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In 54 years as a franchise, there is not a single player or topic that’s been more divisive among the Phoenix Suns fanbase than Deandre Ayton.
His mere existence as the No. 1 selection in the 2018 NBA Draft made him an immediate lightning rod for debate, and not just in the usual way first overall picks are scrutinized. His play always falls under the microscope, continuously compared to Luka Doncic, the bona fide superstar who was drafted just a few picks later. Through his first four seasons, Ayton has taken his harshest critics and most devout supporters alike on a never-ending roller coaster ride.
Last year, Playoff Ayton emerged, helping buoy Phoenix to its third ever NBA Finals appearance and vindicating his believers in the process. This year, the script completely flipped, with DA’s inconsistencies rearing their ugly head again at the worst possible time…against the worst possible opponent.
Now that the Suns have abruptly dumped the 2022 offseason on our doorstep with the worst playoff loss in franchise history, it’s time to start tackling some complicated, unpleasant questions. First up on the list: Deandre Ayton’s upcoming free agency, what he’s worth to Phoenix, what their options are when it comes to retaining him, what their options are for cutting him loose, and why his future in the Valley is so murky.
Game 7 exacerbated Suns’ 2018 decision
For years, Ayton’s biggest fault hasn’t been anything he’s done in Phoenix, but rather, what Doncic — the player the Suns should have taken with that No. 1 pick — is doing.
That was true before the 2022 NBA Playoffs, and it’s even more glaring now after an elimination game where his own head coach allegedly accused him of quitting on the team:
While Doncic was torching the Suns on their home floor for 35 points on 12-of-19 shooting in just 30 minutes of Game 7 action, Ayton managed just 5 points and 4 rebounds on 2-of-5 shooting.
He wasn’t the only Sun who no-showed that horrendous loss, nor should he be the scapegoat for it. We’re probably not talking about any of this if Chris Paul had been himself and Phoenix had closed in five games after taking a 2-0 lead. But Ayton’s lackluster effort on both ends of the floor just minutes into a do-or-die game was still frustrating, mostly because it was emblematic of the bouts of inconsistency that have been an issue throughout his first four years in Phoenix.
One of the tell-tale signs of a great Deandre Ayton performance is the way he asserts himself in the routine big-man tasks that allow him to be dominant. When he’s screening hard, rolling with purpose, running the floor after defensive stops and crashing the offensive glass with a sense of urgency, he’s one of the most unstoppable centers in the NBA.
Which makes it that much more frustrating when he doesn’t bother running down court two minutes into an elimination game:
Or when he jogs back on defense:
Or when he allows himself to be boxed out by drifting into a smaller body rather than darting into open space:
Ayton is far from the only one with shameful clips from Sunday, and in his defense, the Suns did a horrific job of running offense — any offense — in the first half. Game 7 jitters dominated the early proceedings, Devin Booker was continuously trapped, Chris Paul seemed hampered by his secret quad injury, and Phoenix looked shook after misfiring on their first few shots while Doncic drilled his first three attempts.
The Suns were too busy trying to draw fouls and throw up prayers to actually run the top-five offense that got them to this point. As a result, DA didn’t attempt his first field goal until eight minutes into the game. Whether the “I can’t pass myself the ball” lip readings are accurate or not, all season long, Phoenix appeased a former No. 1 pick who sacrificed touches for the good of the team. They straddled the line between keeping him engaged by letting him do more than traditional “big man” stuff, and relying on his screens, rolls and gravity to free things up for everyone else.
In Game 7, the Suns failed in that tightrope act. So did Ayton. When there’s this much real estate to work with, this needs to be a flash to the middle, seal and easy hook shot:
And even when he set a screen with good contact, his roll was delayed and the touch wasn’t there:
Much like this entire situation, Game 7 represented failure for both parties. Sunday was the culmination of months-long tensions over contract talks, and their season-long balancing act ultimately boiled over in the third quarter when coach Monty Williams apparently asked Ayton to go back in the game and he declined.
The two had to be separated by assistant coaches after words were exchanged:
When asked about why DA only played 17 minutes, Williams responded curtly, “It’s internal.” He may not have come out and confirmed the “you freaking quit on us” quote, but the use of the word “freaking” may be as good an indication as any that Williams probably did say it.
Even worse, as of Monday afternoon, the two had not directly reconciled in the aftermath of that incident. Williams said he spoke to the team Monday morning, but not to Ayton individually.
“You guys know me well enough, like, I’m gonna do everything I can to help us win games,” he said of his decision to bench Ayton for the rest of Game 7. “At that point, with the lead where it was, I made a decision to not put him back in the game. I’ll keep all of the internal stuff internal, but it was just a decision that I made. And I also got to a point where I didn’t feel like Chris and Book were gonna help us on that particular night. I do understand the question, but no, we haven’t talked. I talked to the team today, but I have not talked to DA personally.”
