Suns center Deandre Ayton is a restricted free agent, but after Phoenix declined to offer their 2018 No. 1 overall pick a max contract, Ayton and the franchise have been at an impasse. The 23-year-old center averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds on 63.4% shooting last season next to future Hall-of-Famer Chris Paul and All-NBA First Teamer Devin Booker, yet it's been widely expected that Ayton will leave the Suns since they've refused to pay him the max.
Could his next stop be with the Pacers?
Indiana has been linked to Ayton in free agency rumblings for weeks, and if the Pacers were to land him, he'd arguably be the biggest free agent signing in franchise history. The team already has one cornerstone piece in budding star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, and drafted former Arizona star Bennedict Mathurin sixth overall last month. Haliburton and Ayton could be one of the top pick-and-roll duos in the NBA as Mathurin comes into his own.
However, before the Pacers can extend Ayton a max offer sheet, which Phoenix would have two days to match, they must make room for a max contract. Indiana's projected cap space is $28.2 million, per Spotrac, and ESPN's Bobby Marks estimates that Ayton's max annual salary would be $31 million.
Marks spoke Tuesday on 107.5 The Fan about the Pacers' salary cap and what risky moves they'd have to make to offer Ayton a max contract.
"You'd have to waive a player like Duane Washington (Jr.) and then you'd have to either make a trade or you would have to use the waive and stretch provision on a couple players, maybe the couple players you got in the Celtics trade," Marks said. "The challenge becomes if Phoenix matches (an offer sheet for Ayton), you can't go back and take back those waivers. So you run the risk of losing three players to waivers on an offer sheet that likely would get matched."
The reason Ayton's offer sheet would most likely get matched is because Phoenix won't let the former lottery pick leave for nothing in return. Plus, even if the Suns finally pay Ayton what he wants, they could still trade him for assets down the line, with the earliest date for a trade being Jan. 15, per the NBA's collective bargaining agreement.
If Indiana wants to be aggressive and force Phoenix's hand, it could waive Washington, whose $1.6 million for the 2022-23 season has not been guaranteed, according to Spotrac. The team could trade former lottery pick Goga Bitadze, who's owed $4.8 million for the upcoming season. And as Marks mentioned, the Pacers could waive former IU star Juwan Morgan, Nik Stauskas and Malik Fitts — who were acquired from the Celtics in a trade for Malcolm Brogdon — and stretch their guaranteed money over the next few seasons. Those decisions would clear enough cap space for Ayton.
But keep in mind, Indiana has rarely gone after restricted free agents. The last time the Pacers signed a restricted free agent was Knicks forward Chris Copeland in 2013, and his offer sheet was a two-year, $6 million deal that is obviously nowhere near Ayton's value.
Another, perhaps more realistic, option for Indiana to acquire Ayton would be a sign-and-trade that sends Myles Turner to Phoenix. Turner is entering the final year of his contract and has a base salary of $17.5 million for the 2022-23 season.
"I think if you're Phoenix you get a center, although (he) missed a bunch of games last year, I think certainly from the money standpoint, if you're the Suns that works financially," Marks said. "So yeah, if there was a sign-and-trade scenario for Phoenix, it would probably be centered on Turner. And if you're the Suns, you're thinking, 'Is that enough?' Or do we just match the offer sheet?'"
Ayton has averaged 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds on 59.9% shooting through his first four seasons. We'll find out soon enough how much that's worth to the Suns and Pacers.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: NBA free agency: How the Pacers can create cap space for Deandre Ayton