpayer-verging-on-non-taxpayer MLE target No. 1: Gary Harris
Gary Harris made $20 million with the Orlando Magic last year, so this would be quite a downgrade in annual salary. He’s not the elite 3-and-D wing many expected during his early Denver Nuggets years, but Harris is still only 27 and just shot 38.4 percent from 3 last year.
It’s been a few years since Harris was on a good team, and the ever-present concerns about his health have to be factored in. But that could lead to him being a bargain on the free-agency market if the Magic aren’t interested in keeping him and further clogging up minutes for their young backcourt.
You can never have too many guards or wings who can knock down 3s and defend multiple positions. If the Suns lose some wing depth over the course of the offseason, landing Harris at the MLE would represent a very nice recovery.
Taxpayer-verging-on-non-taxpayer-MLE target No. 2: Kyle Anderson
The Memphis Grizzlies have the means to keep Kyle Anderson and/or Tyus Jones if they so choose, but if they shift their attention elsewhere in free agency, “Slo Mo” becomes an intriguing MLE candidate.
He’s probably worth the non-taxpayer MLE to someone, but the market is unpredictable. If he’s available, poaching him from the No. 2 team in the West last year at just $6.4 million in starting salary would be a savvy move. Anderson will turn 29 in September, and he’s not a simple plug-and-play guy, but he’d be right at home with Phoenix’s top-five defense.
That career 33.4 percent mark from 3-point range is bothersome, but the 6-foot-9 Anderson would provide more ball-handling and playmaking for a Suns bench that needs it. He’s also a pretty decent rebounder and slasher, so if the Suns wind up needing wing depth and a little positional versatility, Slo Mo should be on their radar.
Taxpayer-verging-on-non-taxpayer-MLE-target No. 3: Danilo Gallinari
Danilo Gallinari is still technically under contract with the Atlanta Hawks, but only $4.5 million of his $21.5 million salary is guaranteed. They could still trade him away to clear out cap space, but if no suitors emerge for that kind of expiring deal, they could simply waive him and make him a free agent.
In that scenario, Gallo would already have $4.5 million in his pocket…at which point even the lower, non-taxpayer MLE doesn’t feel like as much of a loss. He’ll turn 34 in August, but Gallinari is still an effective 4 who’s shot at least 38 percent from long range in each of the last four seasons. In a bench role in Phoenix, he’d provide some of the shot-making, floor-spacing and veteran experience the Suns need.
Taxpayer-verging-on-non-taxpayer-MLE-target No. 4: Caleb Martin
Caleb Martin really boosted his value with the Heat this season, averaging a career-high 9.2 points in 22.9 minutes per game, all while shooting 50.7 percent from the floor and 41.3 percent from 3. From his scoring on fast breaks to his ability to take charges, Martin is the exact type of impact/energy player Phoenix needs come playoff time.
However, he may not be in the Suns’ price range. Martin is a restricted free agent for the Heat, who can match outside offers using the non-taxpayer MLE ($10.3 million). Whether they would actually match that much money using such an important lifeline remains to be seen, especially as they attempt to woo P.J. Tucker back. But if Tucker leaves for Philly, a Suns offer for the taxpayer MLE might be easier for Miami to match.
Taxpayer-MLE-sweet-spot target No. 1: Danuel House Jr.
How about a different, less-heralded Suns reunion? Danuel House Jr. was in Phoenix during the dark years, before he fully established himself as a more recognized 3-and-D wing. Now, he’d be returning to a 64-win team in the city where he got his first legitimate shot at NBA rotation minutes.
Though he didn’t play a full season last year, House made an impact in his limited 25-game stint with the Utah Jazz. His 6.8 points in 19.7 minutes per game don’t look like much, but he canned 41.5 percent of his 3s, and by the time the playoffs rolled around, Jazz fans were begging coach Quin Snyder to feed him minutes over Royce O’Neale.
House just turned 29, bounced around to three different teams last year and only played in 36 games the season before that, so maybe the full taxpayer MLE is a bit steep. But he can clearly help a contender with his 3-point shooting and his ability to defend spots 2-4 on the court. Getting him for an amount near or below that MLE would bolster the playoff core of a title contender.