Ayton did not speak to the media after Game 7 or on Monday. But even before these final grams of salt in the wound, it was impossible not to think about the ripple effects of Phoenix’s 2018 draft decision, which ultimately drowned the Suns in a Luka Doncic tidal wave.
“I think they did that for the year that they got drafted, and I think they do that every year, but between each top picks,” Booker replied when asked about the Ayton-Doncic comparisons. “So it’s something that just goes along. I think they’re both focused on their own careers. Obviously probably have a little motivation there, just like I look back at the 2015 draft and say, ‘Oh, I was better than him, I thought I should’ve got drafted then.’ That’s just the nature of the game.”
Last year, Ayton’s dominant first postseason propelled a Finals run and moved the needle towards sanctuary for the Suns’ fateful draft decision back in 2018. DA wasn’t the Michael Jordan of his draft, but if he could be Hakeem Olajuwon Lite — a defensive force who was an All-Star, All-NBA player in his own right and helped his team win titles to make everyone forget they passed up on the GOAT — then Phoenix might be spared the ridicule of whiffing on the undisputed best player in the draft.
Unfortunately, a second-round flameout, complete with a sideline spat, all while getting crunched by the very player the Suns passed on, made for a damning indictment of Ayton getting the max contract he’ll be pursuing this summer.
Deandre Ayton’s market and contract options
With Ayton entering the offseason as a restricted free agent, the Suns have the power to keep him in the desert if they so choose. They can offer him a five-year max contract worth $177 million, and if five years is still too many — as was the case during negotiations back in October — they can offer a four-year max worth $136.6 million.
Meanwhile, other teams can only offer four years and $131.1 million. Phoenix can also match any outside offer to keep him around. There’s no question someone will be willing to offer him a max deal, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed:
ESPN’s Bobby Marks is projecting the San Antonio Spurs, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic as the four teams that will have max cap space this summer, with the Portland Trail Blazers able to join that group if they decide to waive Josh Hart.
Make no mistake about it: All five of those teams cannot be ruled out as potential suitors for Deandre Ayton. Even with his occasional lapses in effort and focus, DA is a top-five player at his position.
He’s a two-way big with elite touch around the basket, finishing 77 percent of his looks at the rim (89th percentile). His touch expanded this season too, as Ayton shot a staggering 56 percent on all midrange looks (94th percentile) and an unstoppable 66 percent on hook shots. Per NBA.com, he shot the third-best field-goal percentage in the league on shots in the paint (non-restricted area) among all qualified players.
Even in a “down” playoff run, Ayton averaged 17.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in his 30.5 minutes per game, all while shooting 64 percent from the floor. The rebounds and blocks were down from last postseason, but at 23 years old, this version of Ayton is hardly a finished product. He’s added to his game every single season, and when he’s fully locked in, the result is a two-way monster that elevates the Suns’ ceiling to “title contender.”
Should Phoenix decide they don’t want to match a max offer sheet for Ayton, or that they simply want to cut ties altogether, a sign-and-trade is another possible avenue to recoup some assets in return. We’ll cover some various options on that front in the coming weeks, but the Suns would hold the power in that situation, only agreeing to send Ayton to a team that can afford to sign him and meet their asking price.
If the outside offers don’t come rolling in, if the Suns try to use that leverage to play hardball in negotiations and not offer a max, or if DA simply wants to take a chance on himself and maximize his freedom in 2023, he can sign for one more year with the Suns using his qualifying offer, which would be worth an NBA-record $16.4 million.
The risk there is getting injured and hurting his chances at a max payday the following summer, but if contract talks end in a stalemate, this last resort can’t be ruled out.
So what will the Suns do?
The question is, as much as the Suns can match or beat any suitor’s offer, is that actually what they want? General manager James Jones is expected to speak to reporters on Wednesday, but when Monty Williams was asked directly whether Ayton is part of the team’s long-term future, his response was less than encouraging.
“Deandre’s situation is something that we’ll deal with this summer,” Williams said. “I don’t want to say anything in regards to that. James and I are going to have conversations about the team in general.”
Players have very little control over these types of contract situations, but Booker offered a similarly tepid response after Game 7.
“His contract situation’s between him and the front office,” Booker said. “I care about him as a brother, so just making sure his mental is right, making sure he’s straight off the court. Just making sure he’s in the right position. We have that type of relationship. Whatever happens, happens. It’s kind of hard to look so far in the future and try to determine your future.”
