2024 NBA Offseason Preview: Phoenix Suns

Mat Ishbia made it clear in February 2023 when he took over majority control of the Suns from Robert Sarver that he was prepared to spend aggressively (both in terms of money and trade assets) in a way the team’s previous owner never did. One of his very first moves was to approve a massive deal for star forward Kevin Durant at the 2023 deadline. He doubled down on that all-in strategy by signing off on a blockbuster trade for Bradley Beal last offseason.

The moves left Phoenix with a top-heavy roster headed by three players who will earn a combined $150MM+ in 2024/25 when Devin Booker‘s new super-max extension begins. That trio will surpass the projected $141MM cap on its own, and once the Suns account for salaries for Jusuf Nurkic ($18.1MM), Grayson Allen ($15.6MM), and Nassir Little ($6.8MM), their team salary will exceed $191MM, putting them over the projected second tax apron of $189.5MM with just six players. Even filling out the rest of the roster with minimum-salary players will push team salary well past the $200MM mark.

Operating over the second apron means two things: Phoenix will be on the hook for a huge luxury tax bill and will also face major restrictions when it comes to making roster moves. Ishbia clearly doesn’t mind writing a big check for luxury tax penalties, so the money shouldn’t be an issue, but those roster-building restrictions are concerning. This team was hardly dominant in its first year together. The Suns clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the season, then were swept out of the first round. The front office can’t simply run it back with the same roster.

Changes are needed, and those changes will be difficult to enact as a second-apron team. The Suns won’t have the mid-level or bi-annual exception at their disposal to sign free agents. They can’t acquire a player via sign-and-trade or use previously generated trade exceptions. They can make trades, but they won’t be able to take back more salary than they send out. They also can’t aggregate player contracts (e.g. trading Nurkic and Little for a $25MM player) and they’re prohibited from offering cash to sweeten an offer.

President of basketball operations James Jones has had a nice run of success in Phoenix since being named the permanent general manager in 2019, serving as the architect of a team that snapped a 10-year playoff drought, made an NBA Finals, and has averaged roughly 50 wins per season over the last four years. But figuring out how to meaningfully upgrade the current version of the roster might be his most challenging assignment yet.

The Suns’ Offseason Plan

When Phoenix’s season came to an end in April, league observers and pundits were quick to suggest that the team’s big three of Durant, Booker, and Beal should be broken up. There’s a logical case to be made for that path. The three stars are all pretty ball-dominant and their fit together is just OK, not great. Trading one of them for two or three lesser-paid players could help balance the roster both on the cap sheet and on the court.

It’s a strategy that sounds better in theory than in practice though. Of the three, Beal is probably the one you’d want to move, but he has a no-trade clause that essentially allows him to control the process, and his value has declined since he last made an All-Star team in 2021. He’s still a talented scorer (his .513/.430/.813 shooting line last season was especially impressive) and is a solid play-maker, but he’s not a plus defender and he’s owed $161MM over the next three seasons. The Suns didn’t have to give up a huge package to acquire him and can’t expect one back if they try to send him elsewhere.

The Suns could command a more substantial haul if they were willing to trade Durant or Booker, but those guys are top-20 players in the NBA, so it’s hard to envision a deal in which one of them is traded and Phoenix is able to increase its championship odds for 2025. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that a May report indicated that the Suns plan to hang onto their big three, which Jones confirmed in a radio appearance later in the month.

If Durant, Booker, and Beal aren’t going anywhere, that leaves Nurkic, Allen, and Little as the likeliest trade chips, though we can probably rule out Allen, who won’t be trade-eligible until October after signing an extension in April and whose three-and-D skill set makes him a valuable role player for the Suns. Little’s usefulness as a trade chip, meanwhile, is limited, since his $6.75MM salary can’t be aggregated, meaning he could only bring back a player earning less than that amount. The same is true of Nurkic, though his larger cap hit ($18.125MM) means the pool of players he could be traded for is much larger.

Unfortunately for the Suns, neither Nurkic nor Little has a ton of trade value on his own. I think Nurkic might be slightly underrated in some ways (he’s a very good rebounder and passer) but he’s obviously not the sort of versatile center who will help you space the floor on offense or guard out to the perimeter on defense, so he’s not a bargain at $18MM+ per year. Little showed some promise in Portland but wasn’t good in his first season in Phoenix, averaging a career-low 3.4 points per game as his three-point percentage dipped to just 30.0%.

