Deandre Ayton traded by Suns to Blazers as part of Damian Lillard deal

Sep 27, 2023, 11:25 AM | Updated: 7:58 pm

The Phoenix Suns have traded center Deandre Ayton to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a multi-team deal sending superstar guard Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Suns receive center Jusuf Nurkic as part of the package. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and The Athletic’s Shams Charania were the first to report the trade.

The Suns also received Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson, per Wojnarowski.

Milwaukee dealt Jrue Holiday to the Blazers, who also received Phoenix rookie Toumani Camara, a 2029 unprotected Milwaukee first and swap rights with the Bucks in 2028 and 2030.

Nurkic, 29, averaged 13.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game while shooting 51.9% from the field across 52 games. He signed a four-year, $70 million extension with the Blazers last summer, meaning he has three more years left on his contract. Nurkic is not particularly the most mobile or defensive-minded center, with the majority of his efficiency coming from his scoring and passing in the post, along with his rebounding.

Allen averaged 10.4 points and 2.3 assists on 44% shooting and 40% accuracy from deep last year.

The 23-year-old Little is a wing who was selected by Portland 25th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. Across four seasons, his role for the Blazers has been sporadic and inconsistent. He averaged 6.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 18.1 minutes a night last season and brings a combination of athleticism and length to a forward rotation.

Johnson, 21, was a first-round pick in 2021 who averaged 4.7 points and 1.5 assists per game last year.

Trade rumors have swirled around Ayton’s name for the past two offseasons. Despite the recent noise and uncertainty this summer, the Suns publicly showed good faith toward Ayton. New head coach Frank Vogel spoke highly of the big man at his introductory press conference, as did new guard Bradley Beal.

After signs again pointed toward some likelihood that Phoenix would trade the center, the move has shockingly come with under two weeks remaining until training camp gets underway. Lillard’s departure rekindled Portland’s interest in the potential of Ayton and opened up the possibility of moving Nurkic, per Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro.

Ayton’s departure comes after a 2023 postseason that was a big-time drop-off from his form two years prior and an overall regression from his level of play in the regular season. Conversations about Ayton’s effort and engagement that were often just held locally in the Valley for years had gone national, with his inability to be fully engaged happening during the bright lights of the postseason while everyone was watching.

Statistics rarely tell the full story of Ayton but his lack of production was a stark difference. He averaged 13.4 points and 9.7 rebounds while shooting 55% from the field in 10 playoff games. Against Nikola Jokic in the second round, a matchup Ayton had success with in the past, he posted 10.8 points and 8.2 rebounds a night in five outings.

It all follows an eventful couple of years.

The 25-year-old center moves on after there was rampant speculation about his future in the summer of 2022. Ayton failed to agree with Phoenix on a contract extension in Oct. 2021, leading to him becoming the second No. 1 overall pick since 1985 to hit restricted free agency.

Ayton’s 2021-22 season would end as he checked out of Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Dallas Mavericks by getting into it verbally with former head coach Monty Williams on his way to the bench. Williams would say afterward the matter was internal.

The offseason arrived and Ayton would agree to a four-year maximum offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers, only for the Suns to immediately match it to retain Ayton. The contract inked Ayton down for four years and $133 million, less than the max Phoenix could have signed him to of a deal worth up to $207 million over five years.

The question, of course, was if Ayton and Williams were cool. Instead of Ayton or Williams dousing that fire out in training camp, Ayton tossed gasoline on it by telling reporters he and the head coach hadn’t spoken since the Game 7 loss. Williams downplayed it, saying he was giving other players space too.

While the head coach and center appeared to be back to normal and on speaking terms throughout the season, the team trended in a negative direction.

With a handful of key injuries in the first half of the season and the decline in play of All-NBA point guard Chris Paul, Ayton was unable to establish a bigger role and consistently impact games as an every-night No. 2 to Booker. As the case had been since Ayton was drafted, some of this appeared to be on Ayton and there were also some fingers deservedly pointed at how he was utilized within the offense.

But in February, Phoenix was back a few games over .500 and then acquired Kevin Durant, firmly setting realistic expectations for another championship pursuit. Ayton, however, never got into gear and a reemergence of his tremendous two-way impact in the postseason did not come.

With all that said, Ayton has proven himself as a very good NBA center and that part of the conversation is what has made him one of the most polarizing athletes in the history of Valley sports.

As Ayton showed in the 2021 run to the NBA Finals, he can be a game-changing force, capable of outplaying a league MVP (Jokic) and staying on the floor against perimeter-based small-ball teams like the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.

Ayton’s 2022 postseason summed up the experience well. He played the best offensive basketball of his life against the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round, stepping up when Phoenix was missing Booker in a series the Suns could have easily lost. But in the following series against a Dallas Mavericks team that lacked the size to match up to Ayton, his presence within each game waned, as it did across this last playoff run as well.

Ayton quite simply failed to reach his sky-high potential in five years, an upside in his game he did show a fair bit over his time in a Suns uniform. If he was able to consistently channel a high level of force, something that did pop up at times, Ayton would have many accolades to his name already. That is why Portland acquired Ayton and it is not foolish for them to believe they can get the best out of Ayton, if not just the consistent production Ayton had prior to this season as a top 5-10 center leaguewide.

The huge move follows another earlier this offseason when Phoenix acquired Beal from the Washington Wizards in exchange for Chris Paul, Landry Shamet, six second-round picks and four pick swaps.

The Suns had limited maneuverability to upgrade the team around Devin Booker and Durant, and with the Beal trade, Phoenix was cemented into only having veteran’s minimum signings added through free agency.

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