The Phoenix Suns team that made it to the NBA Finals in 2021 has slowly slipped further away from matching that goal in the two years since, losing in the Western Conference semifinals for the second year in a row.
Even after adding Kevin Durant at the NBA trade deadline, the Suns did not quite live up to the expectation of being a championship contender.
The Suns’ front office will have to make a decision on whether to continue with the current core with veteran point guard Chris Paul in a critical veteran leadership position, or move in a new direction.
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State of the roster
Even with the addition of Durant, the Suns are further away from competing for a championship than the prior two seasons. The second-round series loss to Denver proved that. Durant and Devin Booker are franchise players, but the Nuggets exposed a top-heavy Phoenix roster that is lacking significant depth. However, the reality is Phoenix is limited in how it can upgrade the roster in the offseason. It is nearing the $179.5 million second apron and likely will not have the $5 million taxpayer midlevel exception available (to be fair, Phoenix had access to the $6.4 million tax midlevel last year and did not use it).
The Suns also do not have a first-round pick in June, nor are they allowed to trade a future first in any deal. The offseason plan consists of three options. They can take the same approach from last year and fill the roster with players signed to the veterans minimum. That comes with a huge risk given that none of Durant, Booker and Paul reached the 60-game mark this season. Since returning from his Achilles injury in 2020, Durant has played 137 games in three seasons.
The second option would be to bring back forwards Josh Okogie and Torrey Craig and center Jock Landale, then try to find bargains in free agency. Landale and Craig have early Bird rights, and Phoenix can sign either player to a contract up to $11.9 million and a minimum of two seasons. Landale is also a restricted free agent.
Okogie signed a one-year minimum contract and cannot sign a contract exceeding $2.8 million. The third option would be to explore trades that involve Paul, Deandre Ayton, Landry Shamet or Cameron Payne. Because of its finances, Phoenix cannot take back more than 110% in salary and faces restrictions in doing any kind of sign-and-trade deal that brings in a free agent. For example, a hypothetical trade that would send Ayton and Paul to the Mavericks for Tim Hardaway Jr. and a signed-and-traded Kyrie Irving would not be allowed because it triggers the $169 million hard cap.
The Suns have only seven players under contract but once again project to be in the tax. The reason is that four of those players (Booker, Durant, Ayton and Paul) combine to earn 87% of the Suns’ committed $164 million payroll. Paul’s $30.8 million has $15.8 million in salary protection with the balance guaranteed June 28.
Payne’s $6.5 million contract becomes guaranteed June 30. If Payne is waived, Phoenix would incur a $2 million cap hit. In the unlikely scenario that both Paul and Payne are waived, Phoenix would still be over the salary cap and have only the $12.2 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception and $4.5 million biannual exception to use in free agency.
Top front-office priority
It starts with Paul. The likelihood is that the 38-year-old guard is on the Suns’ roster entering free agency. Waving Paul would save the Suns some luxury tax money but would also eliminate a tradable contract — and a player who can still contribute when healthy. There is a scenario in which Phoenix could waive Paul and then sign him to part of its $12.2 million non-tax midlevel. That, however, would hard cap the team if the contract is for more than $5 million, possibly costing restricted free agent Landale.
Paul finished the season fifth in assists, and Phoenix averaged 123.8 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court during the playoffs with Booker and Durant. That ranked in the 96th percentile of all postseason lineups, according to Cleaning the Glass. The concern, however, is the veteran’s durability. Paul played 59 games in the 2022-23 season, his fewest since 2018-19. His $30 million salary for 2024-25 is not guaranteed. Next is gauging trade options for Ayton. The Suns should explore dealing him and his $32.5 million salary for multiple players to help balance the roster.
Ayton is coming off a season in which he averaged 18.0 points, the second-highest mark of his career, and more than nine rebounds for the fifth consecutive season. However, he is something of an afterthought when he shares the court with Paul, Durant and Booker. Ayton averaged 82.7 touches per 100 possessions this season, according to Second Spectrum. But when sharing the floor with Paul, Booker and Durant, that figure dropped to 70.9. His average touch length and dribbles per touch also dropped compared to his regular-season averages.
Extension candidate to watch
Paul and Payne are the only two players eligible to sign an extension this offseason. It is unlikely either will be offered a new deal.
Team Needs: The front office has work to do. Besides Durant, Booker and Ayton, there are needs at every position. The Suns ranked second to last in the playoffs in bench scoring.
Draft picks in June: No. 52
Future draft assets: The Suns owe Brooklyn unprotected first-round picks in 2025, 2027 and 2029. The Nets also have the right to swap firsts in 2028. Phoenix is not allowed to trade a first in any season but can offer pick swaps in 2024 and 2026. Phoenix has five second-round picks available to trade.