Suns

Ayton’s Free Agency Clouds Suns’ Future

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The Phoenix Suns are facing a reality check: they need to retool their roster in the offseason.

The Suns (64-18) entered the Western Conference Semifinals with high expectations after finishing with the best record in the league this season and defeating the Pelicans in their first-round matchup.

But Phoenix concluded their season with an embarrassing 33-point loss to Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

Statistically, the Suns’ didn’t show up to play.

Suns’ Stars in Game 7

  • Devin Booker (37 minutes, 11 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3/14 shooting) 
  • Chris Paul (32 minutes, 10 points, 1 rebound, 4 assists, 1/3 shooting) 
  • Deandre Ayton (17 minutes, 5 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 2/5 shooting) 

Coach Monty Williams benched Ayton mid-way through the Suns’ blowout loss in Game 7. Per Gerald Bourguet, Williams kept his answer vague regarding why Ayton didn’t play more:

Phoenix’s future status as a contender is now in question. Ayton’s pending free agency is at the center of that uncertainty.

Ayton’s New Contract By The Numbers

The Suns had the option to extend Ayton last offseason. Both parties couldn’t reach an agreement on a new deal, however, and now Ayton is entering restricted free agency.

Ayton is eligible for a five-year, $177 million extension with 8% raises after every season under contract. But NBA fans weren’t necessarily enthusiastic to give Ayton a max contract.

Phoenix was in talks with Ayton for a three- or four-year deal at max money, but Ayton’s agent Bill Duffy made it clear that his camp is looking for the full five-year max extension. 

The Suns already need to pay Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges a combined $83 million for next season. This doesn’t include the nearly $35 million they owe to Jae Crowder, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne and Dario Saric for 2022-23.

Phoenix is going to have a hefty luxury tax bill if Ayton re-signs.

Management can go over the salary cap to re-sign Ayton and match any offer he gets. That would slash the team’s financial flexibility down the road and create challenges with improving the roster, though.

Is Ayton Worth a Max to the Suns (or any team)?

The Suns need to ask themselves a couple of questions when it comes to Ayton’s next contract. First, how valuable is he to the Suns heading into next season?

Ayton (17.2 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 63% shooting) took strides this season with his efficiency, post-game and defense. But Ayton looked lost in the Mavs series, with declines in minutes, points and efficiency in the Conference Semifinals.

Ayton has the potential to be Phoenix’s second-best player as Chris Paul ages and becomes less reliable in the regular season. However, Ayton has taken a backseat on offense as the third or fourth option with Paul on the team. Ayton’s defensive upside, particularly his ability as a shot-blocker and switch defender, is also concerning despite improvements this season. Ayton needs to take a big leap on both ends of the court to be worth a full five-year max deal.

For Ayton’s pending free agency, is Phoenix ready to offer $177 million to a player with defensive flaws and an unclear role on offense? Per Adrian Wojnarowski, other teams are giving Ayton their best offer:

Heading into free agency, Phoenix only has the $6.4 million tax midlevel exception. Other than re-signing backup center JaVale McGee and offering minimum contracts to title-hungry veterans, the Suns have no avenue to improve their roster.

But a possible Ayton sign-and-trade is the best chance the team has to make some upgrades heading into next season.

Phoenix could use some more help at power forward and point guard. Crowder is getting older and submitting another inconsistent shooting season. Shamet was unplayable at times, and Elfrid Payton and Aaron Holiday saw just a handful of minutes against Dallas. 

The Suns also need to deal with the oldest elephant in the room– Chris Paul.

Paul will turn 37 if Phoenix returns to the playoffs next season. While his play (14.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 10.8 APG) was superb this season, Paul had a steep decline in three-point percentage and free-throw attempts. Paul ran out of gas this postseason, and history is bound to repeat itself next season if he needs to shoulder a big load on offense.

The “Bright Future Suns” can still wear that label with pride. They went 8-0 in the Orlando Bubble in 2020 and advanced to the Finals last year. Phoenix had a fantastic 2021-22 season, winning eight more games than the No. 2 seed in the West and 11 more than the No. 1 seed in the East. Booker is an MVP-caliber player, Paul is under contract, and the Suns have avenues to make some upgrades for next season.

But time is ticking for both Deandre Ayton’s fate in Phoenix and the Suns’ title window. Ayton’s free agency is going to have a big impact on where the Suns stand as contenders heading into next season.

About Dominic Chiappone

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