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5 things to know about Deandre Ayton’s restricted free agency

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
June 8, 2022

Deandre Ayton’s impending free agency is hanging over the Phoenix Suns’ head — and the entire NBA offseason — as one of the biggest stories of the summer. The 23-year-old former No. 1 overall pick is seeking a max contract. The question is which team will give it to him.

Make no mistake about it: Ayton is getting a max deal from somebody. He’s a top 5-7 center in this league at worst, coming off a season in which he averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds on a career-high 63.4 percent shooting.

However, with the Suns coming off an NBA Finals appearance in 2021 and a 64-win season in 2022, their inexplicable playoff collapse — and Ayton’s sideline blowup with Monty Williams while being limited to 17 minutes in a Game 7 blowout loss — has made it difficult to discuss his upcoming contract with a clear head.

So today, we’re doing something different. No opinions on DA’s value to the Suns and whether he’s worth the max. No speculation about his desire to stay in or leave Phoenix. No arguments about whether he’s actually good, whether the Suns are holding him back or whatever other incendiary debate Suns Twitter can think up during the dog days of the offseason.

Instead, we’re dealing strictly with facts and figures that will help anyone discuss Deandre Ayton’s free agency (and the possibility of a sign-and-trade) intelligently. Consider this a brief FAQ to refer back to for any NBA fans who have questions about what might happen this summer.

1. Suns can match any offer for Deandre Ayton as a restricted free agent

We’ll start with the basics: Because the Suns did not come to terms on an agreement for a rookie-scale contract extension last offseason, Ayton is now a restricted free agent. Unlike unrestricted free agents, who can sign with any team of their choosing, a restricted free agent is easier for their current team to retain.

If the Suns are unwilling to pony up with a max contract, Ayton can attempt to force their hand by signing an offer sheet with another team. Phoenix would then have two days to decide whether to match that offer, in which case they would keep him on the same contract that the other team offered. They would not be able to trade him until the mid-December deadline if they matched another team’s offer sheet.

NBA free agency begins on June 30. The moratorium lifts on July 6, which is when free agents can officially start signing their agreed-upon deals. That means once Ayton signed another team’s offer sheet on July 6, Phoenix would have until July 8 to make a decision to match.

That’s a potential advantage for the Suns, since Ayton’s new contract would appear on the other team’s books and tie up their salary cap space for two days. Phoenix could basically keep that team in limbo for 48 hours, and while other teams got deals done, that team would be unable to sign other free agents until the Suns either let him leave or decided to match. Rest assure they’d hold that team hostage for the full two days, even if they intended to match the offer sheet.

That may dissuade suitors from making an offer, but with the rumor mill currently suggesting the Suns may not match a max offer, one of the few teams with cap space like the San Antonio Spurs or Indiana Pacers could be tempted into making a push. The Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers have also popped up in Deandre Ayton trade rumors, so he may have suitors one way or another.

To sum up, though, even if another team makes an offer for DA, Phoenix has the power to match and keep him if they so choose.

2. Suns can offer Ayton more than any suitor

As if matching rights weren’t enough, the Suns are completely in the driver’s seat with Ayton thanks to their ability to offer him more money. Since they own his Bird Rights, they can offer him a five-year deal worth up to $177 million. The most another team can offer is four years and $131.1 million. They could also choose to offer a three-year max.

It’s highly unlikely the Suns go with the full five-year max. That was their big sticking point last summer when Ayton wanted the full max, and a second-round exit where his head coach may or may not have accused him of quitting on the team isn’t changing anyone’s minds in the organization from that stance.

However, the Suns can also offer more money on a four-year contract, being able to go up to $136.6 million. That’s an additional $5.5 million that Phoenix can add to the pot compared to any other team’s four-year offer.

Other teams may try to use a shorter contract (three years), a player option and trade bonuses to gum up the works and disincentivize the Suns to match. But if Phoenix really wants to keep him around and avoid a drama-filled summer, they can circumvent any offer sheet by offering the most money outright.

