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Ayton got used by the Suns

He limited his game, became a defensive anchor, and all it got him was a kick in the pants.

Phoenix Suns All Access Practice Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The Phoenix Suns and Deandre Ayton have failed to agree to a contract extension by the deadline.

They agreed for four-year deals with their two other extension-eligible players, Mikal Bridges ($90 million) and Landry Shamet ($43 million), but declined to offer Ayton the maximum-level extension ($172+ million) that his representatives requested and was widely seen in NBA circles as a ‘given’.

As much as I love Mikal Bridges, he was not nearly as impactful in the playoffs as Ayton was. And Shamet, as good as he looks in preseason, is a 4th guard who has already been traded three times in his three-year career and has not even played a game for the Suns yet.

Now Ayton will play out the 2021-22 season on a one-year deal and become a restricted free agent next summer, free to solicit offers from other teams. The Suns can also continue their own contract negotiations with Ayton at that time as well.

What the Suns want

For the Suns, from a financial prudence perspective, the less they pay Ayton to stay in Phoenix the better. They have already committed max money to Devin Booker, close to max for Chris Paul, hefty dollars to Mikal Bridges and looking at a hefty rookie extension to Cameron Johnson next year too. Any dollar saved on a max or near-max Ayton deal would be $2-3 dollars saved in the ol’ pocket book for Suns ownership.

There are also maneuverability issues with roster construction if the spend on existing players is too high. By signing Ayton to max or near-max, the Suns will be near the restrictive ‘apron’ that teams like Warriors, Lakers, Cavaliers and Clippers have faced in recent seasons when trying to improve the rotation beyond the top four players. Yet, a couple of million a year to Ayton — which this negotiation almost certainly hinged on — is not going to substantially impact that issue.

Also, they apparently believe Ayton is worth less than max money, according to reporting by Brian Windhorst of ESPN today. Talks never even progressed to a five-year deal.

What the market bears

Now let’s put aside what the Suns WANT, and turn our focus to what the market bears.

The current player-salary market has set Deandre Ayton’s value at ‘max money’ regardless of what’s the most financially preferable move by the Suns. From Ayton’s own draft class, four players have already gotten the ‘max’ extension that he seeks, and none have carried their team through a playoffs to the NBA Finals.

Extensions agreed, through today’s deadline...

Pick #, name, contract

3: Luka Doncic: 5 years, $207.1 million guaranteed (he’s already made All-NBA so he qualifies for up to 30% of cap)

4: Jaren Jackson, Jr: 4 years, $105 million

5: Trae Young: 5 years, $172.5 million (up to $207.1 w/All-NBA in 2021-22)

7: Wendell Carter Jr.: 4 years, $50 million

10: Mikal Bridges: 4 years, $90 million

11: S. Gilgeous-Alexander: 5 years, $172.5 million (up to $207.1 w/All-NBA in 2021-22)

14: M. Porter Jr.: 5 years, $172.5 million (only $145 million guaranteed, up to $207.1 w/escalators)*

19: Kevin Huerter: 4 years, $65 million

21: Grayson Allen: 2 years, $20 million

23: Landry Shamet: 4 years, $43 million

27: R.Williams: 4 years, $48 million

MPJ’s is the most interesting. They have committed 100% to a four-year max contract regardless of health or performance, but have left the 5th year mostly non-guaranteed. When factoring in escalators, he’s got almost $70 million separating his floor from his ceiling.

More on MPJ’s contract, per Spotrac:

2026-27: $12 million guaranteed; $17 million guaranteed if earns NBA All-Star in any of the 2021-22 through 2025-26 seasons; Fully guaranteed based on performance (not waived 48 hours before 2026-27 Moratorium, or two NBA All-Star, or MVP/DPOY/All-NBA/All-Defense, or wins NBA Championship + game played requirements)

Trigger TBD: $193M (28% — likely second or third team All-NBA in 2021-22)

Trigger TBD: $207M (30% — likely first-team All-NBA in 2021-22)

Reportedly (by Ayton himself), the Suns have not offered Ayton the same deal that was given to those four players.

And yet, Ayton has more playoff series wins as a starter (3) than those four combined (2).

