The Phoenix Suns made their move for Chris Paul, but they still have work to do this offseason.
Before the 2020 NBA Draft begins on Monday, before free agency kicks off on Friday, the Phoenix Suns‘ offseason has already been a resounding success. Trading for Chris Paul cements the rising Suns — fresh off their 8-0 breakthrough moment in the Orlando bubble — as a legitimate playoff team.
Between CP3, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, the Suns already have an impressive, mostly young core to build around. Phoenix is prepared to take the next step in its long-winding path back to relevance, and that step is ending a 10-year playoff drought in 2021.
With that being said, as comforting as it was for general manager James Jones to add Paul without surrendering Bridges, Johnson, the Suns’ No. 10 overall pick or their 2021 selection in a loaded draft class, there’s still work left to be done in the offseason.
Landing a top-25 player of Paul’s caliber would’ve felt like an ideal dream scenario not too long ago. Now that it’s become a reality, it’s only right that we take a look at a few specific moves the Suns can actually make in the next week to keep their idyllic offseason going.
Step 1: Trade for Chris Paul
Step 2: Draft Killian Hayes at No. 10
Phoenix has options at No. 10, as we covered extensively with our Suns draft board. Assuming Jones is done making moves and keeps the pick (which, you never know!), the Suns can either go with a wing … or a point guard prospect for CP3 to mentor.
Devin Vassell will be awfully tempting here if he’s still available at No. 10, especially because a defense with him and Mikal Bridges patrolling the perimeter would be stifling, but Phoenix needs to start looking for its long-term solution at the 1-spot. There’s never been a better time to invest than right now, when CP3 will be able to groom a rookie point guard from day one.
The Suns should take the best player available, but again, there will be options and differing opinions on who that actually is. Maybe it’s Tyrese Haliburton, a high-I.Q., 6-foot-5 playmaking guard. Maybe it’s an outright speedster like the lightweight Kira Lewis Jr., or a potential reach of a pick like the dynamic scoring guard Grant Riller.
For our intents and purposes, we’re going with Killian Hayes, who’s a bit more of a project but has a high ceiling for a team willing to be patient. The Suns are probably wary and weary of long-term projects from overseas that never pan out, but this 19-year-old French prospect can make plays, create his own shot and facilitate in the pick-and-roll. He’s got great size at 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, and while the Suns can’t go wrong with Vassell or Haliburton in this spot, we’re sticking with Hayes learning from CP3 in Step 2 of the master plan.
Step 3: Convince Christian Wood to sign for Mid-Level Exception
By making the Chris Paul trade official and not waiting until after the start of free agency, the Suns are essentially operating as an “over the cap” team. That means that, while they lose the potential $16-17 million of cap space they could have created by waiting on CP3 and renouncing the rights to their free agents, they’ll retain the Bird Rights of those free agents while still possessing their Mid-Level Exception ($9.3 million) and Bi-Annual Exception ($3.6 million), both of which only kick in for teams operating over the cap.
Between Paul, Booker, Ayton, Bridges, Cam Johnson and Abdel Nader, that’s $91.2 million is salary. Include the rookie salary for Hayes as the No. 10 pick ($4.3 million), and the cap holds of Dario Saric ($10.4 million), Aron Baynes ($10.4 million) and Jevon Carter ($1.9 million) get the Suns over the $109.1 million salary cap threshold. This, of course, begs the question: Without significant cap space and only those two exceptions to work with, what does this approach mean for Phoenix’s pursuit of other free agents?
In short, whatever “big fish” Phoenix tries to land in free agency will have to agree to that $9.3 million MLE. For the big-name Suns targets like Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka and Davis Bertans, that might be a nonstarter, as the market might be willing to offer more. However, this is where having a star-studded backcourt and a guy like Chris Paul makes the Suns a more attractive destination. In an offseason where most teams will be devoid of significant cap space, the MLE on an ascending playoff team that’s creating some buzz could start to look more and more attractive.
