Phoenix Suns sell low on Deandre Ayton, bet on addition by subtraction

Sep 27, 2023, 11:54 AM | Updated: 7:13 pm

Suns trade Deandre Ayton to Blazers as Damian Lillard heads to Buck…
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The Phoenix Suns continue to defy traditional thought.

While a truckload of assets in exchange for a superstar is common these days, they sacrificed the heart and soul of a Finals team to get Kevin Durant. With the opportunity to acquire Bradley Beal for an incredibly low price, they capitalized by locking themselves into a rotation without a traditional point guard and now have a third player set to make $50 million in the 2024-25 season.

And now with Wednesday’s trade, they are betting on addition by subtraction after parting with Deandre Ayton.

The return yields Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson. Nurkic is at the same time a clear downgrade from Ayton and a starting-caliber center. Allen and Little are threats to crack the playoff rotation. Johnson has yet to put it together in the NBA after going 21st overall in the 2021 NBA Draft. Given the instant nature of this reaction, there could be more moves to come, something to keep in mind.

It is hardly the type of return that should be expected for someone of Ayton’s caliber. Actually, on second thought, maybe it was?

There is so much information that gets out these days in regards to trade talks and such. But it was the smallest of peeps regarding Ayton.

The big mystery was how low Ayton’s trade value had sunk, with the $103 million left on his contract over three years certainly playing a role.

He regressed last regular season, a disappointing turn in his development after he only got better every year previously. Ayton’s defense was where most of the nosedive took place. For a player defined by inconsistency, his lack of focus was a consistent. He went from a top-five defender at his position to someone who looked like he was still figuring out the fine details of the craft, borderline hesitating on the precise movements he had down pat two years prior. In his fifth season, that was unacceptable.

When the playoffs came around, the drop off became dramatic. Ayton was lost and disconnected. The worrying red flags of his defensive play out of college and in the first half of his rookie season he did an excellent job of eliminating were back. The brainfarts. The extra step out of position. The stares at the ball in the air instead of getting in position to grab it. The whole experience was brutal to watch, and affecting his output on the other end too. In his third postseason, that was unacceptable.

It’s important to highlight the national discourse surrounding Ayton was simultaneously changing for the worse. A change came when prominent media spaces began discussing his low points throughout the playoffs, at times framing their conversations about the Suns strictly around that. We know it’s been that way in the Valley for years. For those asking why that matters, you’d be surprised how often it coincides with what is the hotbed of talks in league circles and front offices as well.

Here’s something people forgot, and I don’t blame anyone because of the fatigue that comes with this particular subject. But we had been here before.

Heading into the Suns’ return to the playoffs three seasons ago, Ayton was coming off a regular season campaign full of scattered efforts, hurting his team more than helping them too many nights. It seemed impossible to trust him for a full postseason. I wrote at the time that “if it happens in the playoffs, they’ve gotta ask themselves if it’s worth taking that chance again in a window of contention.”

Then Ayton was awesome. I penned that he deserved every penny of a max extension and concern faded almost entirely. Two years later, however, after it all resurfaced, the Suns asked themselves about taking that chance again. And they decided they simply couldn’t afford to do so.

Perhaps, Phoenix would have moved on last summer after a bad performance by Ayton against Dallas (that also ended in fireworks with his coach) if a sign-and-trade wasn’t so complicated. A misfire hardly brought up was letting him become a restricted free agent to seal that fate instead of giving him the extension, which would have made him more tradable for much more of a return than it got now since it no longer would have been a sign-and-trade. That’s a weird “what if?” rabbit hole to sink down into, by the way.

The move now in the present solves the aforementioned mystery. Ayton’s value across the league had cratered. Apparently, a starting-caliber (albeit top-25) center and two wings with an OK chance of holding a postseason role was good enough for a guy that was an ever-present impactful player, occasionally even a dominant force across most of the 22 playoff games in his postseason debut (!) at the age of 22 (!!!).

On paper, this does not make the Suns better. Ayton, through all his flaws, is still a good NBA center. Sometimes, he’s very good, and was trending in the direction of being that nearly every night before last season. It’s just that at a certain point the highs were no longer worth the lows, given the stakes at hand.

Devin Booker put forth one of the best stretches of postseason play in the history of the league, and still had to see his center not fully locked in. Durant, likely looking at the best chance he had left at another championship to further cement his resume as an all-time great, got a whiplash-inducing first impression of Ayton’s weaknesses.

Speaking of historical perspective, the front office gambled like the franchise never has before in trading for a 34-year-old Durant, and then the first crack at a ring winds up including that output from Ayton.

Clearly, Phoenix’s frustrations with Ayton reached a breaking point. And when you think about the competitors Booker, Durant and the top two decision-makers in the front office (owner Mat Ishbia and president of basketball operations/general manager James Jones) are, of course they did! How could they not?!

That’s why it was so surprising when July passed and Ayton was still a Sun. Betting on the unknown with him again, given the state of the team, seemed incredibly illogical. It was even more bizarre after the Beal trade, given how much more difficult that would make it to keep Ayton focused by keeping him involved in the offense. Ultimately, Phoenix chose to take a hit on value to avoid making that bet one more time.

This is nothing new for Jones. When he first took over the team in 2019, his first few trades were ones he “lost” on value in order to get the right guys on (or off) his roster. This is a return to that thought process for him.

We have gotten this far without engaging The Ayton Discourse, so for one last time, let’s get knee deep in that slime. It’s necessary to address how this very well could backfire on the Suns.

The funny part about this trade is it will finally, at long last, provide undeniable clarity as to who is more to blame, Ayton himself or those utilizing Ayton in Phoenix. Most of you reading this know where you stand on this by now. But after this, we’ll know.

Maybe Phoenix without him looks borderline high on the court as it huffs breath of fresh air after breath of fresh air while slashing to a basket full of room without a space-eating center there. Not having to worry about doing what they can to keep Ayton engaged or wondering what night they’ll get that version of him could be. That levity could help overcome the discrepancy in the basketball attributes Ayton previously brought while his lack of scheme versatility defensively going out the door lets head coach Frank Vogel bulk up the playbook in his speciality.

For Ayton in Portland, a new start could go down as the latest “this is exactly what he needed,” only to prove unsuccessful in getting the best out of him, just like the arrival in Phoenix of Monty Williams, Ricky Rubio, Chris Paul, Durant and so on did. The cycle persists elsewhere. He’s fine most nights, incredible a few games and then mind-numbingly frustrating for others.

Or, the Suns will clearly be worse without Ayton. The missing guarantees of his finishing around the basket and the gravity of his movements toward the rim prove to be detrimental to the offense. Without his ability in a drop to suffocate a ball screen coverage as one of the better defensive anchors around, the Suns’ defense crumbles, reliant on all-time scoring to contend.

The Trail Blazers kick off a new era led by dynamic rookie guard Scoot Henderson creating instantaneous chemistry with Ayton in the best version of the big fella’s two-man game yet. Head coach Chauncey Billups as a new voice finds a way to get through to Ayton and channel consistency, turning him into the Defensive Player of the Year candidate he always should be, leaving Suns fans to wonder if that’s what Vogel would have been able to do too. The Blazers suddenly catch up with Oklahoma City and San Antonio in the West’s future power rankings.

As someone who often preaches the lack of black and white in just about everything basketball has to offer, this is actually just that.

There will be motivation from both sides wanting to show what was holding them back.

Only one of them will be right.

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