EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns mock offseason: Trading Deandre Ayton, free agent targets

Jun 12, 2023, 7:05 AM | Updated: Jun 13, 2023, 12:56 pm

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during Game Four of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals at ...

Deandre Ayton #22 of the Phoenix Suns during Game Four of the NBA Western Conference Semifinals at Footprint Center on May 07, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Suns defeated the Nuggets 129-124 (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

In the strangest reporting bomb yet that we all sort of knew was going on already, the Phoenix Suns’ situation with Chris Paul and the team’s handicaps ahead of them in a crucial offseason were put on blast. The bottom line is the Suns will either outright waive Paul so they can re-sign him while opening up one exception in free agency, stretch and waive him to create two FA exceptions (while not being able to bring Paul back) or trade him.

Get up to speed on the details within the possibilities for how Phoenix can upgrade its roster through all that here if you’re not already because we’re going to go through a few outcomes in some mock runs to see how things could shape up.

Due to Phoenix’s lack of tradable assets outside of Devin Booker (nope) and Kevin Durant (nah), along with an inability to attach a first-round pick to someone like Landry Shamet because of the Durant trade, it comes down to moving on from Paul and/or Deandre Ayton. Otherwise, Phoenix would only be able to offer veteran’s minimum contracts to fill out the other half of its rotation. That’s not going to happen.

As an introduction, let’s work out of order and start with the base of all these teams with Phoenix’s handful of upcoming free agents. This is so we have something to actually work off and don’t have to fill out an entire roster each go-through, providing us a better idea of what some of the back-half of the Suns’ group could look like.

For the sake of maneuverability on the fine margins, we are axing all the non-guaranteed money. That’s $4.5 million of Cam Payne’s $6.5 million due June 30 and Ish Wainright’s team option, as well as renouncing the rights on restricted free agents Darius Bazley, Jock Landale and Saben Lee. This is just a formality and would not rule out those players re-signing later.

The easy returnees for me that would presumably take the veteran’s minimum to come back are Bismack Biyombo, Landale and Damion Lee. Biyombo can fulfill new head coach Frank Vogel’s defensive asks and Landale proved capable of it as well, while showing some promise for the future as well. Lee is a no-brainer for the locker room, a smart player and excellent shooter who is ready at a moment’s notice when Phoenix has to look somewhere else on the bench for a marksman.

Part of this write-up is going to be taking liberties. There is no way to avoid doing it with these exercises, and I’m going to try my best with it. I’ll start small with Josh Okogie coming back on the minimum.

His shortcomings rose to the surface in the playoffs but Okogie showed a whole lot of value in the regular season. Vogel needs a few versatile perimeter defenders and Phoenix would be better about implementing Okogie as a screener more consistently to get more out of him on that end as well. To that same point, let’s bring Wainright back too on a traditional roster spot to start the year for the first time in his three seasons with Phoenix.

Because I don’t want to take any more liberties in this part, guaranteeing Payne would take the minimum, give me Saben Lee as the 15th man and the third-string point guard. He was legitimately good when in the rotation at the end of the regular season.

So, here’s what we are working with, treating Paul and Ayton as variables that will change throughout, as well as not factoring in Phoenix’s 52nd pick (too unpredictable to know who will be there) and the two-way signings coming (again, who knows):

G: ?, ?, S. Lee

G: Booker, ?, Shamet, D. Lee

F: ?, ?, Okogie

F: Durant, ?, Wainright

C: ?, Biyombo, Landale

Let’s get into the scenarios, beginning with waiving and stretching Paul to open up the most possibilities in free agency. This will be part one of a two-part series, with three other mock offseasons to come in the finale.

To set expectations for those of you daydreaming about Damian Lillard, our goal together is going to be putting a capable supporting cast around Booker and Durant. It’s less about a third banana and more about a handful of guys that can play off them well to contribute in a handful of areas. It’s going to underwhelm some but so did Phoenix not knowing who its third, fourth and fifth (and so on) best players were going to be every night last postseason. We’re going to tighten that up. Let’s dive in.

WAIVE AND STRETCH CP3, KEEP AYTON

Gabe Vincent

(Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

By waiving and stretching Paul, the Suns open up the $12.2 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception, as well as the $4.5 million biannual exception.

Paul’s gone, so we need to sign a point guard. That’s bad news this year. The free-agent class is top-heavy when it comes to capable two-way players on the ball. Let’s take a stab at Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent coming off a breakout postseason.