This is where Christian Wood, an unrestricted free agent coming off a breakout year with the Detroit Pistons, comes into play. He’s only 25 years old, and following the Andre Drummond trade, he averaged 22.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 blocks per game on 56.2 percent shooting from the floor and 40 percent shooting from 3-point range. Sure, it was a 13-game sample size, but Wood feels like a solid fit next to Ayton.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks projects that the market for his services should be right around that $9.3 million mark. Would the prospect of leaving a miserable Pistons squad and playing with CP3 be enough to convince Wood to take Phoenix’s MLE over someone else’s? In our ideal offseason, we say yes.
Step 4: Add D.J. Augustin on Bi-Annual Exception
The Bi-Annual Exception is only worth $3.6 million, so this proposition could prove to be dicey. Then again, D.J. Augustin only made $7.3 million last year with the Orlando Magic, who are ready to turn things over to Markelle Fultz. If Augustin is open to a change of scenery where he could play behind CP3 and on an exciting young team led by Booker, maybe he’d be willing to accept a slight discount.
After all, Augustin just turned 33 and probably won’t get many offers more substantial than this. That’s not to undersell what this journeyman guard could provide Phoenix, though; even with the way Jevon Carter and Cameron Payne wreaked havoc together in the bubble, Augustin’s poise, mistake-averse ball-handling and career 37.9 percent shooting from 3-point range would give the Suns the stability they needed at the backup 1-spot all last year.
Maybe Augustin and the Magic work something out. Maybe some contender desperate for a bench upgrade is able to offer more than the BAE. But the Suns should be active in looking for upgrades to their second unit, particularly at the 1, and it doesn’t get much better than Augustin. Don’t rule this kind of discount out in a summer where most teams are lacking significant cap space.
Step 5: Re-sign Dario Saric, Aron Baynes and Jevon Carter
Excluding the cap holds that are basically just placeholders to open up the MLE and BAE, the Suns would have $108.3 million in salary committed to Paul, Booker, Ayton, Bridges, Cam Johnson, Nader, Hayes, Wood and Augustin before attempting to re-sign Saric, Baynes and Carter.
At that point, the line the Suns would really need to worry about would be the luxury tax threshold at $132.6 million.
For our purposes, we’re going to assume the Suns renounce Tariq Owens ($1.5 million cap hold) and cut Elie Okobo ($1.7 million non-guaranteed). We’re also going to make the executive decision to decline Frank Kaminsky’s team option ($5 million), while picking up the team options for Cameron Payne ($2 million) and Cheick Diallo ($1.8 million).
That would put the Suns $112.1 million in salary, nearly $20.5 million under the tax line. In a drier market, with the pitch of remaining on an exciting young team on the rise that just added Chris Paul and finally has some credibility under Monty Williams, it’s possible that amount is enough to keep all three of Saric, Baynes and Carter happy and in Phoenix.
Step 6: Profit
If everything goes according to plan here, this is what the Suns’ depth chart would look like:
- PG: Chris Paul/D.J. Augustin/Killian Hayes
- SG: Devin Booker/Jevon Carter/Cameron Payne
- SF: Mikal Bridges/Cam Johnson/Abdel Nader
- PF: Christian Wood/Dario Saric
- C: Deandre Ayton/Aron Baynes/Cheick Diallo
I mean … that is a legitimate playoff team with actual depth right there. The positional versatility is striking too, as multiple players on that list could easily swap positions based on the lineup or matchup.
There’s room for interchangeability within the offseason blueprint too. Killian Hayes is off the draft board? Devin Vassell can play 2-4, or a point guard like Tyrese Haliburton or Kira Lewis Jr. could take his place. Christian Wood signs elsewhere? Someone in that Gallinari-Ibaka-Bertans-Jerami Grant-Paul Millsap should be available and willing to sign for the MLE.
The Chris Paul trade was the first and biggest domino to ensure the Phoenix Suns had a successful offseason. Now they’ve just got to follow the next few steps and make it an ideal one.