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Is Ayton the next Bledsoe or the next Joe Johnson? Deep dive on all angles

We break down the similarities and differences, and the latest rumors around Deandre Ayton

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns have officially tendered the one-year Qualifying Offer of $16.25 million to young starting center Deandre Ayton. The qualifying offer gives Ayton a solid contract offer for the 2022-23 season, while making him a restricted free agent and giving the Suns the right to match any offer accepted by Ayton in the coming weeks.

The QO was a ‘box checking’ move by the Suns to keep all their options on the table for free agency and roster moves.

The Suns can now go in multiple directions with DA, all of which result in the Suns either keeping their starting center or getting acceptable assets back for him in trade.

Restricted free agency has historically favored the team over the player by a wide margin.

Sometimes a middling player can use restricted free agency to get a dramatic overpay. Miles Bridges of Charlotte, for example, does not profile as a max guy but might force that offer to get him to sign. Anfernee Simons could get more than $20 million per year in the next week. Remember when the Nets signed Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe to huge offer sheets, forcing the Blazers and Heat to match?

But Deandre Ayton is no middling player. He’s worth at or near the maximum salary, but the Suns want to use the RFA process to set the market and not pay Ayton a dollar more.

Most teams with high-value restricted free agents love the RFA process, because not only does another team set the market, they also do all the work on negotiations and get the player to sign. At that point, the ‘home’ team simply says thank you and matches the offer. That’s what Charlotte has stated it would do on any Bridges offer. Remember when the Bulls let Zach LaVine test the market, settle for an offer sheet from the Kings that was slightly less than his demand, and happily matched it?

The Suns don’t think Ayton is worth the full max he’s demanding, so they sent his agent out to find that max offer. But the Suns won’t just decline and let Ayton go, so the signing team has even more work to do. The signing team not only has to pay Ayton $30 million per year, they have to work out a sign-and-trade with the Suns. If the Suns and the interested team agree to terms, then Ayton is gone with the Suns getting player(s) and/or draft pick(s) in return.

Of course the interested team could just play a game of chicken, hoping the Suns won’t match. They can sign Ayton outright to an offer sheet. Once Ayton signs the offer sheet, trades are off the table. The Suns have two days (or July 8, whichever is later) to either match the offer and keep Ayton or decline to match and let him go for nothing in return.

The Suns are playing poker here. They are betting no other team will do all the Suns work for them only to watch the Suns match the offer. To that end, the Suns are quietly telling teams they will match any offer unless a sign-and-trade is negotiated ahead of time.

“DA remains a huge part of what we do,” James Jones said the other day, after the Draft. “I think you hear his teammates, they echo the same sentiment that we have. This team is a really good team and we want to keep it together.”

Yes, this team is a really good team. They have won a ton of games and played in more playoff series (6) in two years as a group than any Suns team in 15 years. If Jones decides to run it back, the Suns will once again be a team with the talent to win a title. They currently have the 6th best odds at the 2023 title, according to DraftKings.

So, the message to other teams is this: don’t bother just doing an offer sheet. Figure out a sign-and-trade that makes the Suns even better, or at least gets the Suns enough assets back to get better on the NEXT deal. Or just walk away.

Over the past few days, it seems that many of the ‘interested’ teams have taken the latter approach. Quietly, of course, since no one can negotiate with anyone outside their team until 6:00pm on Thursday.

  • The Pistons were rumored to want to sign Ayton outright to an offer sheet, but that’s long gone now. In the past week, they instead drafted an 18-year old center and used half that necessary cap room on Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks from the Knicks. Poof. No more Pistons. They now have Noel and rookie Jalen Duren.
  • The Spurs were rumored to maybe use their cap space for an offer to Ayton. But in the past two days, word has leaked that they are pivoting to trading away their All-Star Dejounte Murray for peanuts and picks, aiming for a tank job. (For those of you wanting the Suns to get into the Murray sweepstakes, he’s repped by Klutch. Nahgonnahappen.)
  • The Hawks were rumored to be interested in a sign-and-trade for Ayton, but lately they’ve whispered they only want Ayton at lower than a max contract, which is basically saying they’re out.
  • The Pacers never voiced intentions out loud, but they’d been rumored to want to move on from Myles Turner and a Turner-for-Ayton sign-and-trade would work cleanly on the cap sheet. But now the Pacers’ GM went on radio to say they are not actively shopping Turner — and indication there’s no plan in the works to send him away.

