In just his second NBA season in 2021, Deandre Ayton proved to be a massive X-factor for the Phoenix Suns and was one of the main reasons why they found themselves in the NBA Finals. Just two years later, Ayton’s time in Phoenix is very much in question after another disappointing playoff flameout.
Losing in the Western Conference Semifinals to the Denver Nuggets in six games on Thursday night, the Suns’ title expectations proved nothing more than a dream that very quickly turned into a nightmare.
Kevin Durant and Devin Booker are not going anywhere, entering 2023-24 as one of the best scoring duos in the entire league. However, the Suns do have some big decisions to make regarding their roster and Ayton’s future is certainly the first order of business.
There was a lot of speculation last summer about the former No. 1 overall pick leaving the Suns in free agency, which paid off when Ayton signed an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers. Due to the fact that he was a restricted free agent, Phoenix had the ability to match any offer thrown Ayton’s way. After being a Pacer for about 15 minutes, the Suns matched Indiana’s four-year, $132.9 million offer to keep the big man in the desert.
Tensions existed between Ayton and the team following their defeat in the 2022 playoffs to Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks, which very likely contributed to his decision to want to leave in free agency. Ultimately, Deandre Ayton remained with the Suns and played in 67 regular season games with very little talk centering around his future.
After Durant’s arrival at the trade deadline, though, Ayton’s role shifted and his overall usage declined. In the playoffs, the Suns center was a shell of the player he was during their run to the NBA Finals in 2021.
Things started off well against the LA Clippers, as Ayton recorded four double-doubles in the five-game series, but then he was exposed by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic in the Suns’ Western Conference Semifinals defeat. Not playing in their Game 6 loss on Thursday night due to a rib contusion, a lot of talk is now centered on whether Ayton has played his final game in Phoenix.
Talking to the media on Friday to wrap up the season, Ayton was asked about his future with the organization amid recent speculation that he could be traded.
“Man, I love Phoenix man,” Ayton told reporters. “Honestly, I’m gonna continue to play hard for Phoenix. I’m going to keep reppin’ Phoenix like I always be reppin’ Phoenix and I don’t listen to the outside noise man. I’m here, I’m happy. We didn’t finish out the season the way we wanted to but there’s always next year.”
It is no secret the 24-year-old center is interested in a new NBA opportunity, especially after signing that deal with the Pacers last year. Continuing to support his teammates and play hard for his current organization is something the Suns can expect from Ayton no matter the circumstances, but a fresh start would likely be beneficial for both parties.
Going to a new franchise is something that Ayton would be “excited” about and the Suns are expected to “aggressively explore” his trade market this summer, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPN.
When looking at the Suns as a whole entering next season, the biggest thing that stands out is their cap numbers. They are set to pay nearly $84 million combined to Durant and Booker, plus Chris Paul’s contract situation could lead to Phoenix being tied down to another $30.8 million if the front office fully guarantees his contract. With new rules coming into effect limiting teams from having extraordinary payrolls via the newly agreed upon Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Suns face a tough task in being able to retain everyone.
Ayton has had some great moments for the Suns, but he is set to make nearly $32.5 million next season and still has over $100 million guaranteed on his contract over the next three seasons. Moving on from him now could be very advantageous to the Suns not only from a financial perspective, but in terms of regaining assets they traded away to acquire Durant at the trade deadline.
So where could Deandre Ayton possibly end up if Phoenix is to trade him?
The market for centers across the NBA is very thin right now and there are not many teams who would want a big man on a $100 million contract who cannot really extend his game out to the perimeter on either end of the floor. The Dallas Mavericks could certainly be suitors for Ayton with Christian Wood set to enter free agency, however, while the Chicago Bulls might have an opening in the middle with Nikola Vucevic set to hit free agency.
The San Antonio Spurs and Charlotte Hornets are two other teams who could be intrigued by the idea of adding the former top pick given that both organizations are in the midst of a rebuild. Some may point to the Indiana Pacers having interest in Ayton again since he signed an offer sheet with them last summer, but the Pacers have since extended Myles Turner’s contract and no longer seem interested in adding another frontcourt talent.
Regardless of who is saying what in their end-of-season exit interviews, the idea of trading Ayton this offseason is a very real possibility for the Suns and it should not come as a shock to anyone to see him in a different jersey to start next season. Financially and mentally, this is a move that would be beneficial for both sides, which is why the mystery of a Deandre Ayton trade is a lot easier to solve than it seems at first glance.
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