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Suns are playing with fire not paying up for Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
October 14, 2021

Two of the three essential pieces of the Phoenix Suns’ young core are eligible for extensions, but the clock is ticking. Coming off an unexpected NBA Finals run, both Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges have earned big paydays. The Western Conference remains wide open. The path to the franchise’s first championship is in sight.

And yet, the Suns continue to play with fire by not getting these extensions worked out ahead of next week’s deadline.

We’ve already discussed max contract options for Deandre Ayton ad nauseam. We’ve broken down how Ayton’s message about his game has gotten louder, and on Tuesday, he turned up the volume a few notches:

“I love Phoenix, but I’m really disappointed we haven’t really gotten a deal done yet,” he said. “We were two wins from a championship, and I just really want to be respected, to be honest. To be respected like my peers are being respected by their teams.”

Those peers Ayton was talking about? First, there’s Luka Doncic, who got a five-year, $207.1 million designated rookie extension from the Dallas Mavericks after he earned All-NBA honors over the last two years.

Then came Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr., who all got the designated rookie extension from their respective teams worth $172.6 million over five years. If they make an All-NBA team this year, that figure jumps to $207.1 million as well.

And therein lies the source of the debate.

Does Deandre Ayton deserve the max?

Looking at the list of players who earned that same rookie max extension over the last few years, Ayton is not quite in the same class in terms of offensive creation or skill-set. He’s not some automatic bucket or a bonafide superstar who can lead a team on a night-to-night basis.

Aside from Andrew Wiggins, whose contract has been universally criticized, every player on the list was in a slightly higher tier as an established All-Star, All-NBA selection or high-level shot creator for a bad team, meaning they had no choice but to pay up for young talent:

  • Jayson Tatum (2020)
  • Donovan Mitchell (2020)
  • Bam Adebayo (2020)
  • De’Aaron Fox (2020)
  • Ben Simmons (2019)
  • Jamal Murray (2019)
  • Devin Booker (2018)
  • Karl-Anthony Towns (2018)
  • Joel Embiid (2017)
  • Andrew Wiggins (2017)

Ayton is a tricky case because he maximized his role on the Suns, which sounds like an insult to his abilities, but is actually praise. With Ayton setting strong screens, rolling hard, finishing everything around the rim and serving as a reliable defensive anchor, the Suns reached their ceiling as an NBA Finals team that came two wins shy of a title. He’s earned the right to expand his game, but truthfully, the Suns don’t need him to do much more than that to be successful.

Ayton averaged 15.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game on 65.8 percent shooting from the field in the playoffs. He was arguably the Suns’ most consistent player through the first three rounds and made nearly 71 percent of his looks around the basket. However, it’s worth noting he was assisted on nearly 84 percent of his made baskets.

In a vacuum, a player like that is highly valuable, but probably not worth that kind of max extension. The problem is, these deals aren’t negotiated in a vacuum; they’re based entirely on market value.

So the minute the Denver Nuggets gave Michael Porter Jr. a five-year max, there was no earthly way Deandre Ayton’s camp would ever accept a penny less. The market set the new price, and whether he’s truly a max player immediately became irrelevant.

Based on the market, he absolutely is.

So now the Suns are at a stalemate with their star center, who’s clearly disgruntled by the lack of respect. Phoenix holding out on the full five-year, 30 percent designated rookie extension was understandable after Doncic and Young got their deals. It was even defensible when Gilgeous-Alexander got his.

But when MPJ surprisingly joined that group, it was time to pay up and keep a player who was not only intrinsic to Phoenix’s success on both ends of the floor last year, but also to what they hope to accomplish over the next half-decade.

According to TMZ, Ayton met with owner Robert Sarver at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort on Monday to talk business. It remains to be seen how that conversation will impact the ongoing contract talks, but Ayton was described as “perturbed, looking stoic and glancing at his phone often.”

What about Mikal Bridges?

For all the consternation over Ayton’s lack of a new deal, the silence surrounding Bridges is just as worrisome. As a player who could become the Suns’ third option as soon as this season, his two-way skill-set is vital to Phoenix’s title window as well.

