There is not an executive in the NBA who has watched these playoffs and not thought to himself, We could use a guy like Mikal Bridges. He is the ultimate 3-and-D wing, possibly more, working on a rookie contract.
That is the underrated reason the Suns are in position to take a lead in the NBA Finals entering Saturday's Game 5 in Phoenix, where Bridges poured in 41 points on 28 shots in the first two games of the series.
Devin Booker and Chris Paul are their maximum contracted stars. Deandre Ayton, a No. 1 overall pick, was projected to be their third option, even if no one expected him to contribute to the degree he has in his third season. They signed Jae Crowder to the midlevel exception, knowing his contributions to deep playoff runs on the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. Bridges is the tie that binds the league's steadiest starting lineup.
He will not be so affordable soon. Bridges and Ayton are extension-eligible this summer. Ayton will join fellow 2018 draft class stars Luka Doncic and Trae Young in commanding a max contract once free agency opens, much much like Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo and De'Aaron Fox last offseason. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr. will seek the same. Other than Jaren Jackson Jr., who missed all but 11 games this season with a torn left meniscus, Bridges is the next-best player in his class.
Executives expected Bridges in April to command $20 million annually, per ESPN's Zach Lowe, before he logged 27 points in Game 2 of the Finals. That figure may have already risen, and it will only climb higher with one or two more clutch outings. It will be fascinating to see how Suns owner Robert Sarver, not one of the NBA's wealthiest governors and not known for his financial commitment to winning, handles his negotiations this summer. Sarver has said publicly he is prepared to keep Ayton and Bridges in Phoenix.
Booker is signed through the 2023-24 season, when he is owed $36 million. Chris Paul is expected to decline his $44 million player option for next season in search of a multi-year contract for north of $30 million annually, according to Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus. Ayton's max deal will pay him the same. Signing Bridges this summer would be a commitment to massive luxury taxes in 2022-23 and beyond.
Of course, waiting until Bridges enters restricted free agency next summer could mean paying him more. As many as 11 teams can create max cap space this summer or close to it, and with an injured Kawhi Leonard the only marquis free agent available besides Paul, expect to see a lot of money carry forward to next year. Should Bridges perform more consistently to the level he has shown at times in these playoffs, some team will volunteer to pay him closer to max money, if only to force Sarver's hand in matching it.
Otto Porter Jr. was in a similar situation in 2017, when at age 23 he contributed 13.4 points (52/43/83 shooting splits) — numbers almost identical to Bridges' this season — to a Washington Wizards team that nearly reached the Eastern Conference finals. The Brooklyn Nets soon signed him to a max offer sheet, forcing the Wizards to match and hamstring their roster construction around Bradley Beal and John Wall for good. Unable to land a bona fide third option, the Wizards have not gotten out of the first round since.
The offer sheet tactic could be a competitive edge for a league looking to derail the bright futures of the Suns and Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta's John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Jarrett Allen are the two proven commodities from the 2017 draft class that did not get extensions. Offering Collins big money is a prudent move, considering the other options from that class include Lauri Markkanen, Malik Monk and Josh Hart. It also creates a difficult decision for a Hawks team that will owe Young max money and roughly $20 million annually to Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Clint Capela through at least 2022-23.
The Hawks have a similar conundrum to the one the Suns face with Bridges, to a lesser degree, with fellow 2018 draft selection Kevin Huerter. He scored 27 points in Atlanta's second-round Game 7 upset of the Philadelphia 76ers, offering a glimpse of a player who could be worth a ton (2017 draftee OG Anunoby got a $70 million extension with a comparable resume) if he can do that regularly. Extending Huerter now is a bet on his potential, and waiting until he hits restricted free agency could cost the Hawks even more next summer. The only trouble with having a lot of quality players is eventually you have to pay them.
Bridges has performed on a much bigger stage, and he may well evolve into a player far superior to Porter, worthy of max money, but that projection is a nine-figure gamble. Just by keeping Booker and the current roster intact, signing Paul to a three-year extension, paying Ayton the max and giving Bridges $20 million annually, Sarver would be on the hook for $15.6 million in taxes for a nine-man roster in 2022-23 — a figure that climbs to $25.2 million if repeated in 2023-24, before even considering everyone's built-in raises.
Signing Bridges to a five-year, $100 million extension could cost the Suns twice that if they truly intend to keep this core together. Sarver may be willing to pay that if Phoenix remains in contention, but attrition mounts awfully quick in the NBA, especially once rookie contracts turn into eight-figure salaries that limit a team's ability to build around its stars. All the more reason for the Suns to maximize this year's title shot.
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