The Suns are an NBA rarity at this point in the season, with approximately $5.25MM in cap space. Most other clubs are over the cap, and the few that aren’t don’t have quite as much room to spare. Cap space is useful for many reasons, and as the trade deadline approaches, teams with this sort of flexibility can absorb costly players in lopsided swaps.
The Suns are in talks with the Lakers about trading Emeka Okafor and his $14,487,500 salary to the Lakers for Pau Gasol, who makes $19,285,850. There’s a gulf of $4,798,350 between their salaries, but that’s less than the amount of cap space the Suns have available, so Phoenix could shoehorn Gasol’s inflated deal into its payroll and still have room left over.
Reporters have frequently cited Phoenix’s cap space as the reason why such a trade is possible, but the teams could still do a one-for-one swap of Gasol and Okafor even if Phoenix uses all or part of its cap space on someone else. In spite of the wide difference between the salaries that Gasol and Okafor make, they still fit within the league’s salary-matching rules for capped-out teams. When a team makes a trade for a player making between $9.8MM and $19.6MM that takes it more than $100K over the cap, the incoming salary must be no more than $5MM greater than what it sends out. The Suns would be taking on Gasol’s salary, and that’s less than $5MM more than what Okafor makes.
It’s reasonable to suspect this caveat might come into play. The negotiations about such a deal appear to be in the early stages, and both teams have their reservations about it. The Suns, looking to upgrade their roster for a run at the playoffs, might trade a player other than Okafor — perhaps Channing Frye — to a team other than the Lakers if they fear that L.A. won’t pull the trigger. The Suns can do this with the knowledge that they could still make the Gasol-Okafor deal if the Lakers decide in the end that they’re willing. So, the Lakers can’t gain leverage by holding up Phoenix’s pursuits outside of an Okafor deal.
The only sort of deal the Suns could do that would prevent a one-for-one exchange of Gasol and Okafor, other than a trade that sends Okafor to another team, of course, would be one that puts Phoenix’s payroll above $70,949,650. Adding the difference between Gasol’s salary and Okafor’s to that amount would bring the Suns to the $75.748MM tax apron. The salary-matching restrictions are more severe for trades that would take a team above the apron. In that case, Gasol’s salary could be no larger than 125% plus $100K of what the Suns would give up to get him. Okafor’s salary wouldn’t cut it in this circumstance.
Still, it’s highly unlikely the Suns, with a payroll of about $53.4MM, would draw anywhere close to the apron between now and the deadline. So, Phoenix president of basketball operations Lon Babby and GM Ryan McDonough have plenty of options, and they don’t need to wait for the Lakers to make up their minds. If negotiations break their way, the Suns are in a position to make multiple significant trades before the deadline.
Note: Gasol’s contract includes a 15% trade kicker, but it’s meaningless, since no player can collect on a trade kicker if it would push his salary beyond the maximum salary for a player of his experience. Gasol already makes more than the max for players with 10 or more years of experience, so his trade kicker is null and void.