All eyes will be on LeBron James and Paul George when free agency begins on July 1, but when the dust settles from the two biggest superstars on the market signing there will be very few teams with significant cap space to make moves.
With a projected cap of $101 million, there are a limited number of teams that will have room to push for the remainder of the top players on the market. The Atlanta Hawks ($73.6 million), Chicago Bulls ($66.8 million), Dallas Mavericks ($71.4 million), Los Angeles Lakers ($59.5 million), Philadelphia 76ers ($70.6 million) and the Phoenix Suns ($78.4 million) are the six teams that will have $20 million or more to spend in free agency. That money includes all non-guaranteed salaries, but not including all cap holds for players that will hit free agency that would need to be renounced to get to those figures.
That means, pending significant changes for some teams’ cap situations at the upcoming trade deadline, those six teams will be the ones best equipped to go after the second tier of free agents this summer. For the Suns, in particular, there were some questions about whether this would be the year they wanted to move forward with the next step of the rebuild.
Phoenix has assembled a quality group of young players, led by budding star Devin Booker, and while the Suns will be positioned to make runs at a max player (along with giving Booker the expected max extension) in 2019, GM Ryan McDonough plans on trying to make a splash this summer. As he told Scott Bordow of AZCentral, he’s most afraid of being overly patient and not taking advantage of their position as one of the few teams with space to really pay players this summer.
“There are certain core pieces that are starting to solidify,” McDonough said. “I think we’d be foolish or naïve to wait forever or be overly patient. We’ve been, I think, relatively disciplined with contracts we’ve given out in terms of length and dollars, but yeah, we’re planning on being one of five of six teams with a decent amount of cap space, and we’ll see if we can improve the team.”
“We’ll probably be more aggressive in June and July than we have been the last couple of years,” McDonough said.
Bordow mentions a number of free agents that could be on the Suns radar, from restricted free agents like Aaron Gordon, Clint Capela and Marcus Smart to unrestricted free agents like Enes Kanter, Tyreke Evans and Derrick Favors. All of those players will likely be picking from the same pool of teams giving them significant offers, so Phoenix has to feel good about their chances of landing one of them. With a pair of significant expiring contracts for next season in Tyson Chandler ($14.6 million) and Jared Dudley ($9.5 million), they also could improve their status by flipping those contracts to contenders in need of shedding space by 2019 next deadline.
The cap jump of a few years ago that resulted in teams handing out wild, long-term contracts has resulted in this cap crunch for a lot of teams. As the cap has leveled out, teams are now saddled with massive deals for less-than-star talents and it won’t be another year or two until those come off the books and balance is restored. For those teams that were able to avoid handing out too many of those contracts, this summer could be the chance to reap the benefits.
Capela and Smart figure to be especially interesting cases because both the Rockets and Celtics are capped out (once Houston re-signs Chris Paul) and they’ll have to go well into the tax to match offer sheets on both players. One would expect them to do so, but teams like the Suns can make that decision a little tougher by throwing big money at those players should they want to. The bigger question there is whether it’s wise to shovel major money at role players on a contender, when there are plenty of precautionary tales about asking guys to step out of their comfort zone in terms of role by handing them massive contracts.
Phoenix being aggressive in free agency doesn’t have to mean handing out bad deals, but it could. They’ll be wise to make competitive offers and, being a team that hasn’t had success in awhile, they’ll assuredly have to pay a little more to land guys. However, they should still be judicious with their cap space and not find themselves with any albatross contracts that could hold them back as their young core continues to grow.