The Suns would have to attach a sweetener to either player to realistically land an upgrade. Cash is off limits and Phoenix has traded away most of its future draft assets. However, the club could technically still offer this year’s No. 22 pick (the trade would have to be finalized after a selection is made), as well as its 2031 first-rounder (beginning in July). Would one of those picks along with Nurkic be enough for a meaningful addition?

Gerald Bourguet of PHNX Sports explored this topic recently, suggesting 20 hypothetical trades involving Nurkic and a first-round pick, but most of them either look like long shots or don’t necessarily do a whole lot for the Suns. Of Bourguet’s ideas, the one I find most compelling for both sides might be a deal with Charlotte for a less expensive center (Nick Richards), plus another role player or two. A package of Richards, Cody Martin, and Tre Mann, for instance, would (barely) fit within Nurkic’s outgoing salary — all three players could have roles in Phoenix, but it’s not such a talented trio that the retooling Hornets should realistically expect a better return than what the Suns could offer.

Attaching both movable first-rounders to Nurkic might net a stronger return than that Hornets example, but there’s certainly a ceiling on what the Suns can expect to do on the trade market. That’s why it’s so crucial that they re-sign free agent forward Royce O’Neale. While Phoenix can’t sign an outside free agent for more than the minimum, the team will have O’Neale’s Bird rights, allowing the front office to offer him any salary up to the max.

Of course, O’Neale won’t get nearly that much, but he’ll have some leverage to get a player-friendly deal out of the Suns, who would have no means to replace him with a comparable player if he leaves. A recent report suggested Phoenix might have to offer a three- or four-year deal to ensure O’Neale doesn’t sign with a rival suitor willing to offer him a comparable (or higher) starting salary on a shorter-term contract.

Eric Gordon, Josh Okogie, Drew Eubanks, and Damion Lee will have decisions to make on minimum-salary player options, which will help determine how many back-end roster spots the Suns have to fill. Some of those players (ie. Lee) seem likelier to opt in than others (ie. Gordon), but even if all of them return, the Suns won’t have a full roster and will likely need to make multiple minimum-salary signings.

I’d expect the team to take the same approach in free agency that it did a year ago, offering second-year player options to many of its top FA targets, essentially guaranteeing them up to $5-6MM rather than just offering a single-year minimum salary. Jones and his basketball operations department will look to improve upon last year’s hit rate on minimum-salary players, as signings like Keita Bates-Diop, Yuta Watanabe, and Chimezie Metu didn’t really work out.

While the Suns have few tools to make significant changes to their roster without taking a step backward, no Collective Bargaining Agreement language prevented them from making a major move on the sidelines, where Frank Vogel was fired just one season into a five-year contract worth a reported $31MM.

Phoenix didn’t conduct a lengthy search for Vogel’s replacement, zeroing in quickly on Mike Budenholzer and awarding him a five-year, $50MM deal. The hope will be that even if the 2024/25 roster ends up looking pretty similar to last year’s, Budenholzer will be able to get more out of it than Vogel did.

Salary Cap Situation

Guaranteed Salary

Non-Guaranteed Salary

  • None

Dead/Retained Salary

  • None

Player Options

Team Options

  • None

Restricted Free Agents

  • None

Two-Way Free Agents

Note: Because they’re no longer eligible to sign two-way contracts, Azubuike’s and Lee’s qualifying offers would be worth their minimum salary (projected to be $2,244,249). They would include a small partial guarantee.

Draft Picks

  • No. 22 overall pick ($3,074,640 cap hold)
  • Total (cap holds): $3,074,640

Extension-Eligible Players

  • Kevin Durant (veteran)
  • Royce O’Neale (veteran)
    • Extension-eligible until June 30.
  • Jusuf Nurkic (veteran)

Note: Unless otherwise indicated, these players are eligible for extensions beginning in July.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Other Cap Holds

Note: The cap holds for these players are on the Suns’ books from prior seasons because they haven’t been renounced. They can’t be used in a sign-and-trade deal.

Cap Exceptions Available

Note: The Suns project to operate over the cap and over the second tax apron. That means they won’t have access to the mid-level exception, the bi-annual exception, or any of their three existing trade exceptions.

  • None
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