Last year, in addition to regularly putting opponents in “Mikal Jail” with his defense, Bridges shot a career-high 42.5 percent from downtown on 4.4 attempts per game. He flashed glimpses of his potential in the mid-range and off the dribble, was stellar around the basket and served as the glue guy on both ends.

The only reason his lack of a deal is not being talked about more is Ayton’s people made their displeasure public. On Friday, Bridges was asked about his ongoing negotiations.

“Obviously I want to be here,” he said. “I love the city here. You can see it on my Twitter, I talk about it all the time. I might not like the Cardinals, but I love it here man. I just think you control what you can control. At the end of the day, that’s why I hire agents. They’re like my family, and I know we’re going to do what’s best for me. I think we all know we want to be here, so I just sit there and wait every day and keep improving and don’t let it get to me. You just gotta wait, try to prove as much as I can as time goes on, and that’s pretty much it.”

That kind of response doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility that the Suns have already hammered out a deal with Bridges’ camp and are simply waiting to come to terms with Ayton in order to announce them both at the same time.

Unlike DA, Bridges hasn’t seemed bothered by the situation in training camp. Then again, when asked about it, he couldn’t help but be honest about the situation.

“I try not to think about it as much, but like I said, we’re human beings, and when stuff like this comes up, you can’t just push it to the side,” Bridges said. “I told Coach Monty this: Them guys, coach Monty and my teammates and everybody and that staff in the training room and everybody, chefs — they don’t make me think about it as much. You think you I’ll come in here every single day and know I’m in this facility and think about James [Jones] and [Robert] Sarver and everything, but these guys here, they keep me down. And my family at home, my mom, they keep the pressure off me to not even think about it as much. I just go out here and have fun, laugh it up, and try to get better every day.”

We’ve already laid out contract options for Bridges too, but no one should be surprised by a four-year extension in the $90-100 million range. However, if that’s too rich for Robert Sarver’s blood, and if the Suns still need to iron out deals with both players in the next few days, that’s a serious cause for alarm.

Of course, it all comes back to Sarver. There’s a slim chance general manger James Jones is the one who’s unwilling to spend that kind of dough on a player who was largely inconsistent and unproven until last year’s playoffs, but it’s hard to believe that’s the case given Sarver’s history. There’s a reason “don’t Joe Johnson this” has become a popular phrase on Suns Twitter over the last few weeks.

Deandre Ayton stepped up when his team needed him most, and he did it at the tender age of 22. Bridges could be a two-way star in the making at age 24, and he and Ayton represent the fulcrums of Phoenix’s top-10 defense. The moment MPJ got his deal from the Nuggets, the Suns had no other choice but to pay up for both youngsters. If they’re getting hung up on escalators between that 25 and 30 percent designated max for Ayton, it’d be unfathomably shortsighted to let something so trivial derail the chemistry of a championship-caliber team.

The Los Angeles Lakers are old. The Denver Nuggets won’t have Jamal Murray back until the playoffs in a best-case scenario. Ditto for the LA Clippers and Kawhi Leonard. The Utah Jazz routinely fall short in the postseason, the Brooklyn Nets are dealing with Kyrie Irving’s soap opera and the Milwaukee Bucks, while still an ever-present threat, aren’t untouchable. This is the closest the Suns have ever come to winning a title, and at age 36, Chris Paul’s window won’t stay open for ever.

The time to go all in is now.

The last thing a title contender needs is off-court distractions, especially when it’s such a cohesive unit that gets along like Monty Williams’ group. Phoenix could match any offer for Ayton and/or Bridges in restricted free agency next summer, but if extensions aren’t reached before next Wednesday, their contract situations will loom over the entire season. Both will feel undervalued, and uncertainty about the future could cloud the present. Winning cures all, but Ayton’s comments have been the biggest Suns story over the last week. That type of distraction could derail a team full of young players who are learning for the first time that the NBA is a business.

But even from a business perspective, it’s in Sarver’s best interest to pay up and keep two young cornerstones around for the foreseeable future. They’ve earned their paydays, this team needs them locked in to compete for championships, and it would put everyone’s minds and feelings at ease.

After years of taking the cheaper path, after a decade without a playoff appearance and after 53 years without a title, it’s time for the Phoenix Suns to avoid past mistakes, suck it up and give both Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges the hefty extensions they deserve.

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