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Playing buy or sell with Suns 2023 free agents (plus a few more external targets)

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 29, 2023

For all that the Phoenix Suns lack in actual cap space, they make up for in sheer star power. There’s no question they’ll be one of the more attractive free agency destinations in the league this summer for ring-chasers.

If the Suns remain unwilling to trade Deandre Ayton, they’ve only got veteran minimum contracts and a $5 million trade exception left at their disposal. That means their free-agency pitch will rely on the allure of playing with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and the newly arrived Bradley Beal; playing in a great basketball city with an aggressive new owner; playing under a well-respected coach like Frank Vogel…all while hoping the players they target are willing to take a discount to join the party.

Between Booker, KD, Beal and DA, the Suns are already at $161.6 million in salary — just shy of the league’s $165 million luxury tax line. Add in Ish Wainright’s $1.9 million team option that’s already been picked up, Jordan Goodwin’s $1.9 million partially guaranteed deal, Cam Payne’s $6.5 million (which becomes fully guaranteed unless he’s waived by Thursday’s deadline) and Isaiah Todd’s $1.9 million, the Suns have $173.8 million on the books for eight players. Assuming second-round rookie Toumani Camara earns a spot on the roster, that’s another million or so, which would be nearly $175 million for nine players.

That leaves six remaining roster spots, guaranteeing the Suns will zoom past the second luxury tax apron at $182.5 million. Doing so eliminates the possibility of using the taxpayer mid-level exception, so no matter what, the Suns will be limited to vet minimum signings and their $5 million trade exception to make additions to the roster.

Re-signing their own free agents, however, creates a path for Phoenix to not only retain talent at competitive prices, but also give themselves more flexibility for trades down the road. Because the Suns have bird rights for three of their free agents — Torrey Craig, Jock Landale and Bismack Biyombo — they can offer them deals worth an annual salary of whichever is higher: up to 175 percent of the player’s salary for last year, or 104.5 percent of the average league salary.

Craig ($5.1 million), Landale ($1.6 million) and Biyombo ($2.9 million) didn’t make enough last year for that first possibility, but a deal worth 104.5 percent of the league’s average salary — $10.8 million last year — means they could earn up to $11.3 million a year if the Suns fully lean into those bird rights.

Would amounts in that region be slight overpays? Probably. But they would ensure the Suns keep some of their serviceable bench players from last season, give some of those guys the paydays they deserve, and also structure their contracts near the taxpayer MLE ($5 million) and non-taxpayer MLE ($12 million) to keep their future trade options open. The only real cost here would be the hefty luxury tax penalties coming out of Mat Ishbia’s bank account as the Suns go deeper into the tax. But if the new owner is game, it’s his money and his prerogative to spend it how he pleases.

Bearing all that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the Suns’ nine free agents and play “buy or sell” to determine which ones Phoenix should keep and which ones should be cut loose. Because free agency begins on Friday, we’ll also take a look at a few more external candidates the Suns should consider signing on vet minimum deals or acquiring with their $5 million trade exception.

Torrey Craig

Craig had one of the worst Net Ratings on the Suns roster last season, but he wore a number of hats all year long. Going from bench role player to starter to offensive rebounder then back to starter for the first round of the playoffs then back to barely playing must have been a tough series of adjustments, but Craig was a serviceable rotation piece on both ends.

While he’s no longer a lockdown wing defender, Craig can at least show resistance on that end and guard a number of positions. Offensively, he became a bit of a non-factor during the second round, but he still averaged a career-high 7.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last year, all while shooting 45.6 percent overall and a career-best 39.5 percent from 3.

He may turn 33 in December, but if you weren’t impressed by the list of wings on our veteran minimum targets piece earlier this week, Craig is a better option than most of them due to his familiarity with Booker, Durant and Ayton, his ability to play his role on both ends, and how he might be even better under a defensive-minded coach like Vogel.

The Suns own his early bird rights and can pay him more than outside suitors. Don’t be surprised if Craig returns on a two- or three-year deal with an average annual salary in the $8-11 million range.

