Welcome to the wonderful time of year where actual basketball conversation takes a backseat to rampant speculation! The Phoenix Suns weren’t immune to it last year as the NBA’s top team, and now sporting a disappointing 21-24 record in an injury-riddled season, they certainly aren’t this year either.
The latest spicy name to surface, of course, is Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.
As The Athletic’s Shams Charania wrote on Tuesday, “The Suns and Magic have emerged as potential free-agent suitors for All-Star guard VanVleet, league sources say.”
After turning down a four-year, $114 million contract extension from the Raptors before the season began, VanVleet will almost certainly opt out of his $22.8 million player option this summer to test the waters of unrestricted free agency.
His name makes sense in conjunction with the Suns, a team that’s already feeling the adverse effects of Father Time’s onslaught on a 37-year-old Chris Paul. An increasingly injured Cam Payne isn’t Phoenix’s long-term solution at the point guard spot, nor is two-way contract Duane Washington Jr. (who’s better as a scoring 2-guard) or Saben Lee (recently added on a 10-day contract).
The Suns have squandered their opportunities in the draft to groom a messiah under the Point God — Tyrese Haliburton, anyone? — and at this point, trade feels like the most likely avenue for finding a starting-caliber successor.
Which is why this latest trade buzz around Fred VanVleet doesn’t make very much sense.
"Sources tell me the Suns and Magic have emerged as potential suitors for Fred VanVleet … the Suns interest opens up the question about Chris Paul's future in Phoenix long term."
NBA Insider @ShamsCharania reports on interest in the Raptors guard. pic.twitter.com/iCriEuzqUh
— The Rally (@TheRally) January 18, 2023
Before we get to the obvious Chris Paul question, for starters, there’s a chance VanVleet doesn’t even want to leave the Raptors. He turned down the maximum amount Toronto could have offered, but there’s still technically time to come to an agreement on an extension before the season ends. Even if they don’t, he stands to make the most money by re-signing with the Raptors as a free agent.
Charania noted VanVleet’s dedication to the franchise he’s spent his entire career with, where he earned All-Star honors in 2022 and won a championship in 2019:
“VanVleet — the 2019 NBA champion and one of the league’s greatest undrafted success stories — spoke recently about his pending free-agency status in the offseason and how he remains focused on the Raptors: ‘I’m completely focused on his team. My loyalty is to this team and to this franchise and trying to get us back to the level that we’re accustomed to around here.'”
Moving beyond the possibility that he simply wants a bigger payday from Toronto, VanVleet is hardly the loftiest of targets for the Suns — as either a temporary stopgap to keep their current window of contention open or a long-term fixture at point guard.
At a glance, VanVleet’s 18.7 points, 6.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game seem like a lifeline for a team that’s relied far too heavily on Devin Booker this season. The Suns need more ball-handling and individual shot creation, and while they arguably have four No. 3 options when fully healthy, this recent stretch has proven that neither Mikal Bridges nor Deandre Ayton is capable of filling Paul’s role from last year as the No. 2 guy.
But efficiency hasn’t accompanied VanVleet’s production this year. He’s shooting just 38.4 percent from the field, including 33.4 percent from 3-point range on a whopping 8.6 attempts per game. Perhaps a change of scenery would help, but then again, it’s not like the Suns (21-24) are worlds apart from the Raptors (20-25) in the standings.
Phoenix has dealt with a plethora of injuries to fall that far, but the point still stands: VanVleet has regressed from last year’s All-Star season, when he averaged 20.3 points, 6.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 37.9 minutes a night — all career highs — on 40.3 percent shooting and 37.7 percent from 3 (on a career-high 9.9 attempts per game).
VanVleet has been an efficient shooter for most of his career, but the defense that was nearly All-Defensive Team caliber over the last few seasons has started to slip up. He takes care of the ball well enough, but is only a good-but-not-great playmaker, ranking 21st in the league in assists per game,
Perhaps the back spasms have fueled this down year, but that’s hardly comforting for a Suns team that’s been battered by injuries. VanVleet is also approaching his 29th birthday in February, limiting his ceiling as a long-term successor. He’s not old by any means, but he probably won’t get much better than this.
Then there’s the simple logistics of getting him to Phoenix. One can’t help but notice Charania mentions the Suns as “potential free-agency suitors” for VanVleet, not trade suitors. The question is how on earth they plan to make that happen.
Between Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges and Landry Shamet, the Suns are currently projected to have $131.2 million on the books for next season — and that’s not even including Cam Payne’s $6.5 million non-guaranteed deal. Add Payne into the mix and the Suns are already above the expected $134 million salary cap…with only six players under contract.
