The Phoenix Suns are in the midst of another contending year — haven’t been able to put those three words in succession for more than a decade! — but with the trade deadline looming in less than four weeks, we have to look around the league and see if the Suns can get any better going forward.
Sure, the Suns are a league-best 31-9 this year. They have the league’s 2nd best defense and a top-10 offense, despite their three highest-volume shooters (Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Cameron Payne) not shooting well this season.
Sure, they have a future Hall of Famer at point guard, one of the top 75 players in league history. Sure, they have a 25-year old All-Star who might be the best overall shooting guard in the NBA and hasn’t even reached his peak.
And sure, they have a 23-year old budding potential All-Star talent at center in Deandre Ayton who can play defense in any scheme and has now developed a money shot away from the rim to get the Suns a bucket any time the opponent tries to switch a smaller player onto him.
Add that jump hook to his historically great efficiency around the rim, top-10 rebounding and elite defensive versatility, and we might just be looking at a third All-Star and future go-to offensive player in the coming years.
Many of the national podcasters already have Ayton as an ‘almost in’ for the All-Star game this year, with Nekias Duncan (Dunker Spot pod) actually naming him already to his West team. And that’s with Ayton missing almost half the games so far. If Ayton has a really good couple of weeks, who knows he might make it after all.
Yet, the Suns drew a line last fall at how much they would pay Ayton in an extension — mere weeks after he lynch-pinned their run to the Finals — and might be interested in looking around for other ways to spend $30+ million per year going forward.
There’s still no guarantee the Suns will want to pay Ayton a max contract next summer.
Now other teams around the league are starting to consider how badly they might want a young potential All-Star who could easily score 20+ on a bad team (he averaged 18 per game at age 21 for a middling Suns team!), inhale 11+ rebounds and play defense at a level that helped a small Suns team reach the Finals.
Imagine former No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton in Detroit, taking passes from last year’s No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham, putting up 23 and 12 for suddenly-interesting Pistons team that could have designs on a play-in appearance and eventual contention in the East. Ayton, Cunningham and Saddiq Bey would form a nice core of the future.
Why am I mentioning the Pistons, in particular? Because NBA insider Eric Pincus has heard that the Pistons might be targeting Ayton next summer in free agency.
As noted, the Pistons are believed to be targeting a big man with their projected cap room this summer. Deandre Ayton may be their primary target, but many around the league expect the Phoenix Suns to retain him despite failing to reach an extension with him before the season.
Well, we all thought the Suns would extend Ayton last fall, so non-Suns-employees don’t really know what the Suns are going to do.
One thing I’m comfortable saying: the Suns won’t let another team just sign Ayton away. That’s not smart business and the Suns have shown they are very smart these days (thanks, James Jones!). Being over the cap next summer, the Suns would have no other mechanism to replace Ayton’s salary/value without a trade. No other tool in their belt can reasonably acquire a player making more than $10 million a year.
If the suitor is the Pistons, that sign-and-trade would have to include forward Jerami Grant, who currently makes $20 million per year as the Pistons primary offensive weapon (20 points per game).
Suns fans have long coveted Grant as a versatile forward who could easily fit into the Suns’ scheme on offense and defense at the wing. But is he really worth that much money, at the expense of Ayton?
Pincus had a comment about Grant too.
But the Magic may not covet Grant (who turns 28 in March) at $21.0 million next season. Grant is also believed to be expecting an extension starting at his maximum of $25.1 million for the 2023-24 season.
So that’s one season at $21 million, and then future seasons — for a 30 year old player by then — at $25+ million? If you don’t keep Grant, you’ve sold Ayton for nothing after a year.
Why would the Suns even entertain giving up on a young potential All-Star in Deandre Ayton this summer?
Some of it could be bias against paying big money for a center, and that much of Ayton’s production could be replaced at a much lower cost than $30+ million per year.
Heck, let’s run it down:
If you are a fan of replacing your best option with mixing and matching for 75% of that production while upgrading another position, then you are probably nodding along right now.
The Suns could, in a scenario of trading Ayton to the Pistons for a package including Jerami Grant, increase their production on the wing while getting a lot of Ayton’s production from some combination of this year’s backups.
Yet, now you’ve got Mikal Bridges and Jerami Grant each making about $20 million per year next year. Fine. But what about a year later? A year later, a Cameron Johnson extension would kick in while at the same time Grant wants $25+ million and Bridges is scheduled to make $21 million. Can the Suns absorb three $20+ million wings at once?
I guess what I’m trying to say is that, if you’re worried about the Suns financial maneuverability with Ayton making $30+ million, that same worry is in place with someone like Grant making $25+ million.
Okay, what about not replacing Ayton with anyone making big money, so the Suns can focus their finances on Booker, Bridges, CamJ and a Chris Paul point guard replacement instead? Well, now suddenly you are very perimeter oriented and are relying on low-salary guys for all of your interior defense and rebounding. Do you really want Frank or Dario or JaVale or Biz on an island defending Anthony Davis, Stephen Adams, Jokic or Giannis, while being switched regularly onto the likes of Steph, Klay, Luka, LeBron, Jaren Jackson Jr., Morant, and other All-NBA level talent?
You can cover most of the first group with JaVale or Biz and most of the latter group with an all-wing lineup, but the only single guy who can reasonably take on all those guys at any one time is Deandre Ayton. And for those who think Monty can mix and match as needed, opposing coaches are not going call a timeout and say ‘hey Monty, now’s the time to swap Biz for Grant, okay?’
Is CamJ/Mikal/Book-without-DA a better model than the current Suns iteration that’s already made the Finals once and has the league’s best record in year two? Who’s more replaceable — CamJ or Ayton?
Or a better question — as the Suns try to replace Chris Paul in a year or two, would you rather a core of Ayton/Bridges/Booker or a core of CamJ/Bridges/Booker? Ideally, the core is ALL FOUR of them. But if you had to choose a threesome, which one is most likely to make a Finals push as the three-man-core plus a new point guard?
I’ll stop. My brain is hurting now.
How about you, Suns fans?
Would you send Ayton to Detroit this summer?
Yes, swap Ayton for Jerami Grant + $10 million in other players