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Phoenix’s Title Push Has Maximums, Minimums, And Nothing In Between

Cameron Payne walks onto the court during his final appearance for the Phoenix Suns, during the 2023 playoffs.
Photo by Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns, who went all-in on a championship push with a trade for Bradley Beal back in June, did some small-time deals Sunday. They signed delightful spaghetti-shaped journeyman Bol Bol to a minimum-value, one-year contract, and they traded delightful pear-shaped journeyman Cameron Payne to the San Antonio Spurs. Next season the Suns will pay $163 million to a four-man core, and will surround that core with 11 players who are being paid the minimum allowable salary. The NBA's newly stiffened luxury tax is extraordinarily punitive—a team paying its way to the tax's very doorstep for a four-man superstar tandem almost has no choice anymore but to fill out the rest of its roster with cheap bozos.

That means sacrifice. This was already extraordinarily painful when it meant shipping out Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson in the Kevin Durant trade, but in that case when the Suns cut loose of some likable young dudes it was in exchange for one of the game's greatest players. The loss of Payne is less destructive of Phoenix's future, but it sucks pretty bad. Payne was a feel-good reclamation project in Phoenix, a guy they'd salvaged from the scrap heap and made into a valuable rotation player. In the deal Sunday they swapped him for nothing, or almost literally nothing. Soon after guaranteeing Payne's contract for the upcoming season, the Suns packaged him with a future second-round draft pick and sent him to San Antonio in exchange for ... a second-round draft pick. This is a pure salary dump: As explained by John Hollinger of The Athletic, by guaranteeing Payne's contract and then shipping him out in a trade that brings back zero salary—instead of just waiving him into free agency back in June—the Suns rid themselves of his salary, gained a useful trade exception, and trimmed what will be an extravagant luxury tax bill for new owner Mat Ishbia.

Ishbia will, I'm sure, be grateful to general manager James Jones for this nimble bit of payroll management, but it stinks for the team, for the team's fans, and for Payne, who goes from being the sixth man on a contender to babysitting Victor Wembanyama while playing out an expiring contract. It's a bitter turn for a guy who recently played his way back from professional basketball's hinterlands. Payne's career was in the toilet before he landed on the Suns for that accursed bubble run in 2020. Foot injuries and clogged backcourts spoiled his chances to catch on as a rotation player in Oklahoma City and Chicago. By January 2019 he was hanging onto the NBA's bottom rung via 10-day contracts; later that year he couldn't win an NBA job by the conclusion of teams' training camps, and wound up first in China and then in the NBA's developmental league. It was lovely, an unlikely and unambiguously happy development, when things suddenly clicked for Payne in Phoenix, and he found himself playing big heroic minutes for a title contender.

Injuries have come back around for Payne over the last couple seasons, but when healthy he's mostly held down his role behind Chris Paul, who the Suns acquired after their promising run in the bubble. He's a good player, in the game-manager style of a lead ball-handler who helps his team primarily by not hurting his team. Payne's role becomes somewhat more tenuous in the playoffs, when his puniness becomes an occasional defensive sore spot, but he's had his moments. He was in the mix and at the center of the action when the Suns eliminated Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in the 2021 playoffs; two years later, when the Suns were otherwise debasing and humiliating themselves in a nightmarish Game 6 loss to the eventual champion Nuggets, Payne put up 31 points on 16 shots in what would wind up being his final performance in a Suns jersey. The Suns would rather have Payne than not have him; they would certainly rather have him than recent Wizards project Jordan Goodwin and a future second-round pick of approximately zero value. But the Suns will be deep into the luxury tax for the foreseeable future; paying market rate for a proven rotation-grade player will be expensive as hell, and in Goodwin the Suns now hope to get rotation-grade production for the cost of a bozo.

In a few short years the Suns have fully transitioned from a fun rebuilding story built on home-grown depth and positional versatility to one of the top-heaviest, ball-hoggiest rosters in NBA history. They hit on something in the weeks before a COVID-sick Rudy Gobert licked a microphone and brought an NBA regular season to a screeching halt, and five months later, when the season finally resumed in the Orlando bubble, Payne was part of the mix of players that propelled the Suns to eight consecutive wins and closer to legitimacy than they'd been in a decade. That was an incredibly non-serious stretch of season, but it was less that the Suns had won some games in that distorted environment than how they'd looked doing it: fast, aggressive, turbocharged by delightful cockiness, and deeply committed to Monty Williams's egalitarian designs. The Suns had become good. To the great annoyance of Suns haters (me), they had that additional feel-good quality of having been constructed from straight out of the mud of rebuilding hell.

It would've been fun to see how that plucky team fared across something closer to a real regular season, but Jones sensed the significance of the moment and bundled together some of the journeymen who'd given the bubble Suns their snarl and sent them away in the trade for Paul, banking that the team could restore its depth and versatility through the draft. This worked. Even if the Suns had lost some of their charm as an alchemical miracle of flotsam mixology, Jones had seized an opportunity to turn a good team into a contender, a feat which is considered by some basketball knowers to be the toughest leap in the business. The trades that brought in first Kevin Durant and now Bradley Beal are a continuation of that concept of fortification, that the surest way of staying in the title hunt is to swap handfuls of role-players for a superstar who can consolidate all of their combined contributions.

The luxury tax is expressly designed to send any team that pays good players what they are worth into an inexorable death spiral, whether the team assembles its roster via developing its own superstar-grade talent or by splurging in free agency. The Suns have shortened their window by quite a lot, and will need a couple of guys with extremely checkered track-records of bone and ligament performance—Durant and Beal—to avoid the kinds of injuries that have kept either of them from playing more than 60 games in any full season since 2019. At least one minimum-salary goof is going to take the floor with Phoenix's starters 82 times this regular season. Things are going to get very hairy whenever one of Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, or Deandre Ayton misses a game; things are going to get downright hilarious when the superstar on the shelf is Kevin Durant. Defector's resident Orlando Magic knower assures me that Bol Bol is very fun, but there is very little evidence that he is any good. Bol may very well be the primary backup at three different spots for this Suns team.

There is a very good chance this will all still work out fine. The Suns are going to be very good whenever they are healthy, and if they happen to be healthy for the playoffs, buddy, they are going to give absolute hell to whoever they face along the way. But the league's owners have set things up so that it is maximally painful for any one of them to pay for a good basketball team, and have fixed gravity such that it pulls all teams from both ends of the league's hierarchy toward mediocrity. The league throws resources at shitty teams so that it is good business to stay bad for as long as possible, and it strips resources from good teams and hammers them with penalties until they are gutted. Good and useful players like Payne wind up twisting in the middle, too good to be of real use to teams on the low end, and too expensive at anything more than a pittance to stick for long in the orbit of superstars.

To maximize their title chances in the short term, the Suns shed most or all of the character that made them such a fun and fascinating team when they jumped up from out of nowhere in 2020 and then raced to the Finals in 2021. If the Suns win a title at the end of this trajectory, it'll be Goodwin and Bol and Yuta Watanabe who get rings, players who were picked for the squad not because they're good but because they're dirt cheap. The Suns will have won a title not because of but in spite of the guys who fill out their rotation. Artificial league-wide constraints and the limits of an owner's deep pockets mean that the harder the Suns push for a title, the fewer of their own guys they'll be able to bring along for the journey.

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