Vincent’s in a tricky position like Minnesota Timberwolves center Naz Reid where he could very well get more than the MLE, but going beyond that limits them to their own teams and the few organizations with enough cap space.

The most logical step for Vincent would be returning to Miami, the franchise that took a chance on him and helped him develop into the valuable player he is now. Let’s take our one liberty for this scenario and say he wants a new spot on a different contender.

That’s one starter down. How about the other wing with the BAE?

Ah, well. Here’s the thing. Good wings just don’t get to unrestricted free agency these days. It’s rare. More importantly, affordable ones aren’t going anywhere. Take a look at a list of free agents yourself. Surely Kelly Oubre Jr. isn’t taking $4.5 million after averaging 20 points per game, even on a terrible team. Is he a good fit anyway? Run it back with Torrey Craig? Would Jae Crowder with Monty Williams gone?

My best answer in this look is Josh Richardson. He’s bounced around teams for the past four years, usually a bad sign, and would put the small in “small forward.” But he can still do some 3-and-D things, enough for New Orleans to give him 23.2 minutes per game in the last two months of the regular season.

We’re a guard short, so I’m putting Vogel in the room with Dennis Smith Jr. to pitch the 25-year-old on how one year in Phoenix could revitalize his career.

Smith has already partially done that in Charlotte, playing some high-level defense before injuries slowed him down in December. Smith coming to the Valley and playing a defensive pest role off the bench on a contender would do wonders for a former top-10 pick. Keep an eye on where he lands in July. He’s still got a chance to be really good, just not in the way we envisioned six years ago when he had All-NBA upside.

Final look:

G: Vincent, Smith, S. Lee

G: Booker, Shamet, D. Lee

F: Richardson, Okogie

F: Durant, Wainright

C: Ayton, Biyombo, Landale

Conclusion: Eh. We did what we could. Not enough depth and we’d be relying far too much on the Big 3 at the top. I think we have to trade Ayton. Let’s see where that gets us…

WAIVE AND STRETCH CP3, TRADE AYTON

Terry Rozier

(Photo by David Jensen/Getty Images)

We’re all tossing darts collectively in our fake trade universes for what Ayton’s trade value is. Based on how his last postseason went and how the conversation outside of the Valley started swirling more consistently around his lack of effort and engagement (like it has inside the Valley for years), I am going to trend lower than an optimist.

For example, something like a deal with the Indiana Pacers for Myles Turner and T.J. McConnell feels like too much to me. Turner is arguably a better player as it is, and the case for Indiana would be evaluating Ayton as the better “asset” while citing its offer sheet last summer as reasoning.

To use an analogy from the fake trade innovator Bill Simmons, the avenue seems more like getting a few quarters or dimes in return. A half-dollar, like Turner, seems farfetched.

Then again, the NBA is unpredictable. And dumb sometimes. Like, really dumb. At the time two years ago, it would have been a nearly unanimous thought that Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton was just about untouchable and then he not only got traded but traded for Indiana Pacers center Domantas Sabonis. With the benefit of hindsight, the deal was terrific for both teams, but is a good lesson in how we never really know. All it takes is one.

A noteworthy part of this dynamic is Ayton’s one-year veto power on a trade that doesn’t wear off until July, before the NBA Draft on June 22. If Phoenix agrees to a draft-day deal that involves a pick but Ayton doesn’t want to go there, it is out of luck. The draft is normally a big day for the trade market, and teams traditionally want to get its ducks in a row before free agency. The Suns could have to wait on teams that strike out in free agency.

After going through every team to analyze potential Ayton interest and constructing possible deals, I landed on three and we will cover all of them. The first is Ayton to the Charlotte Hornets for Terry Rozier, Cody Martin and the 34th pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. It’s the lone one with a draft pick, so we’ll say Ayton co-signs the need for a change of scenery. For the Hornets, they land Ayton as the third banana in the long-term rebuild alongside point guard LaMelo Ball and who they select second overall, which will be Alabama wing Brandon Miller or G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson.

Rozier’s next team will really tell the tale of what to make of him. The Scary Terry era in Boston when he ate Eric Bledsoe alive in the 2018 playoffs (remember that?!) is a thing of the past but he’s proven as a Hornet that he’s a productive scorer (19.7 PPG since 2019-20) that absolutely launches 3s (eight a game each of the last three seasons!). Phoenix could use a microwave scorer off the bench. Rozier would be a luxurious one with a touch screen.

