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How Deandre Ayton holds the key to the Suns acquiring Kevin Durant

How Deandre Ayton holds the key to the Suns acquiring Kevin Durant

Restricted free agency can be a frustrating process for players, and Deandre Ayton is currently experiencing that firsthand. As Ayton continues to sit on the open market, his destination is seemingly tied to the ongoing Kevin Durant saga. Hours before the free-agency moratorium period began last week, Durant requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets, and the Phoenix Suns are reportedly atop his wish list.

Over the last 48 hours, the Suns have been the most active team in free agency, agreeing to terms with four minimum-salary players: Bismack Biyombo, Damion Lee, Jock Landale and Josh Okogie. Phoenix seems to be focusing on the bottom of its roster and preparing for substantial changes — regardless of whether the team acquires Durant.

Finding a sign-and-trade partner for Ayton sits atop the Suns' to-do list, as this could determine whether they land one of the greatest scorers in NBA history in Durant. Phoenix is currently the betting favorite to acquire Durant, but since Brooklyn reportedly has no interest in Ayton, the Suns must try to find a third team to help facilitate a deal, or flip their center for additional pieces that they can send to Brooklyn. It's worth noting that Ayton must agree to any sign-and-trade deal (giving him a lot of power in this situation).

It seems Ayton doesn't have a tangible market right now, which is truly surprising. Restricted free agency usually bogs down the bidders, but you'd think a player of Ayton’s caliber would have multiple interested teams pursuing him. However, it's fair to wonder whether a robust market for Ayton ever existed.

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The Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs have been speculated as potential destinations, but it remains to be seen if either team has a real interest in Ayton. Both teams are entering a rebuild, and it's unclear if they're open to paying Ayton a max or near-max salary. Also, Indiana loves its young big-man duo of Jalen Smith and Isaiah Jackson (which is why the organization is making Myles Turner available in trade talks), while San Antonio has Jakob Poeltl manning the middle.

As the market begins to shift, let’s look at which teams could still be an option for Ayton. 

TORONTO RAPTORS

Toronto has been gaining steam in the betting odds for Durant over the last 48 hours, somehow jumping from +3500 to +250. It's no surprise that Masai Ujiri is trying to bring Durant to Toronto, but if he can't land KD, could Ayton be the Raptors' consolation prize? A three-team trade involving the Suns, Raptors and Nets could make an awful lot of sense for all sides.

It’s well-known that the Raptors need a long-term answer at center. Ayton, the former No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, could be the perfect high-upside swing from Ujiri and Co. Placing Ayton alongside Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Fred VanVleet and either OG Anunoby or Gary Trent Jr. would give Toronto a very dangerous lineup in the Eastern Conference. And at this point, the Raptors could swoop in to land Ayton for way cheaper than expected if they were to help facilitate a Durant-to-the-Suns trade, which is reportedly KD's preferred outcome.

Crafting an Ayton-to-Toronto trade isn't too difficult. Trent or Anunoby would be the centerpiece with any small expiring salaries needed to make it happen. Also, the Raptors being able to snag Ayton for one player and perhaps a future pick is a home-run scenario.

Working with the Raptors’ player development program, Ayton would be in the perfect spot to reach his sky-high ceiling; that goes without mentioning that Deandre playing next to Siakam and Barnes in the frontcourt is a dream fit for all involved. You want the perfect defensive trio to stop superstars like Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo? Look no further than Ayton, Siakam and Barnes.

Ayton in Toronto can only happen if the Raptors are willing to part with Trent or Anunoby. If not, this is likely a non-starter in negotations unless they are willing to give up multiple future first-round picks and expiring salaries to help faciliate Durant to Phoenix. Maybe even young big man Precious Achiuwa could intrigue Brooklyn or Phoenix enough with the right amount of draft capital attached.

Don't rule out the Raptors being a sneaky candidate to swoop in for Ayton because their front office is known to move in silence with no leaks in advance of massive moves.

ATLANTA HAWKS

The Hawks already pushed the chips all-in with the acquisition of Dejounte Murray, but could they be looming as a potential destination for Ayton? If you add up the pieces for the win-now Hawks, it makes a lot of sense. Adding Ayton into the Hawks’ ecosystem is a sure-fire bet to give this team legitimate NBA Finals aspirations.

A new big three in Atlanta consisting of Young, Murray and Ayton would make for nightly fireworks on the court; plus, it’s a stable, All-Star-level foundation with youth that could grow together on the same timeline for years to come.

