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The Phoenix Suns have gone fishing in more ways than one, as they could soon be starting a search for a new center for next season, given the tumultuous relationship between them and center Deandre Ayton over the past year.
While Ayton was picked first overall in 2018, the fit with Phoenix was never entirely cemented. The organization has used him in both high and low-volume roles, relying more on him as a defender and rebounder in recent years, than as a scorer.
Ayton, who embraced a lesser role last year and helped the Suns reach the 2021 NBA Finals, sought max-level compensation last summer when he was up for an contract extension, but was denied the opportunity by the Suns, who felt they needed to see one more season out of him before determining his future.
Now, with that season being concluded, Ayton is heading into restricted free agency where the future seems uncertain, especially in regards to his continued stay in Phoenix. The Suns lost Game 7 to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals, barely putting up a fight in the final game. The lasting expression of a lifeless Suns team, and a game in which Ayton played just 17 minutes, seems to cement that the two sides yet again will fail to see eye-to-eye.
Setting the price
If the Suns remain determined to not present Ayton with a max-level contract, it seems obvious that other teams will step up to the plate. After all, Ayton will be just 24 when the 2022-2023 season tips off, and his production level screams further potential. Over four years with the Suns, Ayton averaged 16.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, hit 59.9% from the field and converted 75.4% from the free throw line, all while playing elite interior defense.
Similarly to how Wendell Carter Jr broke out in Orlando after getting traded away from the Chicago Bulls, Ayton could very well see a leap in statistical production (and overall impact) on a different team that’s willing to empower him. The foundation he comes in with is rock solid, and allows for a new team to help Ayton add to his game, while providing him the necessary chances to test out new skills.
As such, the price is set at a max-level contract. However, certain complications may arise due to the fact that 2022 free agency isn’t exactly flush with cash. 26 teams enter the season above the cap, and the few that don’t are primarily rebuilding teams, some of whom would run a high risk of locking their money up in an offer sheet for a few days, while the Suns decide whether to match or not.
And let’s be clear. It would behoove the Suns to do just that as not to lose Ayton for nothing. In fact, one could argue it’d be in the best interest of the Suns to explore sign-and-trade scenarios as quickly as possible, which opens the door to more suitors than just teams with max cap space. If the Suns have a deal lined up, they can avoid restricted free agency altogether, which must look advantageous to them, if they have no desire to hang onto Ayton, or to lose him without any compensation.
Keep in mind, the Suns are built for the present, and not the future. Losing Ayton for nothing would reflect poorly on the team’s mission to field a contender next to 37-year-old Chris Paul. If Ayton is to find himself in a new uniform next season, the Suns absolutely have to get something out of it.
But, make no mistake, the price tag on Ayton is that of a max-level contract, which will check in at an estimated $131 million should he sign with a new team.
(Should both Ayton and the Suns unexpectedly have mutual interest in staying together, the Suns can offer him and additional year in his contract and a total of almost $177 million.)
Locating a deal
Working under the assumption that Ayton and the Suns work together to find him a new home, one intriguing option pops up involving the Indiana Pacers, who seems to be also flirting with the idea of replacing their center – Myles Turner – with someone new after the trade deadline acquisition of Tyrese Haliburton.
A sign-and-trade deal centered around Ayton and Turner makes a lot of sense for both teams.
For the Pacers, they get the better player in the deal and a long-term fit with the pass-first Haliburton. The Pacers could easily spend a year or two expanding Ayton’s game, while he builds chemistry with one of the most exciting young point guards in the league. The added benefit of playing for a team where Ayton can develop at his own pace is also noteworthy, as big men often take longer to round out their game.
Ayton and Haliburton would instantaneously become one of the more intriguing long-view duos in the NBA, providing the Pacers with the reshaped roster they’ve been dreaming about for the past year.
For the Suns, Turner makes a lot of sense. Not only is he, like Ayton, an elite defensive center, but he has a knack for spotting up from behind the three-point line, a major area of need for the Suns. During their seven-game series against the Mavericks, Phoenix hit 33 less shots from the outside than Dallas, presenting a need for offensive change.
Turner’s offensive style should fit both Booker and Paul better given that he pops off of screens, and allows players a more open court. The downside to Turner is his lack of rebounding, an area wherein Ayton is much better. So while there are give and takes for both sides in this deal, the overall parameters of such an arrangement makes sends for both squads who could walk away satisfied with their new center.
There’s still a lot of time left for free agency, but for Ayton and the Suns, planning is already on the way.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac. All odds via FanDuel Sportsbook.