Verdict: Buy

Josh Okogie

Okogie would be a perfect fit in Vogel’s system as the valuable point-of-attack defender that Phoenix’s starting five is currently missing. Booker has improved drastically over the years on the defensive end, but tasking him with defending each opponent’s best guard and operating as Point Book on the other end would wear him down.

Okogie showed flashes of being a capable starter last year. His defensive playmaking is out of this world, and for a stretch from January through February where he made 42.4 percent of his 3s, it felt like he might be able to make defenses pay for ignoring him. Unfortunately, it proved to be unsustainable for the career 29.1 percent shooter, as he shot 32.1 percent for the rest of the season and went 2-for-14 in the playoffs.

Even surrounded with all that talent, Okogie probably isn’t reliable enough as a shooter to be the fifth starter for this group. Without the promise of a starting role, the allure of a larger contract may be tough to resist, since he may have played his way into a payday. The Suns don’t own his bird rights, so the best they can offer is the vet minimum. If that offer, and the chance to play for a title, is enough for Okogie, the Suns should keep him. But if another offer comes in, there’s a good chance it’ll be worth more than what Phoenix can promise him for next season.

Verdict: Buy if you can (but more likely, sell)

Jock Landale

The Suns need depth behind Ayton, and Jock Landale probably should’ve been Phoenix’s starting center for most of the season. Because Phoenix owns his restricted early bird rights and have already tendered him a $2.2 million qualifying offer, there’s a good chance he’s sticking around.

Qualifying offers are often formalities, but what that essentially means is, at the very least, if Landale receives no outside offers, and if he and the Suns can’t agree to an extension, he’ll still be on the roster next season, earning $2.2 million from that qualifying offer. By extending it, the Suns officially make Landale a restricted free agent, which means they can match any outside offer if they so choose.

In other words, the Suns are staking their claim on Landale, and they can still re-sign him to a deal they negotiate together. Like Craig, don’t be surprised to see Landale re-signed to a two- or three-year deal that could see him earn anywhere from $5-11 million annually.

Not only would it be a welcome return for Phoenix’s favorite Aussie, but it’d also supply the Suns with a legitimate energy guy off the bench who was pretty effective protecting the rim (despite his self-admitted lack of bounce). Last season, opponents shot 7.6 percent worse at the rim when defended by Landale.

Verdict: Buy

Bismack Biyombo

All of the Suns’ bird rights free agents have a good chance of being back on the roster next season. Landale earned the contract extension that’s coming his way, but there’d also be little harm in bringing Bizzy back to see how his elite shot-blocking fares in Vogel’s defense.

Biyombo was an absolute beast protecting the rim last season, becoming just the 103rd player in NBA history to reach 1,000 blocks for his career. He held opponents to 14.3 percent worse shooting at the rim when he was guarding them, and his athleticism and timing haven’t missed a beat at age 30.

Biyombo is a vet minimum player these days, but Ishbia seems prepared to smash right through that second tax apron rather than tiptoe past it. If that’s the case, Bizzy could be due for a nice little pay raise to keep a well-liked veteran in town, while also setting Phoenix up for a little more trade flexibility down the line.

Verdict: Buy

Damion Lee

This felt like a tricky one at first. If the Suns miss out on bringing back Josh Okogie and/or Terrence Ross, Damion Lee’s value here skyrockets. He was an extremely effective floor-spacer when Monty Williams had him in the rotation, as the 30-year-old shot a career-high 44.5 percent from 3-point range. That was the third-best percentage in the entire league, and everyone knows the Suns need floor-spacers around their star trio.

On the other hand, there are only six or so roster spots to go around here, and for the most part, Lee was out of the playoff rotation. He went 3-for-15 from deep in the postseason, and although the Suns have a new coach in charge now, there’s also a decent chance Lee’s sharpshooting during the season carved his path to a slightly more lucrative deal elsewhere.