That means they have nowhere near enough space to sign VanVleet outright, especially to the type of contract he’ll want. As TSN’s Josh Lewenberg writes, Tyler Herro’s four-year, $130 million extension is expected to be the baseline for VanVleet’s next deal, so at minimum, the Suns would need to free up more than $36 million in salary to sign him — all while needing to fill out a 15-man roster with only 3-5 players under contract.
I don't think the FVV rumor makes sense without a trade this season, for the record. Even a sign and trade seems unlikely in the offseason, just based on the assets the Suns will have signed.
— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) January 17, 2023
As low as people currently are on Bridges and Ayton, shipping them off in salary dumps — or blowing the roster up entirely — just to sign Fred VanVleet makes no sense. The obvious alternative is lining up a CP3 salary dump, but it’s difficult to see that happening for a number of reasons.
For starters, his extensive injury history, coupled with this seaon’s injury-proneness and regression, will make next year’s $30.8 million salary a nonstarter for most teams. Only a rebuilding team with ample enough cap space to absorb his contract makes sense as a salary-dump destination, and even then, it’s hard to envision Phoenix jettisoning a Hall-of-Famer who helped them reach the NBA Finals to a losing situation. Young teams looking to make a similar leap like the Suns or Oklahoma City Thunder may be interested, but they’d likely have to send salary back, which doesn’t help Phoenix clear suitable space for splashy free-agency signings.
The Suns left themselves with safeguards in the event Paul started to show signs of his age. Only $15.8 million of his $30.8 million salary next year is guaranteed, and his entire $30 million figure for the following year is non-guaranteed. But even if they waived him and stretched his contract over three years — another scenario that’s difficult to envision under the current regime — they’d still be well short of their goal of offering VanVleet more than $30 million a year.
There’s always the sign-and-trade route, but as inconsistent as Bridges and Ayton have been, has the situation really gotten so bad that the Suns should trade either one of them for a soon-to-be 29-year-old putting up the worst shooting numbers of his career? Addressing the 1-spot beyond this CP3 era should be a top priority, but unless the team is certain they’re getting a bona fide upgrade, it shouldn’t come at the cost of a core that was best in the West prior to injuries.
As much as Paul has regressed, he’s been a better facilitator and more efficient shooter than VanVleet this season. His leadership still matters in the Suns locker room, and it’s hard to envision Booker or Monty Williams signing off on any move that sends Paul elsewhere unless they were getting a clear-cut upgrade in return.
Given the difficulty of navigating sign-and-trades, it’s also difficult to see any scenario where the Suns land VanVleet in free agency, short of new ownership blowing it up.
That would put pressure on Phoenix to capitalize on Toronto being sellers before the Feb. 9 deadline. Even with all of Paul’s injury woes, good luck convincing anyone the Suns would unceremoniously dump him midseason. Yahoo! Sports’ Jake Fischer reports Phoenix is a “team to watch” when it comes to Raptors sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr., but including his $17.5 million salary as part of a larger deal further complicates matters. Toronto probably wouldn’t want to take on Paul’s contract, and lining up a separate deal to send CP3 elsewhere in the middle of the season would be difficult.
The Suns could find a way to trade for VanVleet’s $21.2 million salary by offering a first-round pick and two players from the Jae Crowder-Landry Shamet-Dario Saric trio, but is that enough for Toronto? And as the Suns continue to slide down the Western Conference standings, isn’t their increasingly valuable 2023 first-rounder potentially worth more than a guy like VanVleet?
Phoenix could try and avoid dealing that pick by offering Cam Johnson instead:
But even if they go that route, will the Raptors want to deal with Johnson’s injury concerns as he approaches restricted free agency? According to Fischer, Ayton is the guy Toronto has on its radar, not Crowder, Johnson or even Bridges.
For the Suns, if this is who VanVleet is now, they may be giving up the best player in the trade in Johnson. Adding VanVleet while keeping Paul, Booker, Bridges and Ayton is great in theory, but they’d still have a glaring hole at the 4 and two undersized point guards, one of whom would have to embrace a bench role.
Good luck convincing VanVleet to re-sign as a sixth man when he’s due for a major contract, and good luck expecting Monty Williams to bench his Hall-of-Fame floor general unless CP3 volunteered himself.
Of course, all of this is without even mentioning the obvious storm cloud still looming overhead: James Jones reportedly can’t even make a move for players in Jae Crowder’s salary range without Robert Sarver’s approval, and Mat Ishbia may not be officially approved as the team’s new owner until after the trade deadline.
All in all, the Suns don’t have the cap space to sign VanVleet in free agency. Blowing up the roster in an offseason sign-and-trade doesn’t make sense for a player of his caliber, and trading for him before the deadline in an attempt to re-sign him to max money doesn’t seem smart or feasible.
The Suns need a long-term answer to the Chris Paul successor question, but for a variety of reasons, it probably isn’t Fred VanVleet.