Restricted free agent Deandre Ayton, the NBA's No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018, has signed a four-year, $133 million maximum offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
The Phoenix Suns have two days to match the deal and retain Ayton or lose him for nothing.
The contract effectively removes Ayton, and likely Phoenix, from this summer's trade sweepstakes for Kevin Durant, as the 23-year-old cannot be dealt until Jan. 15 once he signs the offer sheet. Ayton can also veto any trade for a full season if the Suns match Indiana's offer. Durant listed the Suns as a preferred trade destination, league sources told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. It is unlikely Phoenix has enough to offer the Brooklyn Nets now — without including All-NBA guard Devin Booker, who is almost certainly off the table.
Ayton has been an integral member of the Suns' success for the past two seasons, helping Booker and Chris Paul lead Phoenix to the 2021 Finals and the league's best regular season record over the past year. He averaged 17.2 points (on 63/37/75 shooting splits), 10.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 29.5 minutes over 58 games last season, the 7-footer's fourth straight averaging a double-double since he entered the NBA.
The Suns were 18.5 points per 100 possessions better whenever Ayton was on the court against the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 Finals, a testament to his offensive production and defensive improvement.
Phoenix opted not to meet Ayton's asking price of a max contract last summer, when Class of 2018 peers Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr. received max deals. The decision not to extend Ayton before the end of his rookie contract had the potential to derail the Suns' season.
And it might have.
After Ayton played just 17 minutes in a 33-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, Suns coach Monty Williams said his center's limited minutes were an "internal" matter. Williams and Ayton engaged in a frosty exchange on the bench during the embarrassing loss, and Bleacher Report's Jake Fischer reported that "Ayton is not particularly a favorite of Phoenix's head coach."
Conversely, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski noted, "Ayton did not feel valued by this Phoenix organization."
"We're disappointed," Ayton's agent, Bill Duffy, told SiriusXM NBA Radio's Justin Termine and Eddie Johnson last month, reiterating what his client said prior to last season. "We wanted a max contract."
The Suns reportedly feared offering Ayton more than $30 million annually. The question is whether those fears are more analytically or financially driven. Phoenix owes Paul, Booker and Mikal Bridges a combined $83.2 million next season, and traditional centers no longer have the on-court value of ball-handlers and wings. Still, losing Ayton would be a blow to a team that believes it can win a championship.
Suns owner Robert Sarver has the money to pay Ayton. His status as a franchise governor, though, is uncertain, as he remains under investigation by the NBA for alleged workplace misconduct. Failing to retain a core member of a 64-win team, just because of money, will further the divide between owner and fans.
– – – – – – –