Here’s what Ayton’s projected salary would look like with the Suns on a four- or five-year max:

  • 2022-23: $30,500,000
  • 2023-24: $32,940,000
  • 2024-25: $35,380,000
  • 2025-26: $37,820,000
  • 2026-27: $40,260,000

And here’s what it’d look like with another team on a three- or four-year max:

  • 2022-23: $30,500,000
  • 2023-24: $32,025,000
  • 2024-25: $33,550,000
  • 2025-26: $35,075,000

(These numbers will be important later when discussing sign-and-trade options…which we’ve already done here, for those interested.)

3. A new deal for DA will push Phoenix into luxury tax

A look at the Phoenix Suns’ current salary cap situation is instructive here as well. Here’s what they have on the books for next season, with the first year of Mikal Bridges’ four-year extension kicking in:

  • Devin Booker: $33,833,400
  • Chris Paul: $28,400,000
  • Mikal Bridges: $21,000,000
  • Jae Crowder: $10,183,800
  • Landry Shamet: $9,500,000
  • Dario Saric: $9,240,000
  • Cam Payne: $6,000,000
  • Cam Johnson: $5,887,899
  • Torrey Craig: $5,121,951

Booker’s no-brainer supermax wouldn’t kick in until 2024-25, and a well-deserved extension for Cam Johnson wouldn’t start until 2023-24, but even so, that’s still a total of $129.2 million already on the books for Phoenix next season.

The Suns are already over the salary cap, but fortunately, they can go over the cap to re-sign their own free agents. Ayton and Ish Wainright are restricted free agents, while JaVale McGee, Bismack Biyombo and Elfrid Payton are unrestricted, as well as Aaron Holiday after the Suns declined to extend him a qualifying offer that would have made him a restricted free agent.

However, even if we’re only talking about an Ayton extension, the NBA’s luxury tax line is projected to be $150.3 million next year. Ayton is guaranteed to command more than $20 million as the starting annual salary for his new deal, which means any contract extension for DA will automatically push Phoenix into the luxury tax. There’s never been a better time for owner Robert Sarver to live up to his word on being willing to spend for this team, especially since general manger James Jones is saying it won’t be a factor in their summer plans.

“That’s a part of the business: As your team improves, typically your payroll increases,” Jones said at his end-of-season interviews. “We’re focused on improving the team, and those guys deserve the credit, they deserve the accolades and the financial rewards that come with being good players and productive players. So it doesn’t preclude us from doing anything. We’re not talking about luxury tax issues or avoiding those things. Like, that’s not something that’s going to prevent us from continuing to build this team to keep this team together.”

4. Sign-and-trade restrictions

For those unconvinced Deandre Ayton is undeserving of the max, for those who think he’s gone no matter what he deserves, or for those who simply enjoy fake trades, it’s important to understand the restrictions of sign-and-trades before firing up the old trade machine.

In a sign-and-trade, Ayton would be signing his new contract and then being traded to another team on that contract. That means he’d only be able to sign a three- or four-year max contract in any sign-and-trade scenario. His starting salary for 2022-23 would be $30.5 million, which is what his incoming contract value would be for the other team.

However, the math with sign-and-trades is more difficult thanks to “base-year compensation,” an old CBA provision meant to dissuade teams from simply signing players to contracts they intend to immediately ship out. Due to BYC, Ayton’s outgoing salary value would be half the amount of his new starting salary. So instead of the Suns shipping out $30.5 million in salary, an Ayton sign-and-trade would only count as $15.25 million in outgoing salary for Phoenix.

In a trade for an over-the-cap team like the Suns, their incoming salary can only be up to 125 percent of what they’re sending out. In other words, they would only be able to take on 125 percent of Ayton’s outgoing value ($15.25 million). That means they’d only be able to take back just under $19.1 million in salary without involving other players or teams.

The opposing team would still have to send out about $24 million in salary to make the math work, or they’d have to be far enough under the salary cap to absorb Ayton’s new contract into space without passing that threshold. Teams like the Spurs, Pistons and Pacers all fit the criteria there.

As if that weren’t enough, any team trying to land Deandre Ayton in a sign-and-trade would immediately become hard-capped at the tax apron. That means they couldn’t exceed the tax apron ($157 million) in active salary under any circumstance from that point onward. Even if they were below the tax apron before making their move, they couldn’t complete any sign-and-trade for Ayton if it put them above that mark.

