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Ayton should accept nothing less than the supermax now

With Michael Porter Jr. getting the supermax to match three other 2018 draftees, Ayton must now join them.

2021 NBA Finals - Game Six

The Phoenix Suns begin training camp today to prep for a season of defending their Western Conference Championship crown, backed defensively by young big man Deandre Ayton and wing stopper Mikal Bridges.

Both Ayton and Bridges have something in addition to basketball on their minds, though. They and their agents are in the midst of contract extension talks with the Phoenix Suns that would start next year.

With Michael Porter Jr. becoming the 4th player from the 2018 Draft to receive a max extension so far this offseason (Luka Doncic, taken 3rd overall; Trae Young, 5th; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 11th; MPJ, 14th), the Suns now have added pressure to agree to deals with Ayton (taken 1st that year) and Bridges (10th) before the season begins.

A supermax would be at minimum at 5 years, $172 million (25% of cap with max raises) with a potential for $207 over those same years (30% of cap to start) if he makes All-NBA or wins an award this coming season.

Teams have an exclusive negotiating window until October 18th to agree to extensions with players, or they have to wait until next year’s free agency to resume contract talks. At that point, Ayton and Bridges would become restricted free agents (the Suns have the right to match any offer from another team).

A maximum offer from another team would relatively dwarf what the Suns can offer. Another team can start at 25% of the cap, but can only go up to four years at smaller raises and no chance for the 30% bump.

Ayton will almost certainly re-sign with the Suns — like a 99.9% ‘certainty’ - because of this difference. The question is whether the Suns will go all the way to the supermax or if they will make him settle for less. This is not the Joe Johnson situation at all — the rules have changed to make it impossible for a team to sign-and-trade for all the money and years like they did in 2004.

The Suns already have their best two players, Chris Paul and Devin Booker, under huge contracts for the next 3+ seasons, but need to secure Bridges and Ayton in order to solidify their hold on the Western Conference.

A year ago, the Suns had the league’s 6th best defense in the regular season and 3rd best in the playoffs with three starters aged 24 or younger — including Ayton and Bridges — experiencing the first playoff run of their lives.

Ayton in particular was outstanding in the playoffs, setting records for offensive efficiency on volume, rebounding like a mad man and defending some of the league’s best big men including Anthony Davis in round one, Nikola Jokic in round and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Finals. In between, he successfully anchored the defense against the smaller Clippers, who’d used their pacing and spacing to neutralize Rudy Gobert.

“I still couldn’t believe I went to the Finals,” Ayton says of looking back at the playoffs now. “After seeing all the content come through and all the highlights, I couldn’t believe that was me, being 22 and doing the things I did out there on that platform.”

Every single Phoenix Suns player credited Ayton’s ability to not only play effective defense in the paint but also out in space without (hardly) ever getting into foul trouble. Chris Paul called Ayton the MVP of the playoffs. In the playoffs, Ayton was 4th among all players in Defensive Win Shares (behind three Bucks) and played the 4th most minutes of any player.

On the offensive end, his role was more about efficiency than volume. Only 9 players in league history have ever shot 60%+ on at least 150 field goal attempts in one postseason, and Deandre Ayton leads them all by a wide margin with 65.8%. Of those nine players, he was second in Win Shares and rebounding (to Dwight Howard back in 2008-09) and leads everyone in Effective Field Goal % and True Shooting %.

*data provided by stathead.com

Oh and not one of those nine players was as young as Ayton (22 years old) at the time they made this short list.

Wrap that up into a bow — can anchor a contender’s defense on one end and score more efficiently than just about any player in history on the other in the playoffs when it counts the most — and you’ve got a recipe for one of the most valuable and important players in the entire league.

But he doesn’t score among the league’s best scorers, and the league throws the biggest money at the biggest scorers.

A few years ago, our own Devin Booker got a designated max rookie extension from the Suns for five years, starting at 25% of the cap with maximum annual raises and the potential, if he’d made All-NBA in year four, to increase that cap percentage to 30%. This summer, high scorers Trae Young and now Michael Porter Jr. got the same structure.

