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What the Ayton extension means to the Phoenix Suns, now and later

Entering the luxury tax is a new world for the franchise.

Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks - Game Six Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Whatever your feelings are relative to the Great Ayton Debate, one fact is apparent following the Phoenix Suns’ decision to match the Indiana Pacers’ 4-year, $133M offer sheet on Thursday: Phoenix is committed to winning and the price tag isn’t an issue. This update is a pleasant surprise for the Phoenix fanbase, and sends a message to the rest of the league that the Suns are willing to play amongst the big boys.

The words “cheap” and “tight” have been synonymous with the Phoenix Suns in their years since Robert Sarver assumed ownership of the team in 2004.

Stories like that of Joe Johnson in the 2005 off-season, a player who was a restricted free agent and had just given Phoenix 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds –and his left orbital bone – but did not feel that the Suns valued him. Phoenix offered him a 6-year, $60M deal, but it was $30M less the Suns could have offered him. Atlanta offered him more, and Johnson asked Phoenix not to match. A sign-and-trade ensued.

Amare Stoudemire was a free agent in the 2010 offseason. Rather than bringing him back, the Suns went a different route. “I wanted to re-sign with Phoenix,” Stoudemire said on the Knuckleheads Podcast in 2019, “and the negotiating tactic was he [Suns’ GM Lance Blanks] came to me and said, ‘Well, we got guys who’s gonna replace you tomorrow.’ I’m like, ‘What?’”.

That past has faded into the ether as many don’t recall how the Suns’ organization was perceived nationally by players and pundits alike. Phoenix has changed its tune in recent years with the arrival of GM James Jones; extending a maximum rookie offer to Devin Booker, bringing in – and then re-signing – multi-time All Star Chris Paul, and extending eventual First Team All-Defensive Team honoree Mikal Bridges.

The puzzle piece that left room for doubt that Robert Sarver had truly changed from his penny-pinching ways was the lack of a rookie max extension to Deandre Ayton prior to the start of the 2021-22 season.

There is no doubt that Jones valued Ayton. The GM stated recently that “DA remains a big part of what we do and he’s a free agent, so we’ll talk about free agency when the time comes.”

While we were playing checkers, James Jones was playing chess.

Jones saved Phoenix a huge chunk of change as, with the current deal, there are no built in escalators that one would normally receive in a rookie maximum extension. Had the Suns sign DA to that deal last October, those escalators could have reached $207M, which equates to $41.4M per year.

As we’ve all learned with every Kevin Durant-based trade machine this offseason, teams can’t have multiple rookie maximum extension contracts on their books unless they are signed by the original team that drafted them. Had Jones executed the max rookie deal with Ayton, the Suns would have been handcuffed in the long term if an opportunity arose to add another player on a similar deal.

The rumors were that Jones wanted Ayton back last offseason, just not on that deal.

Therefore, the market would dictate what the value of Ayton was this offseason. The market value came through an offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers. And what the Suns did was take the “cheap” narrative of the past and put it out like a Marlboro red.

That instantly matched.

With the swift response, James Jones and Robert Sarver told the Suns fan base that they want to win. And they are willing to pay for it. The Suns will exceed the $150.2M luxury tax threshold with the Ayton extension. With current contracts totaled, the team in at $167.2M per SpotTrac. Their estimated luxury tax bill is currently at $34.9M.

And the Kevin Durant deal is still a possibility.

You don’t need to go into the luxury task to be successful, but that strategy has equated to success in recent years. Success comes at a cost. The 2022 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors spent $39.3M in luxury tax last season. The 2021 NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks were just shy of $1M in luxury tax the year they won it all.

If Jones is playing his cards right, he is seeing the future NBA media rights deal as an opportunity to create valuable contracts now. The deal, which should take place prior to the 2025-26 season, is reported to be worth $75B. Yes, that’s “B” as in “billion”. This will increase the overall cap space for teams and increase the dollars on maximum contracts.

Remember that last time this happened back in 2016? Following a media rights deal, the salary cap jumped from $70M to $94M. In doing so, some inflated salaries followed. Joakim Noah earned a 4-year, $72M deal (a deal the Knicks have finally paid off), Luol Deng also penned a 4-year, $72M contract, and Chandler Parsons earned $94.8M over four years.

The same will happen when the new media deal. 2025-26 will be the last year of Ayton’s newly inked deal, and he’ll be earning $35.5M in his back-loaded contract. What is a max contract now will be valuable as a movable asset then, if the Suns’ GM chooses to go that route.

The mere fact that the Suns are not only willing to exceed the luxury tax, but keep their young core of Booker, Bridges, and Ayton together bodes well for the Suns in years to come. Despite your opinion on Ayton, whether or not you believe he puts forth max player effort, the moment should be celebrated. We don’t have to watch a young talent leave the team and blossom in another market.

His extension is a message to the rest of the NBA. Come to Phoenix and we’ll take care of you. Come to Phoenix and you’ll get paid. Come to Phoenix and be a part of something special.

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