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It was looking dicey for a minute there — okay, apparently it was three minutes — but Deandre Ayton will remain with the Phoenix Suns for at least the next six months.
On Thursday, it was reported that Ayton had agreed to a four-year, $133 million max offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers. After he officially signed it, the Suns had 48 hours to decide whether to match and keep their restricted free agent. They wasted no time in doing so:
Ayton may have missed out on the five-year, $177 million max he wanted from the Suns last offseason, but he finally got his big payday and will be returning to a 64-win team that looked like the league’s overwhelming title favorites until their inexplicable playoff collapse.
As the dust settles on a splashy move with plenty of ripple effects, additional questions move to the forefront. What does this mean for DA and the Suns going forward? How should Phoenix round out its roster from here? And is the Kevin Durant dream really dead? Let’s try to find some answers for all these questions now that Ayton is returning to the Valley on a four-year max.
What this means for Deandre Ayton moving forward
For starters, every year of Ayton’s new contract is fully guaranteed, with no player options. Here’s how the money breaks down over the next four seasons:
- 2022-23: $30,913,750
- 2023-24: $32,459,438
- 2024-25: $34,005,126
- 2025-26: $35,550,814
- Total: $132,929,128
In terms of restrictions, because the Suns matched his offer sheet, Ayton cannot be traded until recently-signed free agents become trade-eligible on Jan. 15, 2023. DA also has veto power over any trade for a full calendar year, and because the Pacers signed him to an offer sheet, he cannot be traded to Indiana under any circumstance for a full year.
Before the Ayton offer sheet, the Suns had 12 players on fully guaranteed contracts, accounting for $134.7 million against the cap. Including Jock Landale’s partially guaranteed contract, which becomes guaranteed on Jan. 10, 2023, that bumps up to 13 players and $136.2 million. Either way, the Suns were already above the NBA’s $123.6 million salary cap, so any reasonable Ayton extension was always going to push them into the luxury tax.
DA’s new deal, which will pay him $30.9 million in the first season, pushes the Suns about $16.9 million over the league’s $150.3 million luxury tax line. For the first time, owner Robert Sarver is paying the tax, backing up what general manager James Jones said about Phoenix’s potentially expensive offseason a few months back:
“That’s a part of the business: As your team improves, typically your payroll increases,” Jones said. “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.”
Suns won the long game…if they can repair the relationship
From a purely business perspective, the Suns wound up winning their negotiations with DA. Before the start of last season, they reportedly offered Ayton a four-year max but were unwilling to meet the five-year, designated rookie max extension he wanted. They were vindicated in doing so and ultimately matching Indiana’s four-year offer less than a year later: That $132.9 million total is less than the five-year max Phoenix could’ve offered, and it’s less than the four-year max Phoenix could’ve offered too.
Not matching and letting a top 5-7 center walk for nothing would’ve been malpractice, but interestingly enough, the Pacers didn’t do very much to dissuade the Suns from doing so. According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Indy’s max offer sheet did not include a player option in the final year or a trade kicker — both of which are typically used as a means to disincentivize teams from matching.
Ultimately, the Suns kept a player they had publicly touted as being part of their future. While the Kevin Durant trade rumors immediately made everyone except Devin Booker expendable, once DA’s offer sheet arrived, Phoenix quickly went into overdrive to make sure everyone knew they still valued him.
Not only did Jones repeatedly emphasize over the last few months that they wanted to keep Ayton, but the speed with which they matched the offer sheet, plus the immediate leaks that followed, all suggested the Suns knew what they were doing on the financial side. It’s officially damage control time:
One has to respect the gamesmanship from the Suns, who wound up not having to overpay Ayton on a five-year max, retained their guy at a slight discount, and kept themselves in the KD sweepstakes by not adding a second player on a designated rookie max extension to their roster.
However, as much as Jones played the long game well, none of it matters if Deandre Ayton doesn’t want to be in Phoenix anymore. His sideline spat with coach Monty Williams in the team’s Game 7 blowout loss is no secret, and Williams offered little insight or comfort in the situation’s aftermath, simply saying, “It’s internal.”
The day after that Game 7 defeat, Williams said he and DA had not spoken directly about the incident. Of course, that was two months ago, so the two could’ve easily cleared the air by now. Williams is respected throughout the league for his ability to handle egos and relate to his players on an intimate level, and if anyone’s up to the task of repairing fractured relationships, it’s him.
However, both he and Ayton have to want to make this work, whether that’s for the next four years or just until Jan. 15, when DA’s eligible to be traded. For all the doom and gloom over how the season ended, the Suns were still a 64-win juggernaut that should have won a title until they imploded from the inside. Healing those insides is no easy task, nor is it a given that DA even wants to be back.
But Ayton has gushed over Williams, Booker, Chris Paul, the Suns and the city of Phoenix in general over the last few years. He’s repeatedly said he wants to remain in the Valley, and now, the combination of winning and a new payday could be enough to mend those bridges. For the Suns’ sake, the path to healing starts now, because otherwise, a messy couple of months leading up to January could very easily rot this group’s chemistry from the inside, hurt Ayton’s trade value and seal up Phoenix’s title window with Paul still in the picture.