What do they have over Ayton, then, besides playoff wins? An ability to create their own shot, and a role to score 20+ points per game for their team. Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr. are all very gifted offensively. They make highlight packages. They generate clicks. They get fan votes to All-Star teams. The league’s owners have historically given max contracts to the highest scorers, and these four are no different.

Yet, it’s Ayton who was irreplaceable in the playoffs. Even Chris Paul called Ayton their playoff MVP. He was their playoff MVP not because of his offense — he was the 3rd scoring option behind All-NBA Chris Paul and All-Star Devin Booker — but because he was still 3rd in scoring while also being their best defensive player. He was the team’s only hope against some of the league’s best big men — Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He had to play them strong without requiring double teams, which mess up your team’s defense, and without getting into foul trouble. On the other end, he was one of the most efficient and productive big men EVER in a playoff run (20/10 games, 15/10 games, 70% shooting, etc).

He got used

But he still only took 10 shots a game because the Suns offense is predicated on guard/wing shooting. Ayton sacrificed his offense because he was asked to. He was told that all he could reach his dreams if he did what they said. He focused on the parts of the game no one likes — setting screens, boxing out, rebounding, defending everyone and anyone — at the expense of the fun things like taking shots when they’re open. He sacrificed. The team thanked him for it. And now they kicked him in the pants for it.

DA: Look at me, I’m a 18/12 guy at age 21

Suns: But trust us, if you become a 14/11 guy who spends most of his focus on non-stat-filling defense that helps us make the Finals that’s your best chance to reach your career goals

DA: Okay cool, I trust you

Suns: suckaaaaaa!

The narrative today on whether Ayton deserves a max extension is rooted in confirmation bias.

If your argument against giving Ayton a max extension today is that his work ethic as a 20-year old rookie on a 19-win team, or his failed PED test as a 21-year old, should discount his role as the lynchpin of a Finals team at 22-years old, you are telling on yourself that you hold grudges. A team and its players are literally and historically defined by their ability to help win games, playoff games, Finals games. Ringzzzz. Ayton is that guy, and holding a grudge from when he was younger is not a smart angle to take.

If your argument against giving Ayton a max extension today is that he’s not a #1 scoring option like Shai on a 20-win Thunder team, you are telling on yourself that you value scoring over winning. Winning is the most important thing!

If your argument against giving Ayton a max extension today is that a max is too much money for everyone but the best 10 or so players in the league, you are not considering the overall market forces at play. Just from this draft alone, four other players have gotten max extensions. You, and Sarver, cannot simply just say ‘well I don’t like that’ and still be successful at keeping your team together.

Now Ayton goes down that RFA road to get that max contract. He’s betting on his performance this year being max-worth. But the funny thing is that doing exactly what Monty Williams and Chris Paul asked him to do was NOT GOOD ENOUGH to get him paid. So are we sure he’s going to listen now?

Let’s hope DA balls out this year and plays better than ever. Free agency starts next July 1.

If the Suns agree to their own deal with Ayton

The Suns can re-start negotiations on July 1, 2021.

All the terms and potentials remain the same — they can offer a five-year deal up to 25% of the cap with 8% raises guaranteed, and with escalators for milestones to bring the deal up to 30% of the cap. The deal can be as big as $172.1 million over five years, with escalators up to $207.1 million.

If another team makes an offer that Ayton accepts and signs

Other teams can make offers starting on (approximately) July 8, 2021, once the ‘moratorium’ ends and new cap numbers are finalized.

The Suns retain the right to match any offer to Ayton by another team, which can be as high as $127 million over four years (25% of the cap + 5% raises). You read that right — the max any other team can offer Ayton next summer is lower than what the Suns can offer themselves. This would save Sarver money, but would it make Ayton like the organization more or less than he would if he’s just been signed outright?

If Ayton declines to accept any long term deal

There’s an almost 0 chance this happens, but Ayton could play out the 2022-23 season on a qualifying offer of $16 million and then become an unrestricted free agent in 2023, free to sign with any team and the Suns having no right to simply match.

He would be sacrificing at least $13 million in this scenario in 2022-23, with an almost 0 chance to recover that money in future contracts because he is already negotiating at or near max contract levels.

Ayton declined to speak to reporters today after practice, and according to Woj (ESPN) he is “very unhappy” nothing happened.

Let’s see how the year unfolds. And that begins on Wednesday, October 20. Two days from.

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