EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Report: Suns’ finale could echo Deandre Ayton-Monty Williams dynamic

May 24, 2022, 11:13 AM | Updated: May 25, 2022, 11:33 am

How the Phoenix Suns view restricted free agent Deandre Ayton can be understood by what we know for sure.

The team did not offer a five-year max contract to the big man last offseason, and both Ayton’s side and Phoenix general manager James Jones expressed a frostiness about what little negotiations were had when he was extension-eligible.

Though Ayton put the contract situation aside, the Suns had fine success using other centers this past year before the team lost in the conference semifinals. In their finale, a Game 7 blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Ayton played 17 minutes and got into a visible disagreement with coach Monty Williams, who afterward said the matter was “internal.”

All of that makes it seem the team hasn’t already printed out max contract paperwork for Ayton to sign this offseason.

Nonetheless, Ayton is among the most coveted free agents. As he prepares to receive interest in free agency, the rumor mill might tell us if Phoenix wants to match an offer sheet or work out a sign-and-trade.

Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reports that Ayton’s final public moments with his head coach this season might not be a limited snapshot into their relationship.

The recent Williams dynamic may simply echo consistent word—dating back to the trade deadline—from league sources with knowledge of the situation that Ayton is not particularly a favorite of Phoenix’s head coach. Williams has purportedly griped about Ayton’s waning focus, which some people contacted by B/R said has often been reflected by the ebbs of his playing time.

There’s a stronger sense among league figures that Phoenix brass simply does not view Ayton, or any center, as a player worth greater than $30 million annually.

That sense could be correct as the Suns reportedly at least mulled a potential trade this February that involved the Indiana Pacers center Domantas Sabonis, who was later dealt to the Sacramento Kings. Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro, ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Fischer have all reported Phoenix at least considered such a trade.

Ayton’s consistency has been the linchpin issue in his value.

When it’s there, he’s difficult to play off the court, even in a modern NBA that spaces the floor. When it’s not, Ayton has looked invisible at best and badly attacked by less talented, higher-energy players at worst.

As a non-primary option, Ayton averaged 16.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.0 block with 65% shooting over 35 playoff games. There’s an argument he deserves more touches despite his desire to play on the perimeter instead of attacking using his size and strength.

Regardless of how you view him, the market says he very well could be worth a max deal as a switchable true center.

As a reminder: Ayton’s 2018 draft classmate Michael Porter Jr. — with a negative defensive profile and bad back — earned a max extension last offseason.

Fischer reports that officials elsewhere in the league are curious about whether the Suns would match a max offer from another team because they might prefer saving money on a traditional center. The returning core of Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Mikal Bridges and extension-eligible Cam Johnson could push their salary cap number up in the coming years.

Fischer adds that Atlanta, Detroit, Portland, Charlotte and San Antonio are potential new homes for Ayton, either in free agency or via trade. If it’s the latter, because of sign-and-trade rules, the financials get messy with Phoenix not able to take back as big of salary value with Ayton’s potential max deal starting around $30 million.

“We wanted a max contract and he went out, he was a soldier the whole year, he went out and proved his statistics,” Ayton’s agent, Bill Duffy, told SiriusXM NBA Radio’s Justin Termine and Eddie Johnson last week. “We’re proud of him. A lot of guys handle things differently, but he was very mature about it and the team did well. The team did well.

“As far as that last game, it was an anomaly. Luka (Doncic) just attacked and things didn’t work out (for the Suns). Things will work out for Deandre. He’s a valuable player and there are other teams in the league as well.”

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