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Suns receiving calls on Deandre Ayton as 'dark horse team' to facilitate Damian Lillard trade

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
September 21, 2023
The Phoenix Suns are receiving trade offers for Deandre Ayton and are seen as a "dark horse" to facilitate a Damian Lillard trade.

The Phoenix Suns’ roster is all but set heading into the 2023-24 season. Between Devin Booker, a healthy Kevin Durant, the newly-arrived Bradley Beal, a returning Deandre Ayton, and a revamped bench, the Suns’ only open roster spot as they pursue the franchise’s first championship is a two-way slot.

However, the latest trade rumblings suggest multiple teams are trying to entice the Suns into getting involved as part of a larger trade.

It’s no secret the league is currently in a holding pattern waiting for the situations with Damian Lillard and James Harden to play themselves out. After 11 years with the Portland Trail Blazers, Lillard has made his intentions to leave Rip City for the Miami Heat well known. A recent report from the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson even went as far as suggesting that Lillard would immediately request a trade to Miami if any other team made a move for him.

As for Harden, there are concerns the disgruntled star may not report to Philadelphia 76ers training camp after promises from general manager Daryl Morey were left unfulfilled. The LA Clippers were frequently mentioned as a possible destination, but since then, Harden and Philly have fallen into a similar waiting game.

According to multiple sources who spoke to PHNX Sports‘ Flex from Jersey, trade talks from the most active teams — Philadelphia, Miami and Portland, as well as the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls — are heating up…and many of them view the Suns as a team that could push a potential blockbuster deal across the finish line.

While the Suns lack the assets and/or contracts to trade for Lillard or Harden themselves, one source referred to the Suns as a “mystery team” in regards to their potential involvement. Another called them a “dark horse” to help facilitate a deal as an additional party.

Suns receiving calls about Deandre Ayton

A quick glance at Phoenix’s roster identifies one player as the only sensible trade candidate. Booker and Durant are obviously untouchable. Beal just joined the party, and even if the Suns wanted to move him for some reason, his no-trade clause gives him veto powers. The rest of the role players are on veteran minimum deals and/or ineligible to be traded until Dec. 15 (or Jan. 15, in the case of Josh Okogie).

That leaves Deandre Ayton, who’s been the subject of trade speculation off and on for years now. One source told PHNX Sports that the Dallas Mavericks made an underwhelming offer for Ayton over the summer, and ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported in May that Ayton would be “excited about a fresh start with another franchise” following the Suns’ second-round playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Outside Phoenix, Ayton is viewed as an enticing piece who could help facilitate a Lillard trade. Sources in Portland confirmed that Ayton’s name has come up multiple times over the last few weeks, and PHNX Sports reported last year that the Blazers had interest in the Suns big man. DA only turned 25 years old over the summer, and Portland believes he’d be sellable to the fanbase as a young, former first overall pick with room to grow in the right change of scenery.

The Suns have not been actively shopping Ayton in any way, shape or form, but they have listened to offers to do their due diligence. No one would fault Phoenix for being perfectly content entering the season with DA as their starting center, but talks between the Suns, Blazers and Heat have intensified over the last day or so.

A look at Portland’s rebuild shows why a third team needs to be involved if they’re targeting Ayton. Jusuf Nurkic is the name that keeps coming up, but aside from their salaries not matching, it’d be shocking if Phoenix entertained the idea of an injury-prone, 29-year-old downgrade serving as their new starting center…unless the right piece was attached from another team.

Nurkic actually checks out as a decent interior defender, 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.

But he’s immobile on the perimeter, still has three years and $54.4 million left on his contract, and over the last four years, has only played in 52, 56, 37 and eight games, respectively. Despite nearly averaging a double-double, he’s a negative trade asset at this point. Something else would need to be attached in order to match Ayton’s $32.5 million salary and properly compensate Phoenix for giving up a younger, superior center who’s also a better fit with their roster.

Anfernee Simons is a 24-year-old guard with promise after averaging a career-high 21.4 points per game last season, but his $24.1 million salary doesn’t align with Ayton’s straight up, and it’s too pricy when combined with Nurkic’s $16.9 million salary. The Blazers would most likely value Simons as they build from the ground up anyway, and from Phoenix’s perspective, he doesn’t satisfy any particular need, given how many guards and perimeter scorers they already have.

Scoot Henderson would obviously be off-limits, but is someone like Shaedon Sharpe attainable? It feels highly unlikely. Even if Portland considered letting go of their athletic, 20-year-old wing who showed a ton of promise as a rookie, his $6.3 million salary combined with Nurkic only adds up to $23.2 million — not enough to satisfy the trade math. Nassir Little doesn’t move the needle much for the Suns. Jerami Grant would be a terrific fit if not for the five-year, $160 million albatross extension Portland just handed him.

Suns are currently fine with Deandre Ayton

It would take a compelling offer to get the Suns to reconsider their stance on Ayton. Not only would Phoenix seek a starting-caliber big man to replace DA, but they’d also need additional assets — either a young player with potential who could also contribute right now on a contender, draft compensation to help refill their empty cupboard, or both.

Although the Suns considered trade offers for Deandre Ayton the night of the 2023 NBA Draft, those offers were subpar. One source went as far as calling them “trash,” so the Suns kept their former No. 1 pick through the offseason, adding Beal and a coach with championship experience in Frank Vogel. Vogel, who’s become known as a “big man whisperer” throughout multiple stops around the league, has been high on Ayton’s All-Star potential and his ability to anchor Phoenix’s defense.