The Suns don’t earn his bird rights, so if Lee is willing to take another vet minimum deal to stay in the Valley with Book, KD and Beal, he’d be a quality signing — and an important one if Okogie and/or Ross departs. The New York Times’ Marc Stein supplied an encouraging update Thursday morning, saying Lee is “considered one of the surest candidates to re-sign with Phoenix of the Suns’ numerous unrestricted free agents.”

If that’s the case, bringing him back on another veteran minimum deal is a no-brainer.

Verdict: Buy

Terrence Ross

Ross was underutilized during the Suns’ playoff run, and the reasons behind it — his defensive shortcomings — would still be an issue next time around. But if anyone could coax some respectable defense out of him, wouldn’t it be Vogel, who coached him for a few years with the Orlando Magic?

The Suns don’t own his bird rights, but Ross is probably a veteran minimum player these days anyway. Unless he gets a more competitive offer elsewhere, Phoenix could use his career 36.2 percent shooting from deep. He only made 34.7 percent of his 3s with the Suns, but that came in a 21-game sample size that didn’t afford him enough opportunities to get in a rhythm.

Maybe the 32-year-old will receive a better offer from another team as he truly enters free agency for the first time in years, but if Ross enjoyed his brief stint under Vogel in Orlando, the Suns will have the inside track to bringing back some additional shooting.

Verdict: Buy

T.J. Warren

The Suns don’t own Warren’s bird rights, and he looked like a shell of his former self in his 16 appearances back in the Valley. What was supposed to be a happy return flamed out pretty quickly, as he looked hesitant to get his customary buckets in Monty Williams’ offense.

Part of that was undoubtedly Williams’ reluctance to play him and Terrence Ross. Warren looked a lot more useful in his 26 games with the Brooklyn Nets before coming to Phoenix as part of the Durant trade, averaging 9.5 points per game on 51 percent shooting there.

But there are only so many roster spots to go around, and as much as Devin Booker loves him some Tony Buckets, re-signing Warren doesn’t feel like it’ll be a priority.

Verdict: Sell

Darius Bazley

On Wednesday, the Suns tendered qualifying offers to Jock Landale and Saben Lee to make them restricted free agents…but not Darius Bazley. Given the way teams typically knock these things out all at once, it wasn’t a good sign for his future in the Valley.

There’s good reason for it: Bazley was a swing and a miss by the front office in a cost-cutting move that shipped Dario Saric off to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Bazley is young at only 23 years old, he’s got potential on the defensive end, and it’s true the Suns could use more defensive-minded role players.

But Bazley didn’t really show the Suns much of anything during his brief stint in Phoenix, and his offensive skill-set screams “big who thinks he’s a wing.”

More importantly, there’s the financial aspect. Bazley comes with a significant $12.8 million cap hold, and his qualifying offer would’ve been worth $6.2 million. That’s a fair chunk of change to guarantee a guy who probably wouldn’t even be in the rotation. Even as Phoenix aims for more contracts in that general salary range, Bazley probably shouldn’t be one of them.

Verdict: Sell

Saben Lee

Lee is still on a two-way contract, but by tendering him that $1.8 million qualifying offer, the Suns are essentially aiming to bring him back next season in some manner.

Lee was an easy guy to root for as a local Arizona kid who worked his way onto the Suns with a two-way deal. He never became the Cam Payne upgrade Phoenix really needed at the backup point guard spot, but Lee was a reliable third-stringer when he got minutes by attacking the basket, getting downhill, playing gritty defense and hitting 37.9 percent of his 3s.

That unorthodox release of his doesn’t feel reliable yet, but as the Suns look to create their own G League team again in the near future, Lee is the type of developmental piece Phoenix should be investing in…even if it doesn’t come with a fully guaranteed roster spot yet.

Verdict: Buy

External Suns target: Taurean Prince

Yes, I’m aware the Suns will only have six or seven open roster spots and I just voted “buy” on seven of the team’s nine free agents. I don’t blame you for wondering why the math ain’t mathin’.