Taxpayer-MLE-sweet-spot target No. 2: Cody Martin
Like his brother, Cody Martin is an interesting restricted free agency case. He just put up a career-best 7.7 points and 4.0 rebounds in 26.3 minutes per game, shooting a career-high 48.2 percent from the floor and a career-high 38.4 percent from deep. That last number came on low volume, but he helped make up for it by getting out in transition and being one of the few players on his team who could actually defend.
The Charlotte Hornets may not have enough cap space to devote to him, depending on what they do with Miles Bridges’ free agency and Kelly Oubre Jr.’s non-guaranteed contract. If Martin gets lost in the mix, he’s worth a look at the MLE for somebody.
Taxpayer-MLE-sweet-spot target No. 3: Amir Coffey
Best known as the guy the Nuggets’ home scoreboard put in Devin Booker’s place, Amir Coffey is actually a decent young player who deserves serious consideration here. The LA Clippers can retain their restricted free agent if they so choose, but they haven’t extended him a qualifying offer year, and they’ve already got their hands full elsewhere. An offer near even the taxpayer MLE might be too much for them to reasonably match.
Coffey’s numbers don’t leap off the page, but 9.0 points in 22.7 minutes per game for a Clippers team that exceeded expectations is nothing to sneeze at. He also shot 37.8 percent from 3 this year, after knocking down 41.1 percent of his 3s the year prior. At 6-foot-7, Coffey can handle the ball well, defend capably and only turned 25 in June.
Maybe the full MLE would be a bit of an overpay for an under-the-radar wing like this, but Amir Coffey would be a legitimate help on the wing, especially if the Suns lose one or two in trades this offseason.
Less-than-MLE target No. 1: Lonnie Walker IV
The San Antonio Spurs may be gearing up for an epic tank run in 2022-23, and so far, they haven’t extended a $6.3 million qualifying offer to make Lonnie Walker IV a restricted free agent. If that day never comes, he’ll hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent who could probably be signed for less than the full MLE.
Walker is still only 23 years old, but his progress has been more flashes than actual substance. That’s become more clear over the last two seasons, where Gregg Popovich nearly doubled his minutes and his efficiency waned, even as he was averaging double figures in the scoring column. Maybe the Suns’ current talent level, culture and system could help him become more than a highlight-reel dunker, but paying the full taxpayer MLE for a boom-or-bust candidate would be awfully risky.
Less-than-MLE target No. 2: Jeff Green
Jeff Green’s $4.5 million player option with the Nuggets is intriguing, since that’s probably somewhere around his market value. He could very well choose to run it back with Denver for another year.
But if he’s looking for yet another change of scenery and what would be his 13th NBA team, the Suns could help him compete for a title. Green turns 36 in August, and even for a veteran journeyman, he’s running out of time to add that long-awaited championship ring to his resume.
Green pretty much is what he is at this point: A streaky 3-point shooter who can play multiple positions, surprise people for a high-rising dunk every now and then, and even log some small-ball 5 minutes. That’d be enough to add value to the Suns, especially for less than the full MLE.
Less-than-MLE target No. 3: Derrick Jones Jr.
How about another Suns wing reunion from the dark days? Derrick Jones Jr. hasn’t progressed from much more than a high-flying dunker and stout defender, but given their aging roster and playing style, Phoenix could use some slashers, athletic specimens and high-energy guys on both ends of the court.
Jones’ career 29.8 percent shooting from distance kills his value, but he’s still been incredibly efficient inside the arc and switch to multiple positions. The Chicago Bulls have his Bird rights to bring him back, but if that’s not in the cards and the Suns need to snag a wing on the open market, Airplane Mode could probably be had on a bargain contract.
Less-than-MLE target No. 4: Josh Okogie
Remember a few years ago, when Josh Okogie was heralded as the next great wing stopper for blocking James Harden’s step-back jumper? Well, fast-forward a few years and the Minnesota Timberwolves are not expected to extend Okogie his $5.9 million qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent.
That means the soon-to-be 24-year-old will be up for grabs. The fact that he’s never shot better than 30 percent from 3 in any of his four NBA seasons means he’s not worth the full MLE, and even then, it’s a cumbersome weakness that would limit his usefulness to a title contender.
But Okogie is a legitimately stout defender and is still young. If some team could simply unlock the results for his 3-point shot, he could be a sneaky-good pickup at a price below the MLE.