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Salary cap rules, more than loyalty or respect, could keep Ayton with Phoenix Suns

The Suns have limited options if they want to sign-and-trade Deandre Ayton this summer

Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

We don’t know what the Phoenix Suns will do this summer, but the hottest topic is and will continue to be Deandre Ayton’s status with the team.

Ayton’s contract expires on June 30, at which time he will become a restricted free agent (RFA). Ayton can test out the free agent market in search of that max-level contract the Suns were reluctant to offer a year ago.

Folks are stressed about the word ‘max’ but keep reading.

As an RFA, Ayton’s agent, Bill Duffy, can shop him to other teams in the hopes they will make an offer that Ayton wants to accept. From another team, the maximum he can get is 25% of the projected 2022-23 salary cap, with 5% raises, up to four years in length:

  • 2022-23: $30,250,000
  • 2023-24: $31,762,500
  • 2024-25: $33,275,000
  • 2025-26: $34,787,500

Total: Four years, $130,075,000

The $30 million salary would make Ayton somewhere around the 35th highest paid player in the NBA in 2022-23. In Suns terms, that’s behind Devin Booker, just ahead of Chris Paul and well ahead of anyone else.

The Suns would have two business days or until July 8, whichever is later, to match that offer and keep Ayton under those terms. Or, they could decline to match and let him sign with the new team outright.

It’s important to understand context here: that $30 million would place Ayton in the mid-thirties on the list of NBA salaries, from highest to lowest. That salary would approximate his 2021 preseason ranking among other NBA players in terms talent and production. Among 400+ NBA players, Ayton was ranked by several media outlets in the mid-30s. Sounds like a good value to me.

The Suns problem (we don’t know how big of a problem; we just know it’s at least some of a problem) with Ayton is not about talent or worth or where he ranks, though. It’s more about attitude and effort. While he has the tools to be a top-20 or even top-10 player in the league, his inconsistent effort level ultimately hurts his total contributions. When he’s focused, he’s great. But when he’s not, which is too often, he’s not great.

Tough to give a guy all that money if he doesn’t earn it every single day on the court, or at least on 99% of them. He’s the most physically and basketball-y talented guy on the team, but he too often is content to be less than DominAyton.

Yet, despite all this angst, he’s likely to remain in Phoenix anyway and likely he will be paid about $30 million next year, $130 million over four years, to do it.

That’s a smaller total package than he originally wanted from the Suns last summer as a contract extension. The ‘home’ team can offer up to 8% raises for up 5 years — adding another year and $45 more dollars to the table. The Suns declined to make that offer last summer, leaving us where we are today. The Suns can still make that same offer this summer on their own, but have given no indications they would do so.

Now, Ayton will be a restricted free agent this summer, and will likely command a large portion of the team’s allotted salary cap (up to 25%) to retain him.

The Suns could just decide to let him leave, but they would have no reasonable way to replace his talent on the roster. He would simply be a subtraction from the team with no extra spending power in return, since the Suns are over the cap.

With or without signing Ayton, the Suns are limited to the same $10 million exception (MLE) and $5 million exception (BAE) to sign free agents.

So no, the Suns won’t let Ayton just walk away.

A third option is to trade Ayton in a sign-and-trade transaction that nets the Suns some return value. In that scenario, you’d think you could trade Ayton and his new $30 million salary to another team willing give up similar talent at similar salary. On the surface, this might seem like a great option.

Big picture here: the NBA disallows lop-sided trades in terms of player salaries. You cannot simply trade a $30 million player for a $2 million player or for a $50 million player. Almost* all player trades between competitive teams spending somewhere at or over the salary cap on guaranteed contracts must be within 25% on salary matching. Meaning, if you want to trade a $30 million player, you can only bring back +/- 25% of that salary as part of the trade, or $24 to $36 million.

*There are a few exceptions to the ‘within 25% either way’, but they are rare and will be discussed, in part, later.

However, Deandre Ayton’s situation is different. Because he’s going from making $12.6 million last year to $30 million next year as part of the trade, he triggers a weird salary-matching rule in the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

I don’t want to bore you with logistics, but there’s something called ‘Base Year Compensation’ that cuts Ayton’s outgoing salary by 50% for salary-matching purposes from the Suns end, which runs head-first into the wall of the receiving team’s mere 25% buffer on the same such salary.

Boiling it down, the Suns cannot simply trade Ayton’s $30 million for another player’s $30 million player.

Clear as mud? Let me put this is terms of actual scenarios.


Let’s pretend Nets star Kevin Durant is done done in Brooklyn. He’s already flown the coop of the contending Thunder and Warriors for supposedly greener pastures, so don’t count him out of doing it again.

Let’s also pretend the Nets are willing to trade Durant, and that they’re willing to trade him to the Suns for Ayton. I’m only using this scenario because (a) some people here think Durant wants to come to Phoenix and (b) he’s a good example of what won’t work under the CBA.

A quick Spotrac search tells you that Durant will have @ $43 million salary in 2022-23. To acquire Durant, we know that ‘over the cap’ teams can make trades that are within 25% of each other in salaries. 75% of Durant’s $43 million is about $32 million. An Ayton mini-max contract could reach that number of it’s front loaded with an up front bonus to outsize year one.

Yet, even though the money could be made to work, the trade would never happen for two big reasons:

  • Nets would be hard-capped after acquiring a signed-and-traded player. Acquiring Ayton in a sign-and-trade would make it very difficult to fill out the rest of a team that is already shallow in depth, as you saw in the 2022 playoffs where they got swept in the first round WITH Durant.
  • Even if the Nets agreed to this, the trade would fail due to ‘Base Year Compensation’ rules...

