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Playing buy or sell with the Suns’ 2022 free agents

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 16, 2022

While it’s only natural to look outward for external upgrades after such a traumatic playoff collapse, the Phoenix Suns will also spend a good deal of their offseason looking inward…and not just the players and coaches staring at a mirror wondering what went wrong.

From a pure team-building perspective, the Suns will have to reconcile the franchise-record, 64-win season that established them as the team to beat in the NBA with their Game 7 embarrassment that saw championship aspirations fly out the window in the second round. At the crux of this question is Deandre Ayton, but the Suns have several other impending free agents to worry about this summer too.

One trade (or sign-and-trade) could change everything, but as of right now, here’s an early look at the Suns’ own crop of free agents for 2022, which ones they should hang onto, and which ones they should cut loose.

Deandre Ayton (restricted free agent)

Anybody else sick of this conversation yet? No? All right then, let’s go it again through for 287th time.

For the last year now, Ayton’s contract situation has been a hot topic of debate among the fanbase, and we’ve covered the ongoing saga every step of the way. From figuring out his value, to the Suns playing with fire last offseason, to speculating about his future after not getting an extension, to his murky future with the team in the wake of their playoff disaster, to sign-and-trade scenarios, to clearing up misconceptions about his free agency, we’ve written about it from every angle. In fact, we’re still not done, since we’ll be writing about him again on Friday for the latest Bourguet Breakdown.

It’s all very exhausting, but a few facts are worth reiterating:

  1. Because DA is a restricted free agent, the Suns are still in the driver’s seat if they want to keep him.
  2. If they execute a sign-and-trade, the Suns are not going to get equal value or a one-on-one replacement for everything Ayton does on both ends of the floor.
  3. As ugly as the last few weeks have been, keeping him is still probably the best option.

With $129.2 million in salary already on the books for next season, any reasonable Ayton extension would push Phoenix past the $150.3 million luxury tax threshold. Because the Suns own his Bird rights, they can offer him up to five years and $177 million. Other teams can only offer up to four years and $131.1 million, which Phoenix would then be able to match. The Suns can also trump any four-year offer sheet, since they can pay him up to $136.6 million on a deal of that length.

It’s highly unlikely Ayton plays out next season on his $16.4 million qualifying offer, which would make him an unrestricted free agent next summer.

There are understandable qualms about a guy who creates less than 20 percent of his own offense being a max-level player. In a vacuum, he’s probably not worth that kind of money. But he’s also only turning 24 this summer, he’s important to this team’s success on both ends, and market value dictates contract worth more than anything. Re-signing him would also put the Suns in position to keep their young core four intact for the foreseeable future, assuming they come to terms on a well-deserved Cam Johnson extension.

Sign-and-trades are tricky to navigate from a financial perspective anyway, and most of the potential options would yield diminished returns. So unless a sign-and-trade for a star somehow materializes out of thin air, keeping Ayton and tweaking the roster around the margins is still the best available path.

Verdict: Buy

JaVale McGee (unrestricted free agent)

Let’s get one thing straight: If the Suns are starting JaVale McGee at center next season, their offseason will have gone horribly, horribly wrong. However, assuming he’s still in his backup role (hopefully behind DA), this Per 36 Minutes god is worth keeping around for the right price.

That “right price” part could be tricky. On the one hand, McGee averaged an impressive 9.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in just 15.8 minutes per game, all while shooting 62.9 percent from the field. He was an insanely productive backup in his limited action, and his similar skill-set to DA allowed for more continuity between the first and second units.

On the other, he can be played off the court in a playoff series when opponents repeatedly target his drop coverage in pick-and-rolls. That means he’s not quite worth the Suns’ mid-level exception, which they used a chunk of last year to land him in the first place. If Phoenix enters the luxury tax, their MLE salary for next season would start at $6.3 million, extending up to three years and $20 million at most.

However, if the veteran minimum isn’t enough to woo a 34-year-old who can still contribute off the bench, they can go up to $6 million in salary without dipping into their exceptions. They shouldn’t have to go that high to keep him with their non-Bird rights, but the importance of McGee’s return also hinges on what happens with Ayton and what other moves Phoenix makes. Keeping him around just below that price range seems wise either way.

Consider McGee’s interest in staying in Phoenix — where he called the Suns the “best team in the motherf**king world” and said they do a better job setting up their centers than any team he’s ever played on — as a good barometer test for how tight this team’s locker room still is after such a demoralizing defeat.

Verdict: Buy

Aaron Holiday (restricted free agent)

Update: As expected, the Suns did not tender Holiday a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent.