Atlanta also stands out as a strong Ayton suitor because of its available assets, even after coughing up draft picks to the Spurs for Murray. Clint Capela is an obvious candidate to be moved in any Ayton deal due to his salary and position. Atlanta also has other salaries that can work in multi-team frameworks such as the often-rumored John Collins as well as Bogdan Bogdanovic. And don't forget about the Hawks' underrated core of young talent: De'Andre Hunter, Onyeka Okongwu, AJ Griffin and Jalen Johnson.

It's unlikely that the Hawks would make Hunter or Okongwu available for Ayton, but what about their recent first-round pick in Griffin? That's where it gets interesting, because a piece like Griffin can help accelerate a potential three-team deal between Phoenix, Brooklyn and Atlanta where the end result ultimately lands Durant alongside Booker.

The Hawks have extinguished most of their future assets for Murray, but they still have enough wiggle room to make another big splash. Ayton could be the final missing piece for Atlanta to become a real Finals competitor as early as next season. In addition, this would help the Suns land their ultimate prize.

UTAH JAZZ

This was a surprise team that reportedly checked in on Ayton last week, according to Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro. Shipping out Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves brought back an enormous return of draft capital, including three future unprotected first-round picks. As the Jazz aim to retool around Donovan Mitchell, Ayton actually checks a lot of boxes for them. Not only would he cost around $20 million less than Gobert annually, especially down the line, but Ayton is also on the same timeline as Utah's superstar shooting guard.

In order to appease Mitchell and prevent a trade request down the line, would someone like Ayton be a worthy gamble on a discount? Honestly, it makes a lot of sense. Assuming the Jazz send out more veterans and prioritize a youth movement around Mitchell in the short-term, they may very well become a real contender for Ayton out of nowhere.

Diving in deeper, Utah has the perfect amount of assets to sneakily make its move for Ayton. Bojan Bogdanovic's $19 million expiring salary is already enough to almost make salaries work. Throw in Jordan Clarkson, who no longer fits Utah's timeline and would be a huge bench upgrade for Phoenix, and that's where this gets serious. The Jazz also now have extreme amounts of draft artillery thanks to the Gobert trade pulled off last week by Danny Ainge.

Going off the assumption that Ayton will no longer be receiving a max-contract offer, Utah could quickly match the Suns' win-now timeline returning Bogdanovic, Clarkson and picks in exchange for Ayton. Those picks, alongside Bogdanovic's expiring deal in turn, could be flipped to the Nets in a three-team deal that lands Durant in the Valley.

For fun, here's a possible three-team trade involving the Suns, Jazz and Nets — a template where each side can say they exited in a better spot.

Nets receive: Mikal Bridges, Bojan Bogdanovic, Torrey Craig, Cameron Payne, 2023 first-round pick (via Suns), 2023 first-rounder (via Jazz), 2025 first-rounder (via Timberwolves), 2025 first-rounder (via Suns), 2027 first-rounder (via Suns), 2029 first-rounder (via Suns), rights to swap firsts in 2024, 2026, 2028 with Suns

Jazz receive: Deandre Ayton (four-year, $110 million sign-and-trade), Jae Crowder

Suns receive: Kevin Durant, Jordan Clarkson

Again, the Nets would secure a foundational building block with immense two-way upside in Bridges. Also, the $19 million expiring contract for Bogdanovic could be a huge trade chip for the Nets with their replenished box of assets.

Utah’s added draft compensation via the Timberwolves helps facilitate this deal for Brooklyn and Phoenix, and it makes a strong return for the Jazz in the process. Crowder would immediately takes Bogdanovic’s role in the rotation, as would Ayton for Gobert. Losing Clarkson is a tough pill to swallow for the Jazz, but if he were to be the price to pay for a former No. 1 pick, it’d certainly be worth it.

Phoenix and Durant get their way in the end, and Clarkson’s addition is the perfect cherry on top of a historic trade for the organization. Right off the bat, Clarkson could become the Suns’ sixth man and solidifiy their overall depth issues if this trade were to occur.

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It's rare to see the market swing the opposite direction so quickly, but that seems to be what's happening in real time with Ayton. The longer Ayton continues to sit out on the open market, the better the Suns' chances of acquiring Durant are.

As free agency has come to a screeching halt over the last few days due to the looming situation with Durant and the Nets, everyone is waiting for the domino to finally fall. Will Durant get his way and end up alongside Devin Booker and Chris Paul in Phoenix? That remains to be seen, but the exercise above really does show the Suns will have to get creative in order to get it done.

Deandre Ayton was the Suns’ first No. 1 overall pick in franchise history, and now he’s the deciding factor to whether Kevin Durant eventually takes his spot as the final piece to their championship puzzle.

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