You've likely heard the phrase "consolidation trade" quite a bit over the past several years. It's NBA Twitter's favorite catch-all solution to roster flaws. Not good enough to win a championship? Just flip a couple of picks and three of your good players into one great one. Problem solved. Milwaukee consolidated its depth into Jrue Holiday and won a championship. Toronto did the same with Kawhi Leonard. Consolidation is almost always the right approach in a star-driven league. It isn't for the Phoenix Suns, at least not anymore.
The Suns already made their consolidation trade in February. Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and their entire stock of draft picks became Kevin Durant. Despite a disappointing end to their season, Durant largely held up his end of the bargain. He averaged a hair under 30 points per game in the postseason, and while his legendary efficiency may have dipped, he can hardly be blamed for that given the defenses he was facing.
Durant and Devin Booker were so good that the Nuggets felt comfortable throwing help and doubles at them whenever they touched the ball. Phoenix's role players couldn't punish them for that. It's almost impossible to win a game when your third-leading scorer has seven points. Booker and Durant did so in Game 3 by combining for 86. The Denver series was by no means a referendum on Phoenix's superstars. It was proof of how close the two of them could get the Suns on their own. But to make it over the top? They're going to need reliable role players around them.
And therein lies the problem. The Suns weren't supposed to have two stars. They thought they had four. Chris Paul, as he so often does in the postseason, got hurt. DeAndre Ayton, for the second consecutive postseason, hasn't been nearly consistent enough. These would have been acceptable outcomes from two mid-level players. But Ayton is in the first year of a max contract, while Paul is set to earn over $30 million next season. It's hard to pay for depth when you're paying your top four players $145 million. That depth is a necessity when half of that money is going to players who aren't helping in the postseason.
This makes Phoenix the rare contender that needs to de-consolidate. They don't need four great players. They need five or six good ones to go along with the two sure things that exist on their roster in Booker and Durant. In most cases, de-consolidation is a fairly straightforward process. Most teams are eager to trade three $10 million players for a $30 million player. If Milwaukee, for instance, were to put Holiday back on the market to surround Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton with a more diverse supporting cast, they'd have a dozen offers within the hour. But Phoenix? Neither of their two bloated contracts looks all that appealing right now.
Paul just turned 38 and is coming off a season where he averaged a career-low 13.9 points per game. He hesitates to shoot open 3-pointers and might as well wear a "kick me" sign on his back defensively when matched up with a younger, quicker guard. Even his legendary clutch prowess is waning. Paul shot just 42.1% in the clutch this season, his lowest mark since 2019. The Suns, as a team, ranked 15th in clutch offense during the regular season. It was the worst ranking for a Paul team since 2017. Very few teams are going to view Paul, at his current salary, as a positive-value asset.
His saving grace is his partially guaranteed contract. Paul is guaranteed only $15.8 million next season, though his entire $30.8 million salary guarantees on June 28. More importantly, his entire 2024-25 salary is non-guaranteed. Some team looking to shed long-term money might consider Paul a worthwhile avenue to doing so.
The Heat have been interested in Paul in the past, could lose both Gabe Vincent and Max Strus to free agency and have a long-term Duncan Robinson deal they'd probably love to offload. Might they give up something of value for Paul? The Suns considered a John Collins swap at the trade deadline, and he has three expensive and guaranteed seasons left on his contract. That might be an avenue for Phoenix to consider. The Bulls could probably use Paul as a Lonzo Ball replacement, though most of the players the Suns would probably like in exchange are bound for free agency. How much would Brooklyn pay for the right to move off of Ben Simmons, and would Durant be open to such a reunion if it came with enough depth?
The Ayton situation isn't quite as dire. Indiana gave him a max offer sheet less than 10 months ago. There will always be a team willing to invest in a young No. 1 overall pick. But the center market is inconsistent and top-heavy. For every Rudy Gobert netting five first-round picks, there is a Brook Lopez or Kevon Looney signing for pennies on the dollar. Ayton has now folded in back-to-back postseasons, and he hasn't exactly hidden his frustrations with the team. His trade value is lower today than it ever has been.
Indiana has already re-signed Myles Turner at a bargain and likely won't be all that interested in paying—both by assets and dollars—for what now appears to be a lateral move. Dallas is a much more logical fit. The Mavericks are desperately thin in the front court and could lose Christian Wood and Dwight Powell to free agency. But joining a team with Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving likely won't satisfy Ayton's reported desire for more shots. Unless Dallas puts Irving on the table in a sign-and-trade, a deal would almost have to involve a third team. The best asset the Mavericks can offer, assuming the lottery goes their way, is their 2023 first-round pick, likely to come in at No. 10 overall. The Suns need help now, not a rookie.
Complicating all of this is the new collective bargaining agreement set to kick in over the summer. While some of the most punitive features will be rolled out over time, the implementation of "second apron" figure will begin this offseason. With a projected tax line of roughly $162 million, the second apron is likely to come in under $180 million. The Suns currently have $165.6 million committed to just seven players: Durant, Booker, Ayton, Paul, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne and Ish Wainwright. Staying under that second apron figure, while not impossible, would likely require roster compromises the Suns don't want to make.
So that will force them to abide by any restrictions that come with crossing the second apron. For Phoenix's purposes, two will prove particularly problematic.
- Teams above the second apron will not have access to the taxpayer mid-level exception. Phoenix will therefore only be able to use Bird Rights and minimum-salary contracts in free agency.
- Teams above the second apron will be limited in how much salary they can absorb in trades. Fortunately for the Suns, the limitations on salary aggregation and dollar-for-dollar matching won't kick in until after the 2023-24 season, but starting this summer, teams crossing that second apron figure will only be able to take back 110% of the salary they send out in trades. Ordinarily, teams can take back 125% of the salary they send out in trades.
Building around these obstacles is going to be difficult, but not impossible. The Suns should be a draw for practically every ring-chasing veteran, especially with all of the minutes they can theoretically offer. They largely did well with their minimum signings this season—Josh Okogie and Jock Landale are definite keepers if the Suns can convince either to stay through their limited Bird Rights. Torrey Craig and Darius Bazley should be retainable at reasonable prices. The Suns still own all of their second-round picks aside from their 2029 choice. Phoenix should have no problem finding suitable deep bench reserves. Some of these players will emerge as trustworthy rotation pieces.
But as the Denver series proved, there is an enormous gap between the Durant-Booker duo and the rest of the roster right now. The Suns enter the 2023 offseason three or four starting-caliber players short of where they'd like to be, and where Denver was throughout this series. Their path to finding those players is going to be narrow, and it's going to require some difficult choices involving players they considered part of their core as recently as the deadline. If the Suns are going to put a championship team around Booker and Durant, they are going to have to diverge from NBA dogma and de-consolidate the rest of their roster.