Hollinger: Suns lead as early NBA free-agency winners

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How do you win in NBA free agency without money? The Phoenix Suns may have just found a way that has eerie echoes of the 2021-22 Golden State Warriors team that ran a series of smart minimum contract signings (Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II) to help the Splash Brothers win a fourth ring.

Can the Sun give us a desert version of that? That seems possible after some of the best minimum contract work in memory, a move that could make even the Warriors’ summer 2021 squad pale in comparison. The Suns agreed to deal seven players on minimum (or essentially minimum) contracts in the first 48 hours of free agency, and what stood out about the signings was that they were of a much higher quality than usual seen at this salary grade.

It also stands out for another reason – usually a top-heavy team with veteran stars from name brands like Phoenix fills out the roster with decrepit veterans. The Suns, for whatever reason, were able to completely resist the lure of adding washed-up 35-year-olds and instead built one of the league’s best benches despite cap constraints that left them with little money to spend. (Because Phoenix is ​​above the second tax bracket, the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement allowed the Suns to accept only minimum contracts for outside free agents.)

In part, the Suns did this by dangling the prospect of the Bruce Brown experience: Come to us, get a lot of minutes in important televised games, become a household name and profit. Five of the seven are also guaranteed a second-year player option for 2024-25 if things don’t go well.

The Suns’ front office paid attention to the NBA this year, even in some of its more obscure corners. Whatever you think of its college scouting, Phoenix’s free-agent class includes some deep cuts.

The names: Eric Gordon, Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Drew Eubanks, Damion Lee, Chimezie Metu and Josh Okogie are all on minimum deals.

(Pedant side note: Okogie and Lee may technically have received a 20 percent increase on their minimum contracts from the previous year as “non-Bird” free agents returning to the Suns and therefore do not technically count as “minimum” contracts . Functionally, that’s about a $30,000 difference.)

Gordon is the biggest name here, but I’m not sure he’s the biggest catch. The 34-year-old sharpshooter will likely help on the right nights and could add floor-spacing punch in the playoffs, but the Suns have two better players at the same position. Nevertheless, the Suns won here on value: He will hit their cap at $3.2 million, and I had a BORD$ value of $6 million for him.

Still, it might be one of the Suns’ lesser-value wins. The big payoff could come with the signing of Bates-Diop, who labored in obscurity in San Antonio the past three seasons but fits the profile of a guy who can help in the playoffs: a crafty 6-foot-8 player who shoots 3-pointers just well enough to keep defenses honest and can guard multiple positions.


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Kudos to James Jones and the Phoenix front office for paying attention to Spurs games. BORD$ had a $9 million valuation on Bates-Diop, but in a flooded power forward market, he never gained much traction. He could end up starting playoff games, or more importantly, finishing them. Even with the Spurs rebuild, it’s a little surprising they let him go without a fight.

Eubanks was another coup, an energetic rim-running backup five who is a much better rim protector and defender than the guy he replaced (Jock Landale) and is somehow on the books for $2.3 million to the Suns, while Landale gets $32 million over four years from Houston. I don’t think this move gets nearly enough attention – in a bad backup center market, the Suns found a very suitable solution at a position that was low key and killed them.

Similarly, the Suns went off the radar to get Watanabe (44.4 percent on 3s in Brooklyn last season) and Metu (who fell out of the mix in Sacramento despite a 17.3 PER in 66 games) and brought back Lee.

Finally, Okogie’s floor spacing limitations caught up with him in the playoffs, but he also generated a lot of BORD$ value ($9 million) with his defense and energy in the regular season. It may be easier to spot him in lineups that have a lot of shooting. I thought he was going to be offered the taxpayer exception, but instead the Suns brought him back for peanuts. He is probably the first choice as the Suns’ defensive “stopper” to start games and save miles on Devin Booker and Bradley Beal.

While we’re here, check out the birth certificates. The Suns didn’t just sign a bunch of old guys who were good three years ago, like many teams have done in this situation. Okogie is 24, Eubanks and Metu are 26, Bates-Diop is 27, Watanabe is 28 and Lee is 30.

As I noted in the spring, Phoenix also did a strong job in this area in 2021, helping the team stay afloat in an injury-plagued season. But even that performance pales in comparison to their work over the past few days.

We can’t say the Suns might have “won” free agency yet—to do that, they’ll need at least one of these guys to be a plus next June—but in terms of value for the dollar, this could be some of the best 48 hours we have ever seen. Phoenix maxed out its minimum requirements.

Some other teams that came away from the first 48 hours feeling good about themselves:

It’s almost as if the devastatingly bad Russell Westbrook trade with Washington freed the Lakers from just chasing shiny objects and allowed them to function as a real front office. Ever since, it’s been a series of smart decisions by LA, starting with this summer’s choice not to dive in for Kyrie Irving and instead bring back most of the roster that went to last season’s Western Conference Finals.


