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Deandre Ayton's uncertain future becomes hot topic for Suns

Deandre Ayton's uncertain future becomes hot topic for Suns

Following one of the most shocking postseason exits in recent memory, the No. 1 seed Phoenix Suns have to somehow regroup after another 2-0 series collapse. Instead of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks being the Suns’ kryptonite, Luka Doncic played spoiler well ahead of schedule for a team many believed was finally going to win its first-ever NBA championship.

The way it all ended for Phoenix in Game 7 brings up a lot of questions, one of which revolves around the future of Deandre Ayton, who was a no-show in the Suns’ final contest with 5 points in 17 minutes. Against the small-ball Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix and Ayton failed to capitalize on countless opportunities to get the Bahamian big man going around the paint with his elite touch. It was a disappointing downward slope for Ayton as the Western Conference semifinals progressed, and now there are rightfully questions as to where the two sides go from here.

Once thought to be a shoo-in for a rookie-scale max extension following Phoenix’s miraculous Finals run last season, Ayton now enters a potentially awkward summer with the team who drafted him No. 1 overall in 2018.

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Ayton did not feel valued by the Suns, as he didn't receive what he believed was a well-deserved max-deal offer. Wojnarowski also reported in October that Ayton’s representation was told by ownership that the 7-footer doesn’t deserve to be in that max-level conversation.

In an exclusive sit-down with BasketballNews.com last month taking a deeper dive into the Suns’ organization as a whole, team owner Robert Sarver showed belief in the former University of Arizona product long-term.

“I don’t think he’s so divisive here,” Sarver told BasketballNews.com last month when asked about Ayton’s uncertain future. “I think he’s shown that he’s improved each year, helps us on both on the defense and the offense. I think offensively you see this year he’s taken another good step in terms of his touch and his ability to score around the basket. So, he’s been a key part of what we’re doing.”

Ayton finished his fourth season in Phoenix averaging 17.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.7 blocks on a career-high 65.6% True Shooting percentage. Certainly benefiting from Chris Paul's brilliance over the last two years, there's always been an interesting discussion regarding how Ayton would function outside of the Suns’ system in a higher-usage role.

However, as Sarver pointed out, Ayton has continued to make improvements on both ends of the court under Suns head coach Monty Williams’ guidance. Completely buying into a complementary role alongside Paul and Devin Booker, Ayton’s importance can’t go unnoticed considering Phoenix's franchise-record-setting, 64-win campaign.

Having added a patented hook shot to his game while also showing versatility on the defensive end — which has become more refined in a winning environment — what could the next steps look like for Ayton with his second contract? Whether it be in Phoenix or elsewhere, Ayton’s market will reportedly be robust. Wojnarowski said on Monday that teams are preparing to try to get into the mix for the Suns’ versatile big man.

Since the Suns have not dipped into the luxury tax since the 2009-10 season — and the Joe Johnson situation in 2005 still hovers over the organization (and Sarver) — many have wondered whether Phoenix will feel comfortable paying into the tax for a significant amount.

But when it comes to Sarver's stance on the tax now, it's completely different this time around. Not only are the Suns comfortable paying the bill, but they realize their window to win is right now.

“I’m not saying we’re in a market that can be in it 10 years in a row. But when you get to a certain level where you have a chance to compete and you’re a top-four, top-six, top-eight team, if you’re at the level where you have a legitimate chance to compete — get to your Conference Finals and maybe win a championship — then I think you go in the tax, you pay and you do what you gotta do,” Sarver told BasketballNews.com.

While the goal of a repeat Finals trip wasn’t in the cards for Phoenix in these playoffs, an interesting offseason is now set to ensue. After such an ugly loss in Game 7 at the Footprint Center, can Phoenix actually feel comfortable running it back? The looming decision on Ayton’s future now becomes the hot topic in the Valley for the foreseeable future.

“You look at Cam [Johnson], Mikal [Bridges], Deandre [Ayton] — we’ve got some really good players that have made tremendous steps,” Sarver stated in April to BasketballNews.com. “I thought they showed that last year in the playoffs that they’re ready to compete at the highest level.”

Will an abrupt ending change the Suns’ internal tune on how they view Ayton? We’ll see, but the early indications are that they are ready to commit to winning at the highest level for the long-term. Whether Ayton is part of that puzzle or used to acquire another star player via sign-and-trade this offseason will now be a discussion that has to be had internally.

Phoenix already is up to $128.8 million committed in salary for next season. If the Suns re-sign Ayton to a lucrative contract, plus keep some key depth pieces around, they will be absorbing the highest luxury-tax bill in the NBA.

Another angle to consider here is Devin Booker’s forthcoming third contract, which will be his biggest cash-in yet on a supermax scale. Once Booker is named to an All-NBA team, he’s eligible to sign a four-year, $211 million extension. No question about it, that will be done in short order with the way Phoenix views Booker as their face of the franchise.

Circling back around to Ayton, the market for him could actually present a max offer from one of the few teams with the necessary cap space. Big-needy teams such as the Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Indiana Pacers can easily make an Ayton offer sheet happen, immediately putting pressure on the Suns. If the Suns and Ayton are instead heading their separate ways, a sign-and-trade is the most realistic route to recouping some assets for the former No. 1 pick.

“It’s internal,” Williams sternly said after Ayton only played 17 minutes in Game 7.

How the Suns view Ayton internally will determine whether he’s viewed as a player deserving of a lucrative max-scale payday in a few months.

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