Yes, Martin is the less talented brother to Miami’s Caleb and that makes me chuckle because of how the Suns drafted Robin Lopez and Taylor Griffin, among a few others. But the dude can play, and more specifically, defend. While it’s nothing offensively that will melt your face off like Rozier, Martin’s got some playmaking chops too.

A knee injury sidelined Martin nearly all of last season, but two years ago before his four-year, $32 million extension, Martin shot 38.4% from deep on 159 total attempts. A little over two per game is not a guarantee he will shoot it above league average but we’ll take a positive indicator!

Rozier and Martin would also let Phoenix avoid the problem of plugging holes for role players every season due to their long-term contracts. Rozier’s got two more years down at a pricey $23-24 million, with a team option for 2025-26, while Martin’s at a very affordable annual average of just over $8 million the next three seasons.

We’re not going to start either of those guys, though. So we’ve got three spots to still slot in. And we need more shooting.

The MLE goes to Miami Heat wing Max Strus. Per Stathead, there were 65 players in the NBA to attempt at least 1,000 3s over the previous three combined seasons, a skill in itself. Strus was one of ’em, shooting 37.1%, tied for 37th among that group. (Rozier, for reference, was 42nd at 36.5%). In my books, what looks like a “fine” or “good” percentage is “great” when considering the volume and level of difficulty on some of those shots.

It’s another small small forward defensively but the BAE goes to Patrick Beverley to shore up the defense and give us our starting point guard.

Oh yeah, I’m serious.

I don’t know if I would like to be backcourt mates with someone who broke my nose during one the most important moments of my life, so we should mention that history for Booker with Beverley, but Beverley’s defense leading Vogel’s scheme and maximizing his value because Booker and Durant can run the offense would be huge. Also, Rozier and Martin offer healthy alternatives as a starting guard in case Beverley doesn’t work out. Beverley’s 3-point percentage has dipped below 34% the last two years after he was in the high 30s for a solid half-decade.

Martin could have a case to start regardless.

For center, I’m promising playing time to Jakob Poeltl, Mason Plumlee and Dwight Powell, hoping one of them takes the veteran’s minimum to start on an awesome team and spark a pay day next summer. That feels rather unlikely, but the center market is usually a wasteland, so I just thought I’d mention to you that I tried.

I’m *gulp* gonna start Biyombo. It’s not great. But Biyombo’s a really good defender still at this stage of his career.

Let’s reunite KD and Uncle Jeff (go girl, it’s your birthday) for Jeff Green‘s 12th team to ignite some small-ball possibilities.

To wrap on the second rounder, Phoenix picking up an early-to-mid second-round pick in a potential Ayton and/or Paul deal would be wise. There’s a reason the Denver Nuggets just did this. It’s a swing on a cheap salary that could end up being a super-valuable piece to a contender if it hits, and the hits have been coming.

Rotation players to emerge from the first half of the second round from 2017-21: Dillon Brooks (45th in ’17), Jalen Brunson (33rd in ’18), Mitchell Robinson (36th in ’18), Gary Trent Jr. (37th in ’18), Jarred Vanderbilt (41st in ’18), Bruce Brown (42nd in ’18), Nic Claxton (31st in ’19), Cody Martin (36th in ’19), Daniel Gafford (38th in ’19), Jaylen Nowell (43rd in ’19), Xavier Tillman (35th in ’20), Tre Jones (41st in ’20), Herbert Jones (35th in ’21) and Ayo Dosunmu (38th in ’21).

Charlotte has three alone in this upcoming draft, so it will be looking to move at least one anyway. For the Suns’ one more bite at the apple, our lottery ticket in the NBA Draft with No. 34 will yield us UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr.

Jaquez plays really hard, gets buckets, rebounds and will bring most of his value in the NBA by being a smart connector. He is a very Suns pick. A four-year player with serious credentials who just knows how to play.

If Vogel told me he believes Reid can be a capable anchor on a title-caliber defense, that’s the initial MLE target over Strus. Not quite sure on that front, though. You could make a case Poeltl is worth it based on what Vogel desires as well.

Our end result:

G: Beverley, Rozier, S. Lee

G: Booker, Martin, Shamet, D. Lee

F: Strus, Okogie, Jaquez

F: Durant, Green, Wainright

C: Biyombo, Landale

Conclusion: If anyone will be happy, it’s president of basketball operations and general manager James Jones. That’s real depth, with a good amount of shooting to go around the two stars. The big issues are at center and with size in general, going a bit guard heavy. I don’t mind it!

Part 2 covers the final three scenarios.

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