EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Complications from Deandre Ayton’s offer sheet are Suns’ own doing

Jul 14, 2022, 4:26 PM | Updated: 8:48 pm
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns walks off the court following the NBA game at Footprint Cente...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns walks off the court following the NBA game at Footprint Center on October 27, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Kings defeated the Suns 110-107. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns messed around and found out.

Last October, they did not give 23-year-old franchise center Deandre Ayton the five-year, $172.5 million max contract extension he wanted, thus making him a restricted free agent this summer. And after Ayton agreed to a four-year, $133 million offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, that decision is screwing them over on multiple fronts we couldn’t have imagined at the time.

As I wrote back then, not paying Ayton added unnecessary unease. While it was debatable whether or not Ayton deserved the max (and I thought he did), the only logical benefit to not signing him to that deal was less money on the books. This is the reality of operating as a team over the cap, and Phoenix is now in a position where it has to match the offer sheet to not lose Ayton for nothing.

We are learning right now why this ties up the Suns so much beyond the hand-wringing process of restricted free agency and why it was foolish not to just sign him to the max, even if they believed he wasn’t worth it.

To establish the obvious, they have hesitations about Ayton. They made a point of that when they didn’t agree to terms with him last fall. So, if Phoenix had hesitations, it could have simply signed Ayton to maintain maximum flexibility and see how the next season played out. It is a different version of the reality it chose, anyway.

If those hesitations only grew stronger, the Suns could more than easily find a trade market for arguably a top-five player at his position with plenty of potential still left to tap into (and get a much better return than a sign-and-trade). If Ayton’s performance made the hesitations far weaker, great, you’ve got the center you wanted Ayton to be.

Instead, the Suns threw themselves into a position where the value of dealing Ayton would take a significant hit in sign-and-trades.

Or, in the unforeseeable portion of our ride, they take a massive blow in trade negotiations for a superstar that would like to come to Phoenix.

That is, rightfully so, the initial reaction to Ayton’s offer sheet. His future with the Suns seemed over, and even more so after news broke that Kevin Durant asked to be traded from the Brooklyn Nets.

Reports would follow in the news cycle that Brooklyn was not interested in Ayton, but Ayton being re-routed to another team and that team providing the assets to push a Durant trade over the top felt necessary.

That is speaking from a value standpoint. But also from a money standpoint now when we try and hypothetically come up with a trade not involving Ayton.

If Durant’s preference for Phoenix is strong enough to push a deal over the line even when the Suns don’t have the best offer, that means they would either have to 1) get lucky with a three/four-team deal filling in salaries or 2) gut their roster in the way general manager James Jones does not want to do.

On top of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson absolutely having to be in there, important names either in next year’s rotation or in trades to fill other roster needs like Jae Crowder, Dario Saric and Landry Shamet will have to feature more prominently in the discussion.

And, to go back to value, no more trying to get fewer first-round picks or pick swaps than the max allotment. That seems out the window, and again, would make it more difficult to acquire another ball-handler.

If the Ayton offer sheet is matched and Durant is brought in, Phoenix would likely be paying one of the highest luxury tax bills next season. Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro reports the Suns would be willing to do that. A lack of past precedent produces skepticism.

The only other logical strand off not maxing Ayton was avoiding having the maximum of two max designated rookie-scale-contract players so they could potentially acquire one on the trade market if the opportunity arose. That was always a pipe dream, and in hindsight, the thinking was for different reasons.

As we’ve learned with the Durant sweepstakes, Ben Simmons’ max contract in Brooklyn makes things more difficult because teams cannot trade for two of those players. Ayton on that deal would have crossed him off ball clubs like the Nets with one of those guys they’ve acquired already. Sure, that makes sense. I highly doubt, though, that it would have greatly restricted Phoenix’s ability to trade Ayton.

Ever since head coach Monty Wiliams said after the Suns were eliminated that a back-and-forth with Ayton was “internal,” the penmanship for the writing on the wall regarding Ayton’s uncertain future improved.

And yet, we were always accepting the possibility that Ayton could be back. So, if he is, now what?

Ayton should be pissed there was a lack of commitment from his team that has been multiplied since extension talks. Ayton handled it very well last year with the media, speaking with a high level of professionalism and producing hardly any quotable angst on the situation.

But if he was upset and is even more this upcoming season, will it affect the chemistry of a group that gets an immeasurable boost from being such a tight bunch?

For as much as the chance of “running it back” induces eye rolls from some of the fanbase, a slightly tweaked version of last year’s roster is still a really good basketball team that could win a championship. It would not be the favorite. It would, however, be in the running. There is a lot at stake.

The title window is still open. Having Chris Paul at the age of 37 encourages a now-or-never mentality on that window.

It has been complicated even further because of Ayton’s offer sheet, and the Suns only have themselves to blame.

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