But there’s a good chance Okogie, Lee and possibly even Ross get better offers elsewhere. Saben Lee is likely heading for another two-way contract, so even if the Suns bring back their three bird rights free agents, they’ll still probably have anywhere from 2-4 available roster spots.

Furthermore, if the Suns feel they can get an upgrade on the free market, they should go for it. This is the type of team that will have a good chance of convincing free agents to take a slight discount and join the fun.

To that end, our first external target for a veteran minimum deal is Taurean Prince. Wednesday was the deadline for the Minnesota Timberwolves to guarantee his $7.4 million contract for the upcoming season, and they declined to do so:

Last season, Prince averaged 9.1 points per game on .467/.381/.844 shooting splits. He’s shot at least 37.6 percent from 3 in each of the last three seasons, and the Suns could always use more two-way wings, even if Prince isn’t in the “lockdown” tier of defenders.

There’s a good chance he’s worth more to another team than the vet minimum, but the Suns will be an attractive destination to guys who prioritize winning above all else. Maybe the money talks louder elsewhere, but it doesn’t hurt to inquire from Phoenix’s perspective.

External Suns target: Cam Reddish

Much like Darius Bazley in Phoenix, Cam Reddish had to watch as his teammate Matisse Thybulle got tendered a qualifying offer without receiving one himself.

The word is the Portland Trail Blazers are not interested in retaining him, since Reddish’s $7.7 million qualifying offer is a bit steep for his production and would push Rip City into luxury tax territory:

Despite having been in the league for four seasons with three different teams, Reddish is still only 23. He hasn’t exactly had a great environment to develop in, going from the Atlanta Hawks to the New York Knicks to the Blazers. He simply may not have the athleticism or speed to make his way in this league, since he struggles to get past defenders or finish at the basket when he does. He’s also not a great perimeter shooter, making 32.2 percent of his 3s through his NBA career so far.

However, he was a double-digit scorer all three seasons in Atlanta, and the promise of untapped potential at a veteran minimum cost may be an upside play worth exploring. It’s a risky one for a title contender like Phoenix that needs to maximize its remaining roster spots with dependable role players, but Reddish’s youth, size (6-foot-8) and the promise of developing under a more affirming coach like Vogel would make him an intriguing option to consider.

External Suns target: Mike James

According to The New York Times’ Marc Stein, the Suns could be interested in a reunion with a certain former point guard of theirs:

“As Phoenix scours the league for quality players willing to play for the league minimum and chase a ring in its supporting cast surrounding Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, Nets sharpshooter Yuta Watanabe and Nets alumnus Mike James (Durant’s close friend who played this past season at AS Monaco in the EuroLeague) have surfaced as potential targets.”

We’ve already talked about why Watanabe would be a good fit, but James is an unexpected name to resurface. The shifty, speedy guard was last seen in the NBA with the 2020-21 Brooklyn Nets, averaging 7.7 points and 4.2 assists per game on mixed .370/.355/.778 shooting splits.

Since then, the 32-year-old has played for AS Monaco in France. Last season, he put up 14.8 points and 4.9 assists a night in 70 games, but he only shot 38.6 percent overall and 27.3 percent from deep.

Keeping Durant happy is one thing, but the Suns need more efficient, reliable shooters in their rotation.

External Suns target: Eric Gordon

Wednesday was the LA Clippers’ deadline to guarantee Eric Gordon’s contract, and they decided to cut him loose to save over $100 million in luxury tax payments. It’s a cost-cutting move that hurts LA’s depth…and could potentially, finally lead to the EG-Suns union that’s felt inevitable for years now.

In all seriousness, Gordon is probably an unlikely target. For all the chatter about how he’d be a great fit in Phoenix — which he would — he’s probably worth the MLE to somebody. Whether it’s for a luxury tax team or a non-taxpaying team, they’ll still be able to offer him more money than the Suns.

However, Gordon would be a terrific fit for this bench. His floor-spacing goes beyond being able to simply make 3-pointers, since he’s willing to launch from 5-6 feet beyond the arc. That would open up driving lanes for Booker, Beal and Durant, and the fact that he made 42.3 percent of his 3s once the Houston Rockets mercifully traded him to a playoff team doesn’t hurt either.

