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2022 NBA Playoffs - Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns

Hollinger: Ayton has low-max value both near and long-term; plus a Suns salary-cap update

Ayton ranks as 5th best free agent overall with longest-term upside in health and age

Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

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Another year, another round of competing free agent rankings. This year like last year, the Phoenix Suns have at least one of the most coveted free agents hitting the market.

John Hollinger of The Athletic says that his nerd-number calculations have Suns center Deandre Ayton worth $31.4 million dollars next season, slightly over the $30.5 million max he’s allowed to get with an average annual value of $33 million over four years. That ranks Ayton as the 5th-most valuable free agent on the market, just behind All-Stars Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine. Each of those players ahead of Ayton have long-term concerns over age, injury and/or commitment.

Here’s Hollinger’s analysis on Ayton.

5. Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix (restricted): $31,406,061

Phoenix surprisingly didn’t extend Ayton before last season and seems reluctant to pay him the max after the Suns fizzled in the playoffs. Sign-and-trading him instead could also help the Suns skip the luxury tax, both in 2022-23 and the two seasons that follow, while the idea of getting some added size at the forward spots is much more possible if Ayton is the trade bait.

As a result, the chatter is increasing that Ayton may indeed be available, in particular, if a sign-and-trade scenario develops that lets Phoenix bring back talent. (A straight offer sheet would likely just be matched by the Suns, who could always turn around and trade Ayton later; they really have no outs if Ayton leaves uncompensated.) One note on a sign-and-trade: Phoenix can only bring back about $20 million in salary on an Ayton sign-and-trade, even if he is paid the max, because of the so-called Base-Year Compensation rule. (The CBA stopped referring to it this way, but most folks in the league still do.)

As to the question of how much he’s worth: Even in my valuation system that devalues centers pretty strongly, the numbers suggest Ayton is worth the bite of the apple. My eye test also suspects he could be a more impactful scorer someplace else, with a pretty deadly midrange game for a player of his size. Finally, Ayton will be 24 next season, so this contract should cover some of his best seasons. Going long on a deal for him could produce additional value if he keeps improving.

Hollinger, formerly in the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies, is not a fan of one-position centers and openly talks about downgrading them in his player-ranking formulas because he does not believe their raw stats equate to wins as much as other positions.

Yet, even with that factored in, Ayton is one of the most valuable free agents on the market and is generally ranked in the 10% of NBA players (top 40 in a 450-player league).

So, for the second year in a row, the Suns have to decide what to do with one of the best free agents on the market.

The 2021 CP3 quandry

Last year, Chris Paul was set to opt out of his $44 million player option to sign a long-term deal to either stay with the Phoenix Suns (highly likely) or move on to another team (highly unlikely) just to make sure the bag is secured for several more seasons. He was one of the top ranked free agents on the market after yet another All-NBA season, this one ending in his first trip to the NBA Finals. Yet, the just-turned-36 year old was battling Father Time as the most productive late-30s point guard since in three decades.

He ended up signing a very good compromise deal with the Suns — two years fully guaranteed for $60 million, then only $15 million guaranteed over another two years. The deal was perfect — Paul had security of up to $120 million if he could stay healthy and All-Star level for four more years, while the Suns had security after two years if Paul fell off a cliff.

Now a year later, the now-37 year old Paul is closer to the cliff’s edge. His long term NBA future is in question with another injury-plagued playoffs and the Suns only have to worry about one more year of guaranteed money if the downward trend continues.

This year, the Suns have a new question with another of the league’s top free agents.

The 2022 Ayton quandry

Do they keep or trade the might-be-but-might-not-be disgruntled Deandre Ayton to a high dollar deal what would easily exceed the deal Chris Paul signed a year ago, and would make Ayton the second-highest paid player on the team?

Ayton is set to make $30 million next season from someone, if not the Suns. He’s a restricted free agent who can sign an offer sheet from another team, which the Suns have the right (and the ability) to match and keep him. Alternately, as we’ve discussed a lot lately, he could work with the Suns to get himself traded to the team that wants to pay him $30 million per year in a mutually beneficial deal for him, the Suns and the receiving team.

Despite the contract value ($30 million to start, plus raises, over four years) being almost identical between the two, the concerns the Suns might have about Ayton in the long term are completely different — you might say the exactly opposite — than the concerns they had about Chris Paul.

While Paul’s value diminishes dramatically each year due to age, Ayton’s value only increases well beyond the maximum raises he’s allowed to get per the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) at 8% per year. Even if Ayton stays on cruise control, the 24-year old will only keep getting better in the next four years. And he’s already proven he performs better in the playoffs than the regular season — a huge hurdle that most young players cannot clear.

Yet Paul’s hyper-competitive drive to outplay his expectations are unmatched, while Ayton’s own drive is still in question. Ayton is a hard worker, but nothing like Paul or All-NBA teammate Devin Booker. Paul has made the All-Star and All-NBA teams more than two handfuls of times in his career, yet Ayton may not ever make one. He’s got the talent to make as many as Paul, but has not yet shown the drive.

Still, Ayton is a low-max player even if he never accelerates out of cruise control. We say low-max to mean that the maximum contract a 4th-year veteran can receive is 25% of the salary cap, much lower than the 30-35% guys like Booker and Paul are now eligible to get.

Ayton’s max contract would be worth up to $130 million over four years while Devin Booker’s would be worth more than $210 million over four years, assuming today’s salary cap numbers.

Just for grins, let’s look at how Hollinger’s formula valued all the players on the 2021-22 Suns who signed, or were eligible to sign, new contracts last summer.

Hollinger’s 2021 valuations on Suns free agent signings:

  1. Chris Paul worth $36 million per year (signed for $30m/yr over 4 yrs, $75m guaranteed)
  2. Deandre Ayton worth $34 million per year over 5 years (no extension signed)
  3. Mikal Bridges worth $30m/yr over 4 yrs (signed for $21m/yr over 4 yrs, $90m guaranteed)
  4. Landry Shamet worth $8m/yr over 3 yrs (signed for $10m/yr over 4 yrs, $20m guaranteed)
  5. Aaron Holiday worth $5.8m/yr over 4 yrs (no extension signed)
  6. Cameron Payne worth $3.9m/yr (signed for $6m/yr over 3 yrs, $13m guaranteed)
  7. Abdel Nader worth $3.5m for one year (signed for $2.1m)
  8. Frank Kaminsky worth $3.1m for one year (signed for league min, about $2m)
  9. Torrey Craig worth $2.9m for one year (signed for $5m/yr over 2 yrs, $10m guaranteed)
  10. Elfrid Payton worth league min (signed for league min)
  11. JaVale McGee worth league min (signed for $5m for one year)
  12. Bismack Biyombo worth league min (signed for 10-day, then league min)

Phew! That’s 12 players were free agents last summer — or at least eligible to sign an extension — who spent time on the Suns 15-man roster in the 2021-22 season.

While last summer was contract negotiation season, this summer will more about trades than free agent signings.

The Suns don’t have as many contract issues coming up — only six players from the 15-man roster are free agents of some kind plus two more eligible for future-year extensions in Cameron Johnson and Devin Booker. Eight is a lot less than 12.

This summer will be more about trades than anything. Not only might Ayton’s signing come as part of a trade, but another half-dozen players are easily movable with short-term contracts on reasonable salaries (just under mid-level).

By mid-July, after the draft and two weeks of free agency, I expect to see 6-8 new names on the Suns roster. That’s just how off-seasons work across the NBA, where half the league’s roster spots change every single year.

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