What those three players have in common at the time of signing their potential supermax extension is their statistical profile: high volume scorer, one secondary skill (passing/rebounding) and very little attention to defense.

Basically, the opposite of Ayton.

Ayton intentionally sacrificed his offensive touches last year to help the Suns win (30% fewer shots per game than the season before), and will continue to do that in the years to come. He stopped taking shots outside the paint, and almost always only took assisted shots point-blank at the rim.

You can imagine Ayton’s frustration if those sacrifices cost him money in an extension.

Michael Porter Jr. — whose only exceptional skill is shooting — just agreed to the maximum possible extension from the Nuggets, making him the 4th draft pick from the 2018 Draft class to receive at least the five-year/25% number and 3rd to receive the supermax that could/will reach 30%.

The Suns, on the other hand, have not yet offered Ayton that ‘up to 30%’ package or he would have signed on the dotted line by now.

Ayton is already the most accomplished of all those max guys in terms of winning playoff basketball. Ayton has anchored as many playoff series (3) as the other four combined (MPJ: 1 as a starter, Luka: 0, SGA: 0, Trae: 2).

What is more important — being a flashy scorer in the regular season, or being one of the most impactful players in the playoffs?

When it comes to contracts, apparently it’s the former.

Ayton now enters his fourth year at a pivot point. Like any super-talented kid, he wants more shots. The question is how hard he’s going to fight to make it happen.

“I think it’s funny — I sacrificed a lot,” he said at Media Day on Monday. “I don’t think the world’s really seen my game and the type of window I have to where, I already know what the requirement is. It’s just me adding on, being more of an offensive threat and doing the things I want to do now. Where, I already got everything handled to where I don’t have to, how long I stay in the key or how long I switch, I already have all that stuff handled. Being that, my foundation.”

He knows he’s a defense-first player and that’s not going to change. He’s excited about adding JaVale McGee to help him tick up his shot-blocking numbers.

“Having a dude like JaVale can really add on my shot-blocking a little bit more and just being a presence down low,” he said on Media Day. “But just knowing my terminology and how to communicate is one of my best things. And just being the first man back on defense and protecting that paint is my main job. Just really, communication. Nothing is really changing. I’m still a competitor, I don’t play with that defense. And that was it.”

The foundation as defensive anchor is there. But the days of accepting 10 or fewer shot attempts on the other end may depend on his contract negotiations.

If he’s forced to wait until restricted free agency to get the full bag, he will most certainly be pushing to get the ball more on offense this season, which could disrupt the balance on the team.

At the very least, he will be more vocal about shots and touches than he was a year ago, if he knows he’s getting squeezed financially because of it.

Mikal Bridges, who was taken 10th in that same 2018 Draft, is in a similar predicament as Ayton when it comes to a contract extension. Now two players taken after him — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and MPJ — have gotten max extensions mostly for their offensive play while Bridges has focused on defense while sacrificing his offense to help the team win.

This is not to suggest that Ayton or Bridges could ever be considered an offensive genius in the way those max players are considered, no matter what team they’re on or role they have. Neither can put the ball on the floor and consistently create their own unassisted shot against a defense geared to stop them.

But Ayton and Bridges are winning basketball players, as important to your success as your leading scorers.

We shall see how the contract extension discussions play out from here, but there are two ways I believe the Porter extension impacts the Suns discussions with Ayton and Bridges:

  1. Ayton will almost certainly never accept less than the supermax already given to Luka, Trae, MPJ and SGA from his draft class. What that means is 25% of the cap guaranteed (about $30 million next year) with 8% raises and a chance to increase that base number to 30% if he makes All-NBA or wins some other award like Defensive Player of the Year.
  2. Bridges might no longer accept a four year contract for less than $100 million.

Those contracts would be tight for the Suns, and would lock up the Suns top four for the foreseeable future. Devin Booker has three years left on his deal, Chris Paul is under salary with team options for up to four years, and Bridges and Ayton would be 5-6 years from now once they sign.

The good thing here is that the Suns have already proven their top four can make a Finals together. And, other than Chris Paul, are still improving.

Stay tuned, Suns fans.