How can Suns improve if they end up trading Deandre Ayton?
With the NBA Finals tipping off on Thursday, the news cycle around the Phoenix Suns has slowed as the team mulls how it will attack the upcoming offseason.
Out here where we don’t know the internal thought process of general manager James Jones’ team, we can only operate by preparing for all possibilities. Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman dig into Deandre Ayton’s potential departure asking this question: How could the Suns potentially improve their roster — or at least stay in the contender mix — if they opt for pursuing a sign-and-trade with the restricted free agent center?
Olson: Kevin! As I wrote earlier this week, there is a good chance we’ve seen Deandre Ayton play his last game as a member of the Phoenix Suns. The franchise can go a couple of different ways with his offseason but the most logical one is a sign-and-trade.
Now, the return on sign-and-trades historically haven’t been great so it is unfair to expect Phoenix to get anything close to equal value in a hypothetical sign-and-trade with Ayton.
You also wrote words earlier this week on potential destinations that make sense. What stood out to you after doing that exercise?
Zimmerman: Big asterisk before we get going. I’m still (maybe in the minority) believing there’s a better-than-50% chance Ayton is back with Phoenix after a lengthy negotiation process or perhaps a match of another offer. On to your question:
The exercise was good to get a feel for what realistically the Suns could get in exchange. Of course, the Suns could be more aggressive and throw other pieces into a sign-and-trade to sweeten a deal, but it gave a good selection of players who would be main pieces coming back. And honestly, it was a little more intriguing than I thought.
Of the guys I covered, O.G. Anunoby from the Raptors, Jerami Grant from the Pistons and even Jakob Poeltl from the Spurs would make me somewhat intrigued about the Suns’ chances next year. None solve their biggest problems — they need perimeter upgrades more than anything — but Anunoby and Grant can add a little something-something. What do you think about my list? Any additions or guys you also liked?
Olson: I think there’s a fundamental understanding that has to be put in the sign-and-tradepalooza multiverse here before we go any further. Something I talk about all the time is how difficult deals are to get done and how, quite often, it comes down to just getting lucky. Do you think teams would have been interested in Tyrese Haliburton in February had they known the Sacramento Kings would consider trading him? Uh, yeah. But the Kings wanted Domantas Sabonis. Twenty-eight other NBA teams did not have Domantas Sabonis. So that was that.
Jones is going to have to operate under a potential Ayton sign-and-trade in the same way he did when he traded down in the 2019 NBA Draft. He not only still got his guy in Cam Johnson but somehow pulled a starting-caliber power forward, Dario Saric, out of thin air with it when he had no other way of realistically getting one.
This is my way of saying the return could be more about using it in another deal going forward. If there are current selections or future picks involved, I would be surprised to see them remain in Phoenix the rest of the offseason. Jones has the expiring contracts of Jae Crowder, Torrey Craig and Saric to work with to facilitate an even bigger trade to give Phoenix the type of upgrade it clearly needs. AND he’s going to have to do that while finding the right team for the right trade. The degree of difficulty here is insane.
So, can Jones find both a rotation piece in a sign-and-trade on top of assets he can use elsewhere? That’s the big question and what I assume is Plan A if the Suns are indeed done with Ayton. With that in mind, something like Poeltl to become the starting center (he’s not bad!) plus one of their younger players with potential like Joshua Primo, Tre Jones or Devin Vassell and a 1st-rounder fits my template.
What say you, man of Zimmer? Is that feasible?
Zimmerman: I think that’s feasible and should be noted that all the teams mentioned regarding Ayton trades have quite a few picks in the end of the first round and beginning of the second. The Spurs have 20, 25 and 38; the Pacers have 31; the Magic have 32 and 35; the Raptors have 33; and the Trail Blazers have 36.
You want to get back a starting-caliber player, and I think it being either a power forward or center would be just fine. You also want a decent pick. For this draft specifically, I think the end of the lottery through the first half of the second round is going to be unpredictable and based on a front office’s tastes. The Suns should be able to find someone who can help them as a rookie, in spurts at the very least. Or, like you said, use that draft pick to redirect into adding a proven NBA rotation player.
That’s why I like the Anunoby or Grant idea to upgrade at the 4 even more than targeting a center-for-center deal. Anunoby specifically has room to grow, is under control for awhile and represents a philosophical shift with an eye toward switchable athletes. You also have more leeway to trade Crowder’s expiring deal — or move him into a reserve role, then use Cam Johnson as trade bait to patch a perimeter hole. It gives flexibility. And Phoenix can fill center by re-signing Bismack Biyombo or JaVale McGee.
Olson: To go back to what you were saying about a lengthy RFA process, that is what the Suns must avoid and I believe they will act decisively to do so. We haven’t even mentioned a third ball-handler yet, the one spot on the team they absolutely must upgrade. Navigating that space in free agency will be an arduous task if Ayton’s fate is still up in the air. Names like Ricky Rubio are there and could be options with whatever mid-level exception the Suns have at their disposal.