So for those using the NBA Trade Machine to brainstorm potential DA sign-and-trades, here’s your checklist to make sure it’s actually legal:

  1. Modify Ayton’s contract with a sign-and-trade for four years, with $30.5 million as the starting salary, followed by $32,025,000 for the second year, $33,550,000 for the third and $35,075,000 for the fourth.
  2. For each trade, make sure to count Ayton’s outgoing contract value for the Suns as $15.25 million, but his incoming value for whatever team is receiving him still counts as $30.5 million.
  3. Include other players and teams as needed, but for deals where the Suns are only sending out DA, they cannot exceed $19.1 million in returning salary. If the Suns include more players in the deal, they can only take back up to 125 percent of whatever the outgoing salary is.
  4. Make sure each team that’s involved does not have an incoming salary worth more than 125 percent of its outgoing salary. For example, a team sending out $40 million in total salary can only take back up to $50 million in salary. Again, Ayton’s contract will count as $15.25 million for the Suns’ outgoing salary, but will count as the full $30.5 million for the receiving team’s incoming salary.
  5. Remember that 2022 NBA Draft picks would risk tampering violations, unless the team used its pick and then traded that rookie after the fact. In both cases, any first-round draft pick’s salary cap hold must be included in the math and framework of the deal.
  6. Make sure that the team trading for Ayton does not exceed $157 million in active roster salary upon completing the trade. If Ayton’s incoming $30.5 million salary (plus the salaries of any other involved players or 2022 first-round picks) puts the receiving team over that $157 million threshold, the deal is illegal.

5. Suns probably aren’t getting equal value in a sign-and-trade

All these restrictions are enough to make anyone’s head spin, which is why it’s worth reiterating: Sign-and-trades are hard to execute, and they historically don’t yield the best returns. Sign-and-trades have the unenviable task of appeasing the trading team, the player in question and the team receiving said player, all at once.

In other words, the Suns would only pursue this path if they’re dead-set on not paying DA max money and want to get some type of compensation for his services. If this is the avenue Phoenix pursues, it’s because they don’t believe he’s worth $30 million a year and think his rim-running skill-set can be replicated by a slightly lesser replacement.

Most likely, this would confirm the idea that James Jones, Monty Williams, Chris Paul and Devin Booker believe Ayton’s best asset to the system was his screen-setting, rim-running, finishing ability, gravity on his rolls and offensive rebounding. Ayton is elite in those areas, but a sign-and-trade would signify they have faith they can somewhat replace his production with a less talented big who simply made all of those areas his main focus.

In terms of appeasing Ayton, a sign-and-trade would also show he fully believes in his potential as a No. 1 or No. 2 scoring option. Most of the teams that could make a sign-and-trade work comfortably are non-playoff teams at the moment. Ayton agreeing to downgrade from the NBA’s best team over the last two years to a current bottom-feeder wouldn’t just be about getting paid; it’d be about wanting to prove he can do more than what the Suns’ system has allowed him to show, which he’s been vocal about since Media Day:

And finally, as for the other team, they’d be aiming to find the right balance of appeasing the Suns’ trade demands for a former No. 1 pick while also avoiding gutting their roster in the process. Opposing teams in a sign-and-trade typically have some leverage thanks to base-year compensation, and the fact that the player being signed-and-traded usually wants out of his current situation.

Because of all this, sign-and-trades are really more of a last resort to avoid losing a free agent for nothing, not a realistic opportunity to deal for Kevin Durant or some pie-in-the-sky superstar.

On a similar note, if Ayton is signed-and-traded, don’t expect any center coming back to Phoenix in the deal to be on that same level. Almost all of the Deandre Ayton sign-and-trade options we’ve discussed feature a downgrade at center to some degree. If it comes to that, the Suns would be hoping to get a serviceable replacement at the 5 and another ancillary piece to help mitigate that loss of talent, prioritize fit and add some of the perimeter shooting, playmaking and individual shot creation that DA currently lacks.

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