The Kevin Durant dream isn’t dead, but it’s much more difficult
On a related note, Jones really needs Ayton and the Suns to play well for the first few months of the season — not just because he took a gamble on not paying DA and hoping he wouldn’t take it personally, but also because it’s hard to concoct a Kevin Durant trade without Ayton being involved.
For the time being, it’s hard to see how the Suns work something out with the Brooklyn Nets in the near future. Ayton is off limits until mid-January, and while Phoenix could compile the requisite $36 million or so in salary that’s required to take on KD’s contract, there’s still the question of whether they can provide enough value for Brooklyn.
Thanks to Indiana’s offer sheet, it’s almost impossible to imagine a world where the Suns trade for KD and don’t have to give up Mikal Bridges. Ditto for Cam Johnson, and ditto for Phoenix’s first-round picks over the next seven years. The Suns would likely have to give up four unprotected firsts and three pick swaps just to get Brooklyn to the bargaining table, and that’d still require a third team to provide the Nets an enticing young player (all while still getting compensated for their participation).
It’s not impossible, of course. Finding a way to re-route Donovan Mitchell to Brooklyn and compensating the Utah Jazz for dealing away the face of their franchise feels like the most plausible path to landing KD, but it’s still an uphill battle without DA being involved.
Thanks to the pick-heavy hauls that the Jazz got for Rudy Gobert and the San Antonio Spurs got for Dejounte Murray, the market has been set. A package that’s primarily build on draft compensation won’t be good enough. If Gobert and Murray are driving in a treasure chest of first-rounders, four picks and three picks swaps alone won’t be enough to get KD, even as the Suns gut their roster to match salaries.
Now that the Suns have matched Ayton’s offer sheet, they could potentially revisit these KD trade scenarios after Jan. 15, when DA is trade-eligible again. But the Nets reportedly weren’t interested in DA to begin with, and in terms of third parties who could facilitate a KD trade by taking on Ayton, Indiana’s offer sheet getting matched just eliminated the Pacers as a potential landing spot before the trade deadline.
Further complicating matters, Ayton would have veto power over any trade he didn’t like, and given the way this situation has unfolded, Phoenix could waste half a season dealing with constant trade rumors and potential locker room problems if he and Monty are unable to bury the hatchet.
In short, the Kevin Durant dream isn’t dead, but it may have to be put on the back burner for a while, especially if the Suns are unable to repair their relationship with Ayton. And even if it does happen, Phoenix doing the right thing and matching DA’s offer sheet effectively ensures that any trade for Durant would have to include Bridges.
Filling out the rest of the roster
So the question is, if the Suns don’t wind up with Kevin Durant before the season, how do they fill out the rest of the roster? Running it back certainly isn’t the sexiest option, given the way their playoff run ended, but that’s the way the stars are aligning now.
Phoenix currently has 14 players on the books: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Landry Shamet, Dario Saric, Cam Payne, Cam Johnson, Torrey Craig, Bismack Biyombo, Damion Lee, Josh Okogie and Jock Landale. Landale’s contract isn’t fully guaranteed, but in terms of free-agency signings, the Suns are already close to being done, especially if they do right by Ish Wainright soon.
Even after bringing Biyombo back and snagging the underrated Landale, losing JaVale McGee to the Dallas Mavericks hurts. He was a hyper-productive backup center behind Ayton, and while he became unplayable once the playoffs started, the Suns will miss the depth and aerial threat he brought to the backup 5-spot. A healthy Dario Saric could be extremely helpful here, but coming off two knee injuries, it’s a difficult ask, and he’s a very different backup center than McGee.
Aaron Holiday never got his chance, but losing him to the Atlanta Hawks ensures Phoenix won’t have someone else to turn to at the backup 1-spot if Cam Payne disappears again.
At this juncture of free agency, the pickings are slim. The Suns were right to prioritize Durant above all else as soon as he listed Phoenix as his preferred destination, but in doing so, almost all of the quality players that could’ve been signed with the mid-level exception are gone already.
The Suns badly needed an upgrade behind Chris Paul, but of the seven point guards we listed a few weeks back, the only one remaining — Dennis Schroder — is also the most volatile of the bunch. The Suns did well to land one of our wing targets, Josh Okogie, for the minimum, but the other 13 were already scooped up. Ayton’s return makes this less of a priority now, but all eight stopgap bigs we covered are gone too.
Phoenix still has its $6.5 million taxpayer MLE to work with, which could go up to three years and $20.4 million. However, there really aren’t many options left on the open market that are worth that type of investment.
With Iffe Lundberg heading back to Denmark and Elfrid Payton being completely expendable, one logical play might be devoting a minimum deal, the bi-annual exception or a small part of the MLE to Schroder. The Suns still need a third point guard, and he built a connection with CP3 during their time together on the Oklahoma City Thunder. They could also just keep the newly-acquired Landale, re-sign Wainright and sign Summer League standouts Louis King and Oliver Sarr to two-way contracts.
In any case, don’t expect the Suns to make a big signing to round out the rest of their roster, because truth be told, it just isn’t there. We’ll go over some non-KD options in the coming days, but Phoenix’s best avenue to fortifying their playoff rotation is still on the trade market.
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