Focus turns to Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul upon Frank Vogel’s Suns intro

Jun 6, 2023, 5:29 PM

Phoenix Suns Deandre Ayton, Chris Paul...

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns high fives Chris Paul #3 during the second quarter against the LA Clippers in game five of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs at Footprint Center on April 25, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The middle of the NBA Finals isn’t the time for the Phoenix Suns to be aggressively maneuvering to trade away their third- and fourth-best players.

Whether they think it’s the right call or not.

So it would not behoove anyone in the organization to indicate a willingness to trade Deandre Ayton or Chris Paul, two salary-cap albatrosses who limit what Phoenix can build around stars Devin Booker and Kevin Durant.

“Honestly, (president of basketball operations and GM) James Jones handles all that stuff,” Suns owner Mat Ishbia told Arizona Sports’ Burns & Gambo on Tuesday. “I’m going to be involved and get his opinions on it. We have not had a bunch of conversations around that stuff right now.

“First off, Chris Paul is an ultimate winner, one of the best point guards ever to play. Deandre Ayton, an up-and-coming star — he’s already a star — could be a superstar and I think very highly of him. That being said, we have to have all those conversations and understand the overall construct with our team, with our head coach, with our organization, with our organization. We haven’t gone through those conversations yet.”

It’s true that the offseason trade talks won’t ramp up immediately. Paul is reportedly expected to be retained despite having half of his $30.8 million contract non-guaranteed through June 28, and that deadline means those conversations must be done by the end of the month.

How new head coach Frank Vogel, who was formally introduced Tuesday, might utilize Ayton was likely a topic of conversation when he interviewed for the job to replace Monty Williams.

“I think he can be one of the best centers in the league,” Vogel told reporters at Footprint Center. “I know he showed it when (Vogel’s Los Angeles Lakers) played (the Suns) in the playoffs a couple years back and he shot about 80% from the field and deterred every drive, every cut and every effort around the basket.

“He can be a big-time deterrent. There are still areas he can grow offensively but I’m intent on really connecting to him and restoring him to an All-Star level player.”

Vogel has led teams with all kinds of centers, from offensive-minded Nikola Vucevic in Orlando to rigid rim-protector Roy Hibbert for Indiana and most recently a rotation of athletic role players with the Lakers.

And Vogel isn’t blowing smoke when he speaks of Ayton’s stretch of peak performances.

The big man — against a Los Angeles defense letting him cook on rim rolls — really did shoot 79.6% in a six-game first-round series in 2021. Ayton recorded 20-point double-doubles as the Lakers went ahead 2-1 in the series before Phoenix stormed back to win it as the Lakers adjusted to slow Ayton.

To follow, Phoenix’s big man and 2018 No. 1 overall draft pick bested then-MVP Nikola Jokic for the Denver Nuggets and excelled against the small-ball Los Angeles Clippers. NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo put Ayton in foul trouble and worse in the last series of the league year, though nobody would fault Ayton over the credited Antetokounmpo there.

Ayton’s play dipped back to the regular-season inconsistencies over the next two seasons that sandwiched signing a max contract offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers that Phoenix matched.

The playoff version of Ayton from 2021 didn’t re-emerge in the four playoff series since, and neither did an increased offensive role for the center, who is set to make $32.5 million next season. Ayton averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game last year.

“We know the talent is there, we know he’s been that for stretches of his career and I really believe in the role that a player of his skillset, being an elite rim protector and dominant rebounder and the skillset he has offensively,” Vogel told Wolf & Luke on Tuesday. “I really believe there’s a strong role for my system throughout the years that I feel like we can get the best out of him. I look forward to seeing him have a bounce-back year with us.”

Paul appeared in 59 games last season but ended the year with an injured groin in the conference semifinals series loss to the Nuggets.

The 38-year-old averaged 13.9 points, 8.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game, while his usage rate dropped for the second consecutive season.

“The quarterback nature and leadership he brings to the table is just immeasurable, honestly. And the toughness,” Vogel said of Paul on Wolf & Luke. “He’s one of the hardest competitors this league has ever seen.

“When you have guys like Kevin and Devin who are such prolific scorers, you need somebody out there who can really quarterback the action and help the coach put those guys in the right positions to be at their best. I am really looking forward to working with Chris and think he’s going to be a big part of this.”

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