NBA

Suns trade deadline preview: Why Phoenix probably won’t make any major moves this season

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The Phoenix Suns, intentionally or not, made a wise decision last winter: They tried to build their complete roster before the season began. They spent their matching salary on Chris Paul, and now have only five players making at least $5 million, all of whom are essential. They gave up a first-round pick in the process, spent their mid-level exception on Jae Crowder and populated the bottom of their roster with the sort of low-risk, high-reward players that tend to populate the buyout market. 

That isn’t to say that the Suns are devoid of avenues to improve. There just aren’t obvious threads to pull. The Suns don’t have many weaknesses. They don’t have extraneous salary or obvious assets to cash in. They built a complete roster in the offseason, and given the condensed nature of this season, it was probably the right call. That is likely going to make this a slow deadline for the Suns, but if they really want to upgrade, there are still a few moves that they can make. 

Needs

Someone who can get to the line: If the Suns have any glaring weakness as a team, it’s generating free throws. They attempt only 18.4 per game, the fewest of any team since the 2017-18 season. This isn’t the worst problem to have in the postseason, when whistles become rarer league-wide, but easy points are worth their weight in gold against playoff-caliber defenses. The Suns have gotten genuinely positive contributions out of their rotating cast of backup guards, but settling on one who can draw the occasional foul would be helpful. 

A traditional backup center: Dario Saric-at-center lineups have decimated everything in their path. Great. That’s not going to work against Anthony Davis. Houston tried that with Jeff Green last season and got demolished. The last time Phoenix faced Denver, Deandre Ayton fouled out near the end of the game and Nikola Jokic tortured Frank Kaminsky in his place. Small ball is a valuable card in the right matchup, but the Suns could use a bit more versatility against certain types of opponents. 

Playoff experience: Chris Paul has played thousands of playoff minutes. Jae Crowder has seen his fair share as well. After those two? Devin Booker, Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Langston Galloway will all be first-timers. Kaminsky has been there once, and Cameron Payne has 68 minutes of postseason ball under his belt. It wouldn’t kill the Suns to add a few more veterans just for the sake of postseason comfort. 

Assets

  • Untouchables: Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton
  • Probably staying: Jae Crowder, Dario Saric, Cam Johnson
  • For the right price: Jalen Smith, Jevon Carter, Frank Kaminsky, E’Twaun Moore
  • Let’s make a deal: Langston Galloway, Abdel Nader
  • Tradable first-round picks: 2027
  • Tradable first-round swap rights: 2021, 2026, 2027
  • Tradable second-round picks: 2022-2027 (own)

Cap notes

  • By virtue of using their non-taxpayer mid-level exception (on Crowder), the Suns are hard-capped at the apron ($138.928 million). Fortunately, they are below the luxury tax line, meaning they have over $13 million to spend beneath the apron and roughly $7 million to spend below the tax line. 
  • The Suns still have their bi-annual exception (initially worth $3.6 million, but prorating by the day). This can be used only on free agents. 
  • The Suns currently have only 14 players on their roster. They don’t technically need a 15th, but that extra roster spot gives them a bit more flexibility to pursue players on the buyout market. 

Expiring contracts

  • Cam Payne will be an unrestricted free agent with Early Bird rights. The Suns can pay him up to the average player salary (whatever amount the non-taxpayer mid-level exception turns out to be) in order to retain him. 
  • Abdel Nader, Langston Galloway, Frank Kaminsky and E’Twaun Moore will all be unrestricted free agents with Non-Bird rights. The Suns can offer any of them 120 percent of their 2020-21 salary in order to retain them, or more if they dip into their cap exceptions. 

Possible trade targets

  • Low-end — Wayne Ellington: This is the simplest trade any contender can make. Ellington makes the minimum, will likely cost only a second-round pick and is an elite 3-point shooter. The Suns don’t exactly need more shooting, but any contender could use some. Every contender should be in on Ellington, but especially ones like Phoenix without matching salary to spare. 
  • Medium-end — Lou Williams: The Clippers aren’t likely to send Williams to Phoenix, a possible playoff opponent, in a straight-up trade. But if the Clippers are determined to deal Williams elsewhere and the other team views him only as matching salary, the Suns should try to get in on the deal and offer something to upgrade at backup point guard. His playoff history isn’t great, and he’s not drawing as many free throws as he once did, but he’d be a worthwhile sparkplug for the Suns. 
  • High-end — Norman Powell: This is probably a bit too ambitious, but if Toronto is set on maximizing cap space this offseason, that might mean cashing out on Powell now. He isn’t likely to pick up his player option, but he’s going to be pricey next season, and plenty of contenders could use his all-around scoring punch. The Suns would have to package multiple players and picks, but Powell’s all-around game would be a valuable addition to their bench. 

Possible buyout targets

  • Guard — Austin Rivers: The Knicks have a crowded backcourt and Rivers has been the odd man out since Derrick Rose arrived. The last two years of his contract are non-guaranteed, so a buyout would be logical if the Knicks don’t plan to keep him. He’s played with Chris Paul before and has plenty of playoff experience. 
  • Forward — LaMarcus Aldridge: The Suns famously chased him in 2015 free agency. They came close then. Maybe they have the roster to entice him now. He’s not the same player he once was, and he’s a bit redundant on this roster, but he’s at least a bit bigger than Saric and might be a worthwhile option to throw at some of the bigger centers the Suns see in the playoffs. 
  • Center — Alex LenThere really aren’t any logical centers for the Suns to pursue on the buyout market, but hey, they know Len, and if they want another big body, he can give them minutes in a pinch. 



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