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Gobert and Towns likely prop up Ayton’s value on trade block

Wolves will try to trade one of Gobert or Towns, but they will have to get in line behind Ayton

Minnesota Timberwolves v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

The moment Naz Reid signed a three year, $42 million contract to stay with the Minnesota Timberwolves ($14 million per year) last weekend, one of the most attractive potential free agent center values disappeared while a pair of albatrosses joined Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton on the trade block.

As a result, Deandre Ayton just got a little more attractive. No, the Suns are not likely to trade Ayton, but they are definitely open to really good offers.

Word out this week is that the Suns were heavily involved in trade discussions last week with the Mavericks that would have netted mid-range salaries (Hardaway Jr., Richaun Holmes) but the Suns declined when the Mavericks wanted to include JaVale McGee and not even include draft compensation or young players. They also had discussions to swap Ayton to Boston for a package including Malcolm Brogdon. But then the severity of Brogdon’s injury came out, all Brogdon trades disappeared and Boston pivoted to the Smart/Porzingis trade.

The Suns are shopping Ayton. They’re shopping him. It’s unequivocal.

But they are unlikely to trade him because the offers so far are really bad.

What do the Suns want for Ayton? We’re not quite sure yet. You can assume by the Dallas fall-through they want more than just rotation players with two years left on their deals. The Dallas offer would have ended up costing the Suns MORE money for two years actually, only giving relief in year three when the last year of Ayton’s contract will be relatively cheap against the cap. And expiring, by then.

They likely want to swap a 24-year old for Ayton for at least one player in that age range with some likelihood to outplay his contract. Dallas offered none of that. If they include Josh Green and/or their first round pick instead of JaVale in the offer, maybe that works? I dunno.

Why are the Suns even contemplating trading Ayton before defensive-minded head coach Frank Vogel can try to work his magic on him?

Because they almost certainly don’t want to enter the 2023 Playoffs with the same problems they faced in 2022 (four good, but injury-prone, players and a bunch of low end rotation guys).

As it is, the Suns salary cap situation looks like a tea tree mushroom — fat on top with a skinny stem. Four players make $32+ million per year and, barring a trade of Ayton, the rest of the roster is guaranteed to make $7 million or less no matter how they fill it out.

In a perfect world, the Suns would turn Ayton into a pair of middling contracts — $10-20 million each, one of whom is a starting quality center — that can fill out a full five-man starting lineup of high quality NBA players. Like the Nuggets did. The Nuggets surrounded three low-defense max players with scrappy mid-level defenders like Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown and took that all the way to the championship.

But this isn’t a perfect world. The market for Ayton is soft, and not only because of his play.

The Ayton market is also soft because the NBA executives just started over-correcting on the new CBA deal.

Up to last summer, teams’ best possible decision was to keep young players on long-term contracts in anticipation of salary cap spikes that would make their salary one day look small. Anfernee Simons, Jordan Poole, Tyler Herro, and Ayton are just four of the early-20s guys who got fat four-year contracts last summer in the $25-30 million a year range despite none of them being a top-three option on a playoff level team. But with true star salaries rising to $50+ million in as little as two years (including Devin Booker), a $35 million contract looks easy to swallow.

Yet this summer, after a new CBA was agreed to, guess who’s on the trade block? Those Simons, Poole, Herro, and Ayton contracts are all up for sale, and Poole was already dumped — along with draft picks! — for an expiring contract (Chris Paul). Suddenly, high spending teams are worried they won’t be able to manage the cap in a couple years with a $30 million contract on the books as their 4th or even 3rd option (or in the Warriors case: 5th option).

Teams are short-circuiting on trying to reconcile these two competing triggers:

  • TV money is doubling soon, pushing the salary cap up 10% a year, will be almost 50% higher in four years
  • As early as next year, penalties to teams spending $36 million or so over the cap will be effectively team-killing

The latest CBA agreement is the toughest attempt yet to level the playing field between the market sizes. No longer will the Minnesotas and Sacramentos have to watch the Clippers and Warriors spend $100+ million over everyone else to field the best possible teams. They’re tired of the Warriors getting to ADD Kevin Durant and then Andrew Wiggins to the championship core of Steph/Klay/Dray.

Some teams are dumping long term salary already. If you ask me, that’s a panic move. Yes, the new CBA puts a 10% limit on salary cap increases, no matter how much money the TV networks throw at the league.

But still, 10% a year is a LOT.

Within five years, the cap will near $200 million — which is more than half-again higher than last year’s cap. And it will keep going. The overall cap increase will outpace the 8% salary increases a team can offer their own free agents, and double the 5% increase they can offer free agents. That tells me players will want shorter contracts, not longer, btw.

The Suns are focusing on the growing-cap part, while ignoring the penalties that will come due no earlier than 24 months from now. They won’t just dump Ayton for cap relief. They want to get better now with a chance to be even better later, and they’ve got until the trade deadline in the 2025 to get back into line to avoid the worst of the penalties.

Let’s circle back to the center market.

Over the weekend, the Minnesota Timberwolves re-signed backup center Naz Reid to a three year, $42 million contract. That’s $14 million a year to what is effectively a third-string center. This is the team that’s already paying $72 million this coming year to a pair of guys who profile best as centers, in Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Yes, I know they play Rudy Gobert at center and Karl-Anthony Towns at power forward for 10-15 minutes a night, but not the whole game. They’ll each get 15+ minutes as the center. In games where Towns and Gobert were both in the lineup last year, Reid played less than 17 minutes per game when he played and only appeared in 80% of them.

What does that leave Naz Reid? Hoping for injuries. Or a trade. It sure seems like the Wolves have seen what we’ve seen, that they can’t compete with the best in the West playing Gobert and Towns side by side. Too slow, not enough defensive versatility to compete on the wing with one-big lineups.

That’s why I say Gobert and Towns are on the market for the biggest possible return. Funny thing is, there’s even less of a market for them than there is for Ayton.

Consider just a year ago, the 30-year old Gobert was traded for a crazy five first round picks AND young players. This year, he probably gets the Bradley Beal deal: salary dumps, second round picks and low-level pick swaps. I can’t imagine the 31-year old Gobert getting a better return than Beal, can you?

Just a year ago, the Wolves gave a supermax extension to Karl-Anthony Towns, like the Suns did with Devin Booker. Those extensions guarantee they get 35% of the cap as of 2025, which currently projects to pay them a gobton: $56 million in 2025-26 with 8% raises from there. You think Towns, with six more seasons on the books and no real positional versatility, gets more of a trade return this summer than Ayton who will be making 40% less in 2025-26 and comes off the books after that? I don’t.

Just look at this.

My takeaway is that the market is really soft for centers, but Ayton’s at least got more appeal than Gobert and Towns. And who’da thought that a year ago?

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