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3 immediate takeaways from Suns' surprising Deandre Ayton trade for Jusuf Nurkic

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
September 27, 2023
The Phoenix Suns have traded Deandre Ayton to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a 3-team Damian Lillard trade with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Phoenix Suns are set to officially part ways with the only No. 1 overall pick in franchise history. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Suns have agreed to trade Deandre Ayton to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a larger deal that will send Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks.

In exchange for their 25-year-old starting center, Phoenix will receive Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson from the Blazers, as well as Grayson Allen from Milwaukee. Ayton, Suns rookie Toumani Camara, Jrue Holiday, a 2029 first-round draft pick from Milwaukee, and two Bucks pick swaps in 2028 and 2030 will go to Rip City, while the Bucks get Dame.

Last Thursday, PHNX Sports reported on the Suns’ emergence as a “dark horse” team to facilitate a larger trade revolving around Lillard. Less than a week later, the three teams reached an agreement, with Milwaukee unexpectedly swooping in to win the Dame Sweepstakes. The Suns now have 17 fully-rostered players, which means two need to be cut.

Ayton — who averaged 18.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 30.4 minutes per game on 58.8 percent shooting last year — now joins a rebuilding Blazers squad as a fellow young cornerstone alongside Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe. He regressed defensively and in several other areas last season, but Portland is hoping a change of scenery and the chance to be a focal point on offense will help him thrive there. Assuming the Blazers keep him, the 23-year-old Camara will also get his chance to compete for minutes on a young team.

For the Suns, this is sure to be a controversial move, and one that will ultimately define their upcoming season. If they finally win their first championship in franchise history, it’ll be heralded as the “addition by subtraction” gamble that got Devin Booker and company to the promised land. And if the Suns fall short, it’ll be eternally labeled as the deal that downgraded the center spot and ultimately doomed their season.

The question is what this trade means for the Suns in a season with title aspirations, what it could mean for the future, and why Phoenix might have made a deal that, on the surface, feels like a loss. Let’s take a look at the potential answers to those questions with some immediate takeaways.

1. Suns hope for addition by subtraction

For all Ayton’s flaws and lapses in focus or effort, he’s a superior player to Nurkic. For many, he represented a better fit for this new-look Suns squad due to his youth, athleticism, rim-running, finishing ability and mobility on the perimeter.

New coach Frank Vogel had been high on Ayton’s All-Star potential and his ability to anchor Phoenix’s defense, and there was some optimism this “big man whisperer” could represent the change of scenery DA needed to get back to the defensive anchor he became during the Suns’ 2021 NBA Finals run.

Nurkic actually checks out as a more active, physical defender on the interior, ranking in the 98th percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions and holding opponents to 3.8 percent worse shooting at the rim, which ranked in the league’s 84th percentile, per The BBall Index. Ayton, by comparison, ranked in the 76th percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions and held opponents to 2.9 percent worse shooting at the rim (80th percentile).

However, this is where the eye test is important. Nurkic is immobile on the perimeter, and while the advanced metrics slightly favor him in this regard, he’s not the defensive-minded big Phoenix needs. The Suns never utilized DA’s mobility on the perimeter properly, typically putting him in a drop on pick-and-rolls. They’ll have little choice in doing so with Nurkic, who could become more of a liability come playoff time when teams repeatedly hunt him on switches.

The question is, can the Suns get by if Nurkic is injured or unplayable on defense? At 29 years old, Nurkic has only played in 52, 56, 37 and eight games, respectively, over the last four years. A fair chunk of those were healthy scratches after a tanking Blazers team shut him down, but those injury concerns matter for a team with championship aspirations.

If Nurkic is a pigeon on defense or gets hurt, Vogel has a small-ball Death Lineup in his back pocket with Durant at the 5. But if that only works in spurts, will Drew Eubanks be a capable substitute? Can Phoenix close out playoff games by going with KD, Eubanks or someone else at the 5?

Overall, Nurkic averaged 13.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 26.8 minutes per game on 51.9 percent shooting last season. He averaged as many blocks per game as DA in fewer minutes, and he may bring a floor-spacing element that Ayton didn’t provide, since Nurk shot a career-high 36.1 percent from beyond the arc on 2.3 attempts per game. Nurkic is a more gifted passer, and he checked out as a slightly more persistent rebounder on both ends on a per possession basis.

For the Suns, though, this individual downgrade may be more about fit than talent. Having a center who’s committed to doing the dirty work — setting sturdy screens, rolling and sealing with purpose, and crashing the glass — may prove to be a better fit than a more talented big who wants more touches without having the offensive skill-set to warrant them.

Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, Ayton entered training camp talking about wanting to do more on offense and even went as far as saying he didn’t like his “big man duties.” Since then, Phoenix has walked a tightrope between trying to satisfy Ayton’s desire to do more with getting him to do the little things that helped Phoenix’s offense — and his own — truly hum.

Nurkic will obviously have to prove himself defensively under Vogel, but that “addition by subtraction” idea extends beyond the court. When the news first dropped, the gut reaction was either the Suns are higher on Nurkic and Drew Eubanks than expected…or they really wanted to part ways with Ayton.

It remains to be seen if this is the more prudent approach. The Suns could’ve sat back and taken the first few months of the season to see how Ayton responded to a new head coach and supporting cast before making a move.

But he’s also entering Year 6 now. Championship aspirations are on the line. At a certain point, it becomes clear whether a player gets it and is still a good fit, or whether they’re in trade rumors year after year for a reason. The Suns revealed their opinion on the matter with this trade.