Unfortunately, Ayton’s salary would not count at the $30+ million from the Suns point of view, but rather at only 50% of that + $5 million. Meaning, the Suns could take back salary only up to $20 million or so in a one-for-one trade — way way way short of Durant’s $43 million.

It doesn’t help to just add in more players from the Suns or Nets side. The math is the math. The ‘base year compensation’ rule really hinders the Suns sign-and-trade opportunities for big individual player contracts in return.

So what CAN the Suns do, if they decide the best plan is to trade Ayton?


Trade him to a team well under the cap

According to Spotrac, only a handful of teams are far enough under the cap as of July 1 that they could reasonably acquire Ayton using cap room and the salary-matching rules, at least on their end, are no longer an issue.

Teams well enough under the cap this summer who could get the space to acquire Ayton using cap room for that big difference in salary matching: Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers.

Start dreaming up your Jerami Grant, Jonathan Isaac, Myles Turner, Jakob Poeltl/Dejounte Murray and Damian Lillard trades, Suns fans!

Still, the Suns can only take back $20 million or so. That knocks Lillard out of the equation on a trade, I believe, in the same way the KD trade would fail.

I also don’t see the Spurs moving away from Murray, and I’m not sure either Orlando or Phoenix wants to include Jonathan Isaac in a deal. The Suns would be hesitant to take back someone with such an injury history (he’s barely played in two years), and the Magic might want to see their investment pay off before thinking of trading him away.

Are you excited about trading Ayton for Grant or Turner, who each fit the salary-matching needs on the Suns side? That might be all that’s left of the ‘under the cap’ teams.

The Suns could conceivably acquire Grant and even a first round pick from the Pistons for Ayton. They own the 5th pick in the first round. Indiana could send back Turner and the 6th pick.

Either move would take the Suns further away from contention, in my opinion, and both have already gone on record wanting a much bigger contract/role in the summer of 2023 when they become unrestricted free agents. Do you really want another contract situation next summer, from a worse player than Ayton, and potentially lose them for nothing? Me neither.


Add in a third party

Nothing solves the KD or Lillard issues with salary matching because of the one-to-one salaries. So put that out of your heads.

But the Suns could conceivably trade Ayton to a team with multiple smaller salaries while spinning one or more returning players to a third team who can absorb some of the gap.

For example, the Suns could trade Ayton and his new $30 million contract to a team that sends out multiple players who add up to $24 to $36 million.

Since the Suns would only be allowed to take back up $20 million worth of player(s), a third team could be recruited to absorb the other player(s) into cap space or a trade exception. You cannot split a player’s individual salary to make this work though. It has to be separate salaries, split off in whole. The payment to a third team for doing this is usually draft pick(s). You see the obvious complications here, I’m sure.

The third team has to be able to take in a player without sending anyone out, which is why they need cap space (see the six teams above) or a trade exception big enough to absorb the spun-off player. That team usually gets paid off in cash or draft pick(s) because they’ve just added to their salary bill. The bigger the hit, the bigger the payment.

But take note: this only works if Ayton is the big-contract prize here.

It’s the Suns who need to take back what amounts to 30% less in salaries for a signed-and-traded Ayton, so it’s the Suns who could end up the loser here if the pieces/parts used in place of Ayton don’t end up getting you more playoff wins. Which, as you know, the playoffs are about the best players winning games, not role players.


Double sign-and-trade

Well, here’s an idea. If both teams are doing a big huge sign-and-trade, then both teams can do the 50% matchy thing. How about trading Ayton for another RFA who also wants similar money, or within 25% of it?

Anyone jump out at you?

Collin Sexton missed almost all of last year. He’s good Jordan Clarkson type who can be a flamethrower off the bench behind Booker. He’s sized like a point guard but is NOT a point guard, though he can facilitate a bit — like Booker, or the aforementioned Clarkson.

Miles Bridges is interesting in that he fits a five-out model as an up-and-coming star on the wing. He’s strong, flies high, loves to dunk and can make some threes. Y’all love dunks! Not sure how much money he will get as an RFA, and that leaves rim protection at zero...

Nobody else is worth Ayton-ish money, and even those two aren’t even all that close to it.

And then there’s another downside to a double sign-and-trade: the Suns and the other team would now be hard-capped at $155 million payroll. Any team over the cap that receives a player in a sign-and-trade is hard-capped, which this year is about $155 million. Meaning, they cannot under any circumstances, spend over the hard-cap on salaries.

Signing Ayton for $30 million this year would already put the Suns OVER that hard-cap line with only 10 players under contract. They would spend the rest of the summer shedding salary, depleting their depth, to add at least 3 more players while reducing the cap number.

So, almost certainly no double sign-and-trade gonna happen here.

In fact, any trade where the Suns receive a signed-and-traded player would hard-cap them. So they won’t do it.

Note: lots of teams go way way way past this salary mark, but that’s only because they don’t trigger the hard cap (receiving a player via sign-and-trade, spending the full MLE, or using the bi-annual exception all trigger the hard cap).


These are some of the options with Deandre Ayton if the Suns decide not to keep him at about $30 million.

You can see how hard it is to find a workable trade, and you can see tough it would be to remain a contender if they just let him walk away.

The solution is just to sign and keep him. They can always trade him later, once the ‘base year compensation’ is no longer in play.

As I stated above, that would place Ayton among the top 40 salaries in the league, which is right about where his league ranking is. Last offseason, Ayton was ranked in the 30s among the 450 NBA players by media outlets who like to do that kind of thing.

You all know where I stand. Even if trading him were easy, I’d rather just pay Ayton and keep him. He’s worth the contract, when you rank his value, talent and salary against the rest of the league. Add in the complexities involved in a trade, this decision becomes a no-brainer to me.

So if you see the Suns trade him anyway, there’s a lot more fire to that smoke of discontent.

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