Things can obviously change quickly in this league, depending on the offer. Finding ways to incorporate Ayton into the Suns’ offense remains a challenge, and if he doesn’t perform up to par on either end, they would need to tinker their starting lineup with a cheaper option who’s content doing the little things. Outside offers could also escalate given Miami and Portland’s desire to end the Lillard drama.

One source described Lillard’s attempt to force his way to Miami as Kevin Durant’s trade to the Suns all over again. But the Heat don’t want to wait until midseason to land Lillard, so as inevitable as his arrival in South Beach may feel, a source described Miami as “desperate” to get Dame now. The Heat have contacted numerous teams around the league to help facilitate a deal, knowing their current offer for Lillard is subpar. They need to involve a third or even fourth party in order to get over the hump.

In terms of the potential pieces that could be sent Phoenix’s way from Miami, Bam Adebayo would be off limits. Tyler Herro doesn’t move the needle enough on such an inflated contract, and combining with his $27 million salary with Nurkic’s contract would push Phoenix over the limit financially. Miami has tried to move Duncan Robinson for awhile now, and while his contract combined with Nurkic’s works, how much does that really help Phoenix improve? The remaining 2-3 years on Robinson’s contract are all priced at $18.2 million and above annually, which is an overpay for a bench player whose defense becomes a liability in the playoffs.

Caleb Martin is a sensible (though not entirely overwhelming) alternative. He’ll only make $6.8 million this year, with a $7.1 million player option for next season. The soon-to-be 28-year-old averaged a career-high 9.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last year, shooting 46.3 percent overall and 35.6 percent from 3-point range. He’s a capable albeit undersized wing defender, but even if we ignore that the salaries of Martin and Nurkic don’t add up to Ayton’s, is that package really good enough?

A combination of Nurkic, Martin and Sharpe satisfies the trade math for Ayton’s salary, but the Suns would then have too many players on their roster — and too many trade-ineligible players to help alleviate that problem unless they cut a few players.

If the Heat and Blazers don’t have the pieces to satisfy Phoenix’s trade demands, multiple sources cited the Indiana Pacers as a team that’s emerged as a potential fourth party. The Pacers have been working on finding a trade partner for Buddy Hield after the two sides failed to negotiate a contract extension, and as one of the best 3-point shooters in the NBA, Hield could be a desirable (and potentially movable) asset for Portland to get back in a Lillard deal.

T.J. McConnell ($8.7 million) would make sense as an additional piece being sent to Phoenix alongside Nurkic, though more salary would still be required there. Daniel Theis ($9.1 million) fits the same category. It’s worth noting, though, that any deal sending out Hield, McConnell and/or Theis would need to properly compensate Indiana. A package of Kyle Lowry’s expiring deal, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and a draft pick might not measure up to what the Pacers can get for Hield elsewhere.

Myles Turner would be a much more preferable option than Nurkic, but he had a better season than DA in terms of all-around impact, averaging 18.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game on .548/.373/.783 shooting splits. It wouldn’t make sense for the Pacers to move him and get Nurkic in return, and Turner’s $21 million salary would require an additional piece to match up with DA’s contract anyway.

The Toronto Raptors have also been extremely active in making calls. They were previously recently identified as a “mystery team” in the Lillard sweepstakes, and they have experience in dealing for disgruntled superstars without a promise from that aforementioned star to remain in Toronto.

This situation is slightly different from when the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard, however. Leonard was set to become a free agent and simply promised he wouldn’t re-sign with the Raptors after the final year of his contract was up; Lillard is reportedly threatening to sit out and demand a trade if he isn’t dealt to Miami. Whether it’s a bluff or not, that could change the calculus for Toronto.

Whether they’re still in the running for Lillard or not, it’s worth noting that before the Raptors added Jakob Poeltl at the trade deadline, they were enamored with Ayton. Poeltl being sent to Phoenix as a lower-end, defensive-minded, cheaper replacement for Ayton would make some sense on paper, but the Suns would obviously require additional assets. Poeltl can’t be traded until Jan. 15, and the money doesn’t match up either, since DA earns $32.5 million this season and Poeltl will make $19.5 million.

OG Anunoby is another player the Suns would love to get their hands on, but his trade value is much higher than Poeltl’s. Earlier this summer, the Raptors were getting offers for Anunoby similar to the one the Brooklyn Nets reportedly got for Mikal Bridges from the Memphis Grizzlies (four first-round picks).

At this point, one source said offers for Anunoby have dwindled. Toronto has tried circling back to those previous offers, but teams are declining to meet that price. Perhaps that will open the door for discussions with Phoenix as part of a larger deal, but Ayton by himself likely wouldn’t be enough to get Anunoby, let alone Poeltl and Anunoby.

There’d need to be more pieces involved to make the math work too. Anunoby only earns $18.6 million, so a one-for-one trade wouldn’t work even if Toronto valued Ayton that highly. Packaging Anunoby with Poeltl would combine for $38.1 million in salary, which wouldn’t work for even if Poeltl were currently trade-eligible. Anunoby and Nurkic’s combined $35.5 million salaries, however, just barely squeezes under the threshold of what Phoenix could take back in an Ayton trade (110 percent of his salary).

The Suns are currently good as is. They’ve fielded offers, but they’d be wise to only accept a no-brainer package for Deandre Ayton. Outside of landing OG Anunoby, is a deal revolving around Jusuf Nurkic, Caleb Martin and T.J. McConnell is the right one?

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