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In a round of unsexy team building that nonetheless positions LA to contend in the West, the Lakers brought back D’Angelo Russell (two years, $35 million), Austin Reaves (four years, $56 million) and Rui Hachimura (three years), $51 million), which was largely expected. They helped themselves by grabbing point guard Gabe Vincent (three years, $33 million) to replace the departed Dennis Schröder and adding stretch four Taurean Prince to replace the more offensively limited Troy Brown Jr.

The Lakers also took two shots by agreeing to minimum deals with a second-year player option for Cam Reddish and Jaxson Hayes. In particular, I’d keep an eye on Hayes, who gives them more athletic pop at the backup five than they had a year ago.

Another note: It appears the Lakers have set up their contracts to get right up to the luxury tax line and no further. If second-round pick Max Lewis signs at the minimum and the Lakers add another backup five on a minimum deal, they would have the necessary 14 players under contract and be right at the tax line.

The Cavs’ weaknesses were on display during their playoff implosion against New York, and Cleveland spent the opening days of free agency addressing them. The hope is that the Cavs added enough shooting that Donovan Mitchell won’t have the Knicks’ entire team waiting for him in the paint on his drives this coming spring.

In particular, Cleveland took advantage of the most permissive trade rules under the new CBA and its significant wiggle room under the luxury tax line to engineer a sign-and-trade that turned Cedi Osman into Max Strus. It only cost the Cavs a second-round pick, and Strus’ deal is reasonable (four years, $63 million) for what he’s giving them. Free agency tends to be old fashioned, but Strus is 27 and the Cavs probably bought the best years of his career.


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For the frontcourt, Cleveland went after Georges Niang, who might not be worth $26 million over three years on some other lists, but could easily justify it on this one. The Cavs’ shot blockers (Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley) ease concerns about Niang on defense, and he’s a career 40.3 percent shooter from 3. He’ll fill the role left open after the Cavs pounced on Kevin Love (oops) and Dean Wade proved to want to.

The Cavs also needed another guard who could provide some offense after Ricky Rubio and Raul Neto failed to provide much juice. It appears they used the remainder of their mid-level exception to add Ty Jerome for slightly more than the minimum, thus preventing the over-the-second-apron Warriors from matching up. Jerome played on a two-way last season, but is a good shooter with an advanced floater. Like Niang, his defensive vulnerabilities are lessened by the two fly swatters waiting behind him.

The Cavs also resisted going overboard to re-sign their own player, Caris LeVert (two years, $32 million is reasonable here), and his deal is now timed to expire at the franchise’s next big pivot in 2025, when Mitchell could become a free agent and Mobley will be eligible for a max extension. Cleveland also sent $110,000 to Utah to back up big man Damian Jones.

Cleveland still has three open roster spots and will likely fill two of them; The Cavs could still use another forward in the 6-foot-8 range. If they add at least two veterans and waive the non-guaranteed Sam Merrill, the Cavs will enter the year with a $1 million cushion under the tax line.

Finally, some short-attention-span thoughts on other offerings I liked:


Brooklyn quietly got one of the best values ​​of free agency by signing Dennis Smith Jr. for a minimum of one year. I’m amazed the weak backup point guard market didn’t value him more than this after his rebound season in Charlotte; Smith is a poor shooter, but he is one of the best defensive guards in all of basketball.


Miami brought back Josh Richardson on a “one plus one” minimum deal that lets him re-enter free agency a year from now. He’s lost some athletic juice since his last tour in Miami, but he still has great value at the minimum. Richardson is a reliable shooter with some guard skills and could fill some of the minutes vacated by Strus and Vincent.


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Dallas brought back Dante Exum from Europe’s KK Partizan Belgrade after a nearly two-plus-year hiatus; he hasn’t played in the NBA since January 2021. Since then, he’s figured out how to shoot (38.8 percent from 3, 84.7 percent from the line last season across all competitions); he was one of the best players in Europe last season and will still only be 28 when the season starts. This was a shrewd move of at least a year.

The Mavs also got great value by bringing back Dwight Powell for three years and just $12 million, and added shooting with Seth Curry’s return; it appears the Powell deal dollars are in line to keep Dallas just below the playoff spot if it uses its full $12.4 million mid-level exception on another player.


New York got a good deal for Donte DiVincenzo and needed another reliable shooting guard for its rotation, but I’m a little concerned that the Knicks had to jettison Obi Toppin to make it happen. I’ll feel a lot better about this if they can get a decent backup four with their semi-annual exception, but time is a waste.

Indiana picked up Toppin and Bruce Brown. I mentioned this recently, so I won’t belabor the point, but I thought the Pacers had the best week of any cap room team, pending what the final sausage ends up looking like in Houston.

Related reading

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(Photo of Eric Gordon and Kevin Durant: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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