Don’t read too much into this, please. But when I heard the Finals postgame show by Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst on the Lowe Post podcast this morning, they took a couple of minutes to talk about the Phoenix Suns hiring Frank Vogel, and more than a few seconds discussing how Vogel’s hire increases the likelihood the Suns keep Deandre Ayton around for next season.
For anyone who listens to The Drive on 910 FoxSports Radio, Jody Oehler and I this morning discussed the difficulties involved with keeping Ayton around another season. He’s definitely not worth the $32.46 million he will be paid next season. He’s coasted into contract negotiations last summer and been coasting ever since.
But here’s the problem: he’s not being paid outlandishly more money than he should. And the market is the market. The Suns only paid what he was worth. And the Suns aren’t spending outlandishly more money on the center position than they should.
Let’s widen the lens. For the past 10 years, we’ve been beaten over the head with ‘today’s NBA doesn’t need to spend on big men!. The best teams win with big wings and guards, but centers should be cheap and easily replaceable.’ Yet here’s the Suns investing the 7th most money in the league on the center position next year, according to Spotrac.com.
Guess which teams spend more on centers? The Wolves, Lakers, 76ers, Nuggets and Heat. You might recognize three of the Final Four in this year’s playoffs. The other Conference Finals team (Celtics) ranks 9th, just $5 million per year less than the Suns. The center position matters.
Let’s go down a level to the eight semi-finalists. Seven of the eight Semi-Finals teams from this year’s playoffs are among the Top 10 in spending on the center position. The only exception is the Warriors. The Warriors didn’t actually change the NBA. They became the exception to it. If you find transcendent All-Star talents at the four other positions, you can get away with dime store centers.
Back to Ayton.
I’m tired of him too. I’m tired of his low flame. I’m tired of seeing him go through the motions. I’m tired of him settling for being pretty good. I’m tired. I’ve been wanting to trade him for months now (not years, but definitely months). And I assumed that would happen this summer, especially because he’s the best trade chip the Suns have on the roster.
But he’s just simply not that replaceable. I know you want to replace him with a center that costs half as much, but I already showed you that the league’s best teams spend a ton of money on the center position. You risk irrelevance if you can’t defend the paint while also balancing your inside-outside attack at the same time. If you cut the salary of your starter in half, you’re getting half the talent and you almost certainly have to spend that savings on a backup that does the things your starter can’t do, any hope you get the substitution patterns right.
So when I heard Lowe and Windhorst talking about how Frank Vogel increases the Suns chances of keeping and making the most of Deandre Ayton, I had to listen.
“I think the chances went up by a non-trivial amount with the hiring of Frank Vogel,” Lowe said on the pod, “who has a good track record with centers.”
Vogel once coached Roy Hibbert into a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and made the absolute most of Anthony Davis’ incredible defensive talents. Both the Pacers and Lakers led the league in defense under Vogel, and have been worse than that without him.
“I think part of the reason why Frank Vogel got the job,” Windhorst said. “was because when he came in he had an idea of what to do with Deandre Ayton. That’s not to mean it’s gonna work. They obviously, as an organization, have a complicated relationship there. They did not want to pay him the max. But for the last year, he was in an adversarial relationship with his coach.”
We all loved Monty, including me, but facts are facts. Williams was the first and only head to roll at the end of the season. Not one other person has lost his job, not even the rest of the Suns coaching staff. They gave second-chair Kevin Young a huge raise just to stay (which could easily be the ultra-competitive Ishbia just wanting another one-up on Williams).
“And I’ve heard Mat Ishbia has a fondness for Deandre Ayton,” Lowe added. “i’m not sure how true that is, but I heard he likes his game.”
“I know this,” Windhorst rejoined. “They will not start the season this year with the player and the coach not liking each other.”
This is going to be a long, tough summer in the Valley no matter what. What the Suns do with Ayton will have massive impact on their ability to fill out the middle of the rotation. Do they stay top-heavy and hope for health, or fill out the middle and... still hope for health?
The deal with trades is that you should always end up with the best player in the deal. To intentionally trade a dollar bill for three quarters is not smart contender-building. Ayton is almost certainly that dollar bill in any trade this summer. If the Suns can upgrade from Ayton, great. But that upgrade has got to be a big man. Can’t be trading Ayton for a guard, leaving the center position to scrubs. Scrubs don’t win. I refer you back to paragraphs 5 and 6 of this article. And that doesn’t even address trying to defend the Spurs’ Victor Wembanyama or the Thunder’s Chet Holmgren or Houston’s Jabari Smith Jr. or the Pelican’s monster front line or the Grizzlies’ massive front line. The majority of the NBA is getting bigger on the front line. Almost all of the contenders are huge.
Stay tuned. Read the tea leaves. Take long slow breaths. We’ll get our answer on the Suns intentions in early July.