It’s a shame Phoenix didn’t get to see more of what Aaron Holiday can do, especially in that second-round series where Cam Payne disappeared and Chris Paul clearly wasn’t himself. Holiday wouldn’t have changed the final outcome, but now the Suns need to find an additional shot creator with their MLE, and nobody’s certain if Holiday can be that guy.

Because Holiday is a restricted free agent, the Suns can bring him back if they’re actually committed to exploring what they have in their 25-year-old combo guard who joined the team at the trade deadline. But given Monty Williams’ unwillingness to play him late in the season — even opting for Elfrid Payton minutes over him at times — it doesn’t feel like bringing Holiday back is much of an organizational priority.

He’s still young and showed plenty in flashes with the Suns, but the goal for what little cap space and exceptions the Suns have at their disposal should be finding a Payne upgrade. Holiday’s $5.8 million qualifying offer feels pretty close to his market value, but given his age and two-way promise, another suitor may be willing to go a bit higher. If and when that moment comes, the Suns would be wise to let him go…and that’s assuming they even tender him that qualifying offer in the first place.

Verdict: Sell

Ish Wainright (restricted free agent)

Ish Wainright’s numbers — 2.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in 8.0 minutes per game on .394/.322/.583 shooting splits — don’t tell the full story. Positional versatility is king in the NBA, and Wainright proved he can play serviceable ball on both ends at a number of spots on the floor.

Thanks to shoulders more akin to bowling balls, Wainright is strong enough to hold his own in the frontcourt, but he’s quick enough laterally to do the same when matched up on the wing. Wainright proved himself worthy of converting his two-way contract into a full deal, and his coaches and teammates have raved about his work ethic and character in the locker room. Throw in his 44.8 percent shooting on corner 3s (including 11-for-18 from the right corner) and you’ve got an effective role player who can even spend time at the 5 in small-ball lineups.

His $1.8 million qualifying offer feels about right in terms of value, but Wainright’s market may have grown this year. Another team could very well swoop in with an offer that’s more than what Phoenix is willing to pay for an 11th or 12th player in their rotation. But if that market never materializes, Wainright’s joy playing for Phoenix — the first NBA team to give him a real shot — was obvious. A reunion to build on that foundation would make sense for both parties.

Verdict: Buy

Bismack Biyombo (unrestricted free agent)

This probably depends on what happens with McGee (and DA, to a lesser extent), but devoting three roster spots to rim-rolling bigs is a bit much. To be fair, Biyombo was a terrific midseason addition, helping the Suns at a position of need when they were dealing with a rash of injuries at the center spot.

But come playoff time, Biyombo was only of use when it became apparent McGee couldn’t hack it against opponents targeting him in pick-and-rolls. The 29-year-old vet filled his role well enough when called upon, but even that only meant 2.8 points and 2.1 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game during the postseason.

Biyombo is slightly more mobile on the perimeter, and if McGee walks or DA leaves, bringing him back becomes more of a priority. Re-signing him to the vet minimum wouldn’t be a bad move, but he should get offers elsewhere too, and the Suns need to start devoting more attention to small-ball options at the 5. Biz is a high-character locker room guy and stepped up in his spot minutes, but he might not be much of a priority until it’s too late.

Verdict: Sell

Elfrid Payton (unrestricted free agent)

Aside from the obvious fact that upgrading the backcourt depth is a high priority for a reason, one Elfrid Payton stat tells the story of his time with the Phoenix Suns.

On a team that posted the NBA’s best point differential, every other rotation player who was still rostered by the end of the year finished with a positive plus/minus. That included bench guys like Wainright (+39 in 359 minutes), Torrey Craig (+14 in 562 minutes) and even Iffe Lundberg (+19 in 44 minutes). When you play on a winning team as dominant as the Suns, who outscored their opponents by a league-best 615 points this year, it stands to reason that at some point you’ll rack up some positives in the ol’ plus-minus column, right?

Not so for Payton, who finished with a team-worst -43 point differential in 549 minutes. He played substantially more minutes than the Suns’ two-way guys, and still wound up with a significantly worse plus/minus? Yeesh.

Verdict: Sell

Iffe Lundberg (two-way contract)

Iffe Lundberg is set to play for the Summer League Suns, so there’s a very good chance he’ll be back next season on a real contract instead of a two-way slot. He didn’t get much of an opportunity to show what he’s capable of, but everyone familiar with his game overseas agrees: He’s a real NBA player who deserves to get a fair shake.

Lundberg has a $1.6 million qualifying offer, and given that he’s currently a third-string guy on a title contender, he probably won’t cost much to re-sign, nor will he have much of a market outside of Phoenix.

Given that the Suns had been trying to bring Lundberg over for much longer than when they actually did, this should be pretty straightforward.

Verdict: Buy

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