The Phoenix Suns got their man.
In a bold mid-season trade to create a true superstar pairing, the Suns made their move for Kevin Durant — who had his eye on Phoenix for a while — and paired him with Devin Booker. Just how much a force they can be together showed in Game 3 of their second-round series against the Nuggets when the duo combined for 86 points in a Suns win. Then in Game 4 they combined for 72 points in another Phoenix victory.
However, the massive holes and depth issues in the Suns’ roster — gaps created by the trade to get Durant — were evident in Games 1,2, 5 and 6. The Suns may have had two of the three best players in their playoff series, but they didn’t have close to the best team, which is why Denver advanced.
The Suns sent Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and four first-round picks (plus a pick swap) to Brooklyn to get Durant.
This offseason, GM James Jones needs to replace that depth — right now, it’s not even clear who the fifth starter on the team should be.
Adding that depth is where it gets complex.
With three max contracts on the books — Booker, Durant, center Deandre Ayton — plus Chris Paul at a near-max $30 million and Landry Shammet at $10.3 million, the Suns are already deep into the luxury tax with six players on the books next season. They are pushing up against the new second apron of the tax — $17.5 million over the tax line — which would eliminate their use of the mid-level exception and put other strict limits on team building (such as not being able to take back more money than they send out in a deal, no use of the buyout market and more).
That has other teams expecting the Suns to “aggressively” try and trade Ayton and Paul this summer, something ESPN’s Tim MacMahon talked about on the Hoop Collective podcast. (What the Suns can’t do is trade first-round picks, they sent all those to Brooklyn.)
A CP3 trade would likely happen around the draft, because while he has two years and $60 million on the books, only $15.8 million of it is guaranteed (all of that this season, none the season after) with a June 28 guarantee date. A team trying to trim salary from its books could trade for and then waive him and save considerable cash. If the Suns can trade him to a team that can absorb his salary into their cap space, the Suns don’t have to match salaries and can save money, get below the tax line and gain flexibility.
Or, maybe there is a team looking for Paul’s leadership where he would be willing to go.
At the top of some lists are the Lakers (because of the ties between Paul and LeBron James), but that is highly unlikely — the Lakers like their team after the trade deadline and want youth and shooting, not more aging veterans. The Heat want help at the point but after their Kyle Lowry experience, will they want another aging point guard? If Harden leaves Philadelphia this summer as a free agent then maybe there’s a discussion to be had, or maybe a team like Portland is willing to take a risk to put more talent around Damian Lillard (although league sources told NBC Sports Portland’s focus is on young talent). The Bulls are looking for depth behind or beside Lonzo Ball. But do any of these teams (or others) want Chris Paul at $30 million next season? That’s a huge price tag.
Ayton is more likely to be on the move in that he has fans in front offices around the league, people that see his clashes with coach Monty Williams, his inconsistent effort, and think that will be different in a new city with a new coach. Ayton, for his part, says he loves playing in Phoenix.
"It was fun. Just being a better basketball player. How I can get better. Things that he'd love to help me with." Deandre Ayton on his meeting with #Suns GM James Jones. #NBAPlayoffs https://t.co/eLBLxsNGkb pic.twitter.com/Hn6i6xXG0f
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) May 12, 2023
Ayton has three years at a total of $102 million left on his max contract, and there have been rumblings about Atlanta, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and other teams having some interest. (The Dallas rumors make little sense to me, he is not a natural fit with Luka Dončić). His market likely will shake out after the NBA Draft Lottery next week, when teams on that list such as the Hornets and Spurs have a better sense of who they might add in the draft.
There have been some rumblings from frustrated Suns fans looking to fire Monty Williams, but that’s highly unlikely. First, he just signed an extension and the well-connected John Gambadoro saying Williams has one year left on his original contract plus two or three years after that on an extension, with a total buyout cost of at least $21 million and likely much higher. Plus, who are you getting that’s better? Williams is one of the most respected coaches in the league but he was given no bench and no time to to build chemistry. How the season ended was more on the front office than anyone else considering what they gave up to get Durant. But, they got Durant.
Any trade, every move this offseason in Phoenix will be about adding depth around Booker and Durant. They got their stars, they just need everything else.
This postseason was a reminder of how much everything else matters.