Ayton’s market appears fairly empty, at least for right now.

And that leaves him with the possibility of having to hold out all summer until someone finally does step up.

No one wants that. The Suns don’t want to be in limbo all summer, waiting on the Ayton bomb to drop. Ayton doesn’t want it either. And frankly, the more time passes the less likely Ayton goes anywhere else at all.

Sounds like the Eric Bledsoe situation.

Coming off a revelatory 2013-14 season where he helped lead the Suns to an unexpected playoff run that fell just short of the prize, Bledsoe was up for a new contract. He wanted what was then a max contract, while the Suns countered with a lot less.

Here’s the numbers from 2014:

  • The max that Bledsoe could get from another team in an offer sheet as a restricted free agent: 4 years, $63 million.
  • The max that Bledsoe could have gotten from the Suns: 5 years, $84 million.
  • The Suns original offer: 4 years for $48 million

While the Suns offer seemed low, folks around the league thought it was fair, considering Bledsoe’s injury history and only half a season as a starter.

But Bledsoe, repped by Klutch Sports, held out for a max offer that never came. The Suns eventually compromised and the two sides agreed on a 5 year, $70 million contract. That’s a little more than halfway between the Suns original offer and Bledsoe’s original demand.

Unfortunately, the trust between the Suns and Bledsoe (and Klutch) was far gone by then. During the summer, the Suns had loaded up insurance against Bledsoe never coming back by signing starter-level Isaiah Thomas from the Kings. That left the Suns, who also had starter Goran Dragic coming off a career year, with a three-headed monster at point guard that was too small to be effective in the same lineup.

This Deandre Ayton situation is quite different, despite the parallels of RFA status, max contract demands and strained relationship with the team.

DA is a proven starter (unlike Bledsoe) with a solid track record of helping win playoff games (unlike Bledsoe) and his max-contract demand is considered entirely fair by the league as a whole (unlike Bledsoe).

The issue with giving Ayton a max contract, compared to Bledsoe, is that the Suns have an abundance of high contracts to manage and they don’t want to strap themselves into anything more than they have to with Ayton’s contract.

It’s THAT situation that brings Ayton’s RFA status more in line with another bad-ending luminary in Suns lore: Joe Johnson.

Like Ayton, Joe was the youngest of the starters on a contender and had proven his ability to contribute to playoff wins. He was definitely one of the most talented players in the league, and likely a budding All-Star. He had a good reason to want a max contract, and other teams were willing to make that offer to him.

But no matter how you sliced it, Joe was still just the fourth best player on that Suns team. All of MVP Steve Nash and All-Stars Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion were better than Joe, and should be at the top of the pecking order on salaries.

Joe Johnson wanted a max contract, which was for $119 million over six years, starting at $12 million in the 2005-06 season. That would have put Joe second on the team to Shawn Marion and well ahead of Steve Nash (similar to a $30 mil Ayton being second to Booker, and ahead of Chris Paul). The pressure outlier here was knowing they needed to give Amare Stoudemire a max extension too... not to mention Shawn Marion wanting yet another, bigger max extension soon. Amare, Joe and Shawn would have all been on max contracts together within a year.

Sound familiar? Today’s situation is similar, but not exactly the same.

If the Suns bring back Ayton on a max, they will have both Ayton and Booker on maxes for the future. GM James Jones is much more interested in building quality depth rather than being top-heavy, wanting to keep around guys like Chris Paul (or similar), Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson on rich contracts too.

I know you guys don’t want to hear about cap management, but every dollar they save on Ayton (or whoever replaces him) makes it easier to build and maintain depth.

Still, the Suns have not totally shown their hand yet.

They have only publicly stated that they don’t believe Ayton is worth the full max that they can offer, and that Ayton is requesting — 5 years, with 8% raises, adding up to $175 million. But in the same interview, Jones said the Suns would have considered four years, at or below the max, but Ayton’s camp was not interested in anything less than the absolute max.

So, they’re letting the market decide. If another team gets Ayton to sign an offer, it’s guaranteed to be less than the Suns, at $131 million over four years.

If Ayton never gets an offer he likes, there could be a summer-long standoff where the Suns and Ayton could eventually land somewhere in the middle.

Hopefully, the Suns won’t end up alienating Ayton in the process, like they did Bledsoe and Joe Johnson.


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