Gordon averaged 11.0 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting overall in his 22 games with the Clippers, and in the playoffs, he became an even more vital part of a shorthanded rotation. Put him on this Suns team, in a role with less pressure, and he’d be able to produce as he enters his twilight years. There’s a very good chance another team’s MLE is too irresistible to turn down, but if he wants to win a title before his time is up, Phoenix is still one of his best options.

External Suns target: Kyrie Irving

No. Stop it. Get some help.

For reasons we covered in full detail here.

External Suns target: Trendon Watford

Are the Portland Trail Blazers preparing for a trade? Because otherwise, their decision to waive 22-year-old Trendon Watford is legitimately shocking.

Watford isn’t some starting-caliber player lying in wait, but he’s been a fairly productive bench guy over his two years in Rip City, averaging 7.5 points and 4.0 rebounds in 18.6 minutes per game through his first two seasons. He shot 56 percent from the floor and 39.1 percent from 3 last season, albeit on limited volume.

As a 6-foot-8 power forward, Watford would help bolster a position of need and represents a solid upside play given his age and his extremely team-friendly contract. For a team like the Suns, who will be hard-pressed to add good players with limited cap flexibility in the coming years, Watford’s deal with two years remaining (and the second being a team option) would be a great pickup — whether it’s using the vet minimum to sign him after he clears waivers, or simply claiming him using their $5 million trade exception.

Suns trade exception option: Danuel House Jr.

And finally, we get to our trade exception candidates! As a result of the Dario Saric trade, the Suns can absorb up to $5,075,371 in salary with their traded player exception. Phoenix would still have to find a way to give up something, which would be difficult in most scenarios because they don’t own their own draft picks for the foreseeable future.

With that being said, there are a couple of unique scenarios that could fit the bill. It’s a difficult needle to thread in finding a player whose contract is worth $5 million or less, whose team wouldn’t want him, and whose team wouldn’t expect much in return.

But Danuel House Jr. might qualify for at least two of those three criteria.

House has already opted into his $4.3 million player option for next season, but the Philadelphia 76ers are going to have a pretty hefty salary cap sheet between Joel Embiid ($47.6 million), Tobias Harris/The Crumbl Cookie He’s Traded For ($39.3 million) and whatever James Harden’s new deal winds up being.

If the Sixers are looking to dump some salary without taking much money back, the Suns have that $5 million trade exception ready and waiting. House didn’t contribute much in Philly last year, averaging 4.8 points in his 14.4 minutes per game over 56 appearances. He shot 47.4 percent overall but made only 33.6 percent of his 3s.

However, the 30-year-old wing is a career 36.2 percent shooter from deep, and he fits the 3-and-D wing mold Phoenix needs to target. This isn’t a glamorous option, but it’s an attainable one that could help bolster the Suns’ defense and depth at a vital position.

Suns trade exception option: KJ Martin

The Houston Rockets have too many young players and more cap space than they know what to do with. Between needing to develop their inexperienced cornerstones and aiming for established talent with their lofty free-agency goals, it’s not surprising some of their younger guys are going to be squeezed out.

It appears as though Kenyon Martin Jr. is one such player:

The 22-year-old high-riser averaged 12.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per game last season, shooting 56.9 percent overall and 31.5 percent from 3. As an athletic, 6-foot-7 forward, he could help shore up some of Phoenix’s wing depth, even if he’d have to adjust quickly going from a young, bad team in Houston to a more veteran group with title aspirations in Phoenix. A source also told PHNX Sports the Suns have had interest in Martin in the recent past.

KJ Martin would be a nice pickup for a trade exception, but would the Rockets really be interested without Phoenix being able to offer…well, anything outside of Isaiah Todd or Jordan Goodwin? It’s difficult to see how the Suns would get Houston to bite on a trade exception, since the Rockets already have ample cap room. Most likely, Houston can do better in a KJ Martin trade than this…but it’s worth a phone call at least.

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