DAN BICKLEY

Losing Deandre Ayton for nothing would be disastrous end for Suns’ only No. 1 overall pick

Jul 14, 2022, 3:17 PM | Updated: 8:49 pm
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on...
Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during the second half of the NBA game at Footprint Center on November 30, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Warriors 104-96. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

For the better part of two decades, the Suns were cellared in a state of defiant dysfunction.

Deandre Ayton represents their competency test, proof of what they have learned along the way.

The Suns must match Ayton’s four-year, $133 million offer sheet from the Pacers or they will be branded as fools. Losing Ayton for nothing would be a disastrous end to the team’s only No. 1 overall draft pick, a gift that could’ve been Luka Doncic.

Already, the Suns are getting a notable discount. A maximum contract from the Suns would’ve cost the team five years and nearly $177 million. Thanks to the Pacers, they received kinder, gentler terms. It makes keeping Ayton a no-brainer, at least for the moment.

And that’s what makes Suns fans nervous.

There are obvious complications ahead. If Ayton has his heart set on playing basketball in the icy heartland of Indianapolis, he might be extremely indignant and uninspired over a return to Phoenix. He might feel like the Suns are blocking his path once again. He might become the problem Suns head coach Monty Williams made him out to be in that Game 7 benching and their ensuing sideline spat.

Ayton already knows the Suns don’t view him as a max player. The Pacers just said otherwise, with their checkbook and not their words. Where would you rather be?

Trading Ayton also becomes complicated once the Suns match the offer sheet. The player gets veto power for a year. The team can’t trade him until Jan. 15. The Pacers are out of the conversation for at least a full season. And the free agent market surrounding Ayton wasn’t exactly robust before the Pacers decided to test the Suns’ resolve.

The Suns could be stuck with an underachieving malcontent of their own creation, a player they wouldn’t pay after his historic postseason in 2021, and a player they pondered moving at the ensuing NBA trade deadline, even though the Suns were clearly the best team in the NBA.

But it’s a long way to the 2022-23 NBA postseason. Most experts believe the pursuit of Nets superstar Kevin Durant will extend through the summer and into the regular season. The Suns must play the long game because nothing good is getting resolved anytime soon.

It also means they must pay like never before. And that’s the final frontier for this team and its current owner, who has never paid the luxury tax since it was implemented in 2011, who has twice balked on paying the heavy cost of a championship roster (Joe Johnson, Amar’e Stoudemire).

But this is a different time. In the past three seasons, the Suns have posted a magical Bubble run in Orlando, a trip to the NBA Finals and the best regular-season record in franchise history. Their owner is also the subject of a long-winded NBA investigation, and if ever there was a time for Robert Sarver to open his wallet and tug on the heartstrings, to play from the heart and pay through the nose … well, this is it.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta mornings from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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