Behind the scenes, it’s unclear whether the two sides saw eye-to-eye anymore after years of trade rumors and a fundamental difference in opinion over his value and role. Ayton’s relationship with Monty Williams was obviously strained, and DA was well-aware of the social media vitriol sent his way after a lackluster postseason.

His comments about his Bahamian teammates being “the best teammates I’ve ever been around” may have rubbed some people the wrong way, and a simple look at Booker and KD’s body language during the playoffs suggested they weren’t sold on DA having that dog in him. A move like this, a week before training camp, wouldn’t have gone through without James Jones and Mat Ishbia at least putting feelers out to get Booker and KD’s thoughts on it.

Had he stuck around, the Suns were about to enter their third straight Media Day with Ayton’s happiness in Phoenix being a major, distracting story. Rather than trying to walk that tightrope of getting DA touches and still worrying about whether he’d answer the call come playoff time, the Suns opted for a different path. It feels like an underwhelming return, but they might believe this type of fresh start is be the best thing for everyone involved.

2. Deandre Ayton trade brings more contract flexibility

For years, Ayton has felt like the biggest X-factor that could either push the Suns over the top or hold them back from winning it all. Every course of action Phoenix has taken in that time — from not giving him a max extension back in 2021 after the Finals run, to deciding only to extend him once he signed an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers and forced Phoenix to match, to this latest batch of trade rumors — suggested they weren’t high on the idea of paying a center max money.

It was easy to surmise the Suns felt they could get 80 percent of what Ayton provided for a fraction of the cost, and this trade for Nurkic confirms that long-rumored belief. Moving on from the remaining three years and $102 million left on DA’s contract and replacing them with Nurkic’s three-year $54 million deal gives them additional trade flexibility — even if working out a subsequent move in the coming months will present its own challenges.

Aside from Nurkic, Nassir Little has four years and $28 million left on his contract, but his salary for this year is only $6.3 million. Little joins Nurkic ($16.9 million), Grayson Allen ($8.9 million expiring) and Keon Johnson ($2.8 million, $4.5 million team option for 2024-25) as middleweight salaries that could be mixed and matched in future negotiations.

Essentially, the Suns had a roster with four max salaries that were $30 million-plus and a bunch of veteran minimums…with nothing in between. In this deal, they took Ayton’s $32.5 million deal and turned it into a few chunk-sized salaries that could provide additional flexibility before this year’s trade deadline. If Nurkic doesn’t work out, could they flip him and a few other contracts for a more suitable replacement?

Looking long-term, Ayton was also owed $34 million in 2024-25 and another $35.6 million in 2025-26. Shedding that type of long-term salary and replacing it with more easily movable salaries could pay big dividends in the coming years. Aside from their Big 3, the Suns are looking at a bunch of one-year, veteran minimum deals with second-year player options. They’ll need to re-stack the deck and flesh out their depth around their superstar trio at some point. Shedding that $30 million-plus owed to Ayton will help in that regard.

3. Trading Deandre Ayton for more depth

Bringing in four players while only sending out two will require Phoenix to cut two guys. After Keon Johnson, Ish Wainright feels like the most likely candidate to get the axe thanks to his non-guaranteed salary. It’d be a pity to unceremoniously end an underdog story that endeared him to the fanbase, but unless the Suns make a followup move, that feels like the next domino to fall.

The question is whether the Suns moved the needle enough in the depth department to justify downgrading from Ayton to Nurkic. The answer to that question is unclear.

I won’t pretend to be a Nassir Little or Keon Johnson expert on day one, but a look at the numbers lends more credence to Phoenix believing it’ll be addition by subtraction rather than addition by addition.

Little is a 23-year-old, 6-foot-5 wing with a 7-foot-1 wingspan — making him another great fit for a Suns offseason spent targeting length. Last season in Portland, he averaged 6.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 18.1 minutes per game, shooting 44.2 percent overall and 36.7 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts per game.

Like Nurkic (and many of the players on Phoenix’s roster), Little had problems staying on the court. He played in a career-high 54 games last year, only suiting up for 42, 48 and 48 games through his first three seasons. There’s optimism he could become an underrated piece of this trade, but to this point, he’s been a fairly average developmental project.

At 21 years old, the 6-foot-3 Keon Johnson joins a roster that’s already jam-packed in the backcourt. After averaging 4.7 points in 10.4 minutes per game last year on 37.6 percent shooting in Portland, he’ll be hard-pressed to stick around much longer.

As for Allen, his tripping antics have been well-documented already, so we’re going to stick to basketball for the time being. The 27-year-old shooting guard put up 10.4 points and 2.3 assists per game for the Bucks last season, shooting 44 percent overall and 39.9 percent from long range. He’ll provide yet another shooting threat in Phoenix after making 46.9 percent on corner 3s and 41.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s.

In the playoffs, he proved he could fill a bench role capably, averaging 11.6 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting from deep. Like him or not, Allen provides the Suns with an engaged defender and reliable 3-point threat for Vogel to consider for his playoff rotation. And if he doesn’t work out, his $8.9 million expiring salary would be pretty easy to move elsewhere before the deadline.

Overall, it’s easy to feel like this return for DA is underwhelming. But that’s how low his trade value had sunk, and getting a starting-caliber big, a dependable bench irritant and a developmental wing with room to grow isn’t the atrocious package it’s being made out to be. The Suns have more flexibility to tweak their roster as needed before the deadline, and they no longer have to wonder whether this is the year Ayton puts it all together…or worry that this is the year their tenuous partnership completely unravels.

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