If this weren’t clear, the ugly way in which this situation has unfolded reveals faults on both sides. As easy as it is to say Ayton “quit” on his team in Game 7, maybe that frustration never reaches its boiling point if the Suns had done right by their big man and given him a max deal back in October — as the market dictated they should have the minute Michael Porter Jr. got his five-year max. DA has admittedly sacrificed more than the typical No. 1 pick, and when he embraced that role during a Finals run, it was understandably insulting that he didn’t get rewarded for it.
Then again, one could make the case that Ayton’s disappearing act in the latter half of this latest playoff series is proof he’s not a true max player, and MPJ is hardly the blueprint Phoenix should aspire to follow. Max deals aren’t handed out in a vacuum, but these playoffs showed how much more valuable ball-handling and shot creation becomes in the playoffs. DA has shown glimpses of being able to put the ball on the floor and create for himself, but for now, those flashes are sparing.
Until he develops into an offensive threat who’s capable of getting the ball and attacking on his own, his value will continue to be maximized at the rim, on pick-and-rolls, on hard dives and on the offensive glass — you know, where the Suns currently use him.
How his ceiling, his personal interests and the Suns’ best interests align at this juncture is a mystery, and anyone claiming to know the correct answer is kidding themselves.
What we do know is the Suns have to get this decision right, since they have several important ones to make in a critical offseason. Last July, owner Robert Sarver claimed he would be ready and willing to pay the luxury tax soon on Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo, but that bill is going to be a hefty one.
With Booker finishing fourth in MVP voting, it’s almost a foregone conclusion he’ll make an All-NBA team, which would make him eligible for a four-year, $211 million supermax extension. That’s a no-brainer for the face of the franchise, regardless of what tier of superstar people claim he’s in following his Game 7 meltdown.
There’s also a potential rookie-scale extension looming for Cam Johnson, which could be similar to what Mikal Bridges got last October. Speaking of Bridges, the first year of his four-year, $90 million extension kicks in next season, starting at $21 million. Ditto for the first year of Landry Shamet’s extension, at $9.5 million.
Between that money, Booker’s $33.8 million, the last fully guaranteed year of Chris Paul’s contract at $28.4 million, Jae Crowder’s $10.2 million expiring deal, Dario Saric’s $9.2 million expiring, Cam Payne’s $6 million, Cam Johnson’s $5.9 million and Torrey Craig’s $5.1 million expiring, the Suns would have nine players under contract for $129.2 million before even taking Ayton’s new deal into consideration.
With the tax line for next season projected at $150.3 million, any extension for Ayton would push Phoenix into the luxury tax. That’s been uncharted territory for Sarver over the last decade, but it’s worth noting their options to replace DA would be severely limited unless they worked out a sign-and-trade for a serviceable starting center and another young wing/guard with a team-friendly salary.
Even then, you could count on one hand the number of NBA big men who are capable of doing what Deandre Ayton does on both ends of the floor. The Suns wouldn’t be able to find someone who could replace all of it, and they especially wouldn’t find anybody with as much room to grow as this 23-year-old.
Essentially, they’d be hoping a defensive-minded, rim-running 5 would lend himself to a system that enhances the play of its bigs while still catering to a perimeter-oriented attack. That replacement would almost certainly be a worse player than DA, but it’d be about plugging holes with additional depth pieces.
There’s a strong case to be made for not overreacting to one bad playoff series where tensions ran high for a 64-win team that had so much at stake. Ayton will turn 24 this summer, Booker and Mikal Bridges are only 25, and Cam Johnson is 26. That core four would be a formidable group to build around with the right Chris Paul successor, even if navigating that territory would be tricky (both financially and personnel-wise for a stubborn competitor like CP3).
Should another team sign Ayton to a four-year max offer sheet, the Suns should match without hesitation. However, those suitors can throw extra wrinkles to dissuade Phoenix from doing so, including trade bonuses and front-loaded deals with fewer years attached, which would allow for Ayton to hit unrestricted free agency earlier, rather than locking him in until 2026-27.
The one thing the Suns cannot afford to do is let Deandre Ayton walk for nothing, whether it’s this offseason or the next. All indications over the last 48 hours — as well as the Suns’ refusal to offer the full max seven months ago — point to DA’s days in the Valley being numbered. If Williams’ system and Ayton’s desire to do more finally led to a breaking point, then it may be best for both parties to move on.
But if there’s a chance to repair that relationship, get Ayton a fair contract and keep the young core of a contender intact, the Suns owe it to themselves to try. He will never be Luka Doncic, and the ramifications of that draft oversight are abundantly clear. But this franchise cannot afford to compound it by making another wrong decision, and unless a blockbuster sign-and-trade materializes, Deandre Ayton’s murky future badly needs resolution.