For years, Deandre Ayton was harshly and unreasonably compared to what he wasn’t: Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Then, suddenly, he became an integral member of the Western Conference-winning Phoenix Suns. He authored two-way dominance against the reigning champs, Los Angeles Lakers. He posed issues for MVP Nikola Jokic. He feasted inside against the Los Angeles Clippers’ small-ball brigade.
By the second half of the season, Ayton was a marvelous pick-and-roll defender, an elite play-finisher, and excellent rebounder. For the betterment of the team, he sacrificed counting stats and starred in his role, the latter of which emerged as a tagline of sorts for him down the stretch. Many top picks whose play is juxtaposed with All-Star ball-handlers racking up nightly double-doubles might not embrace that.
And yet, the reward for his admirable selflessness and growth is to play out the final year of his rookie contract, and pursue a new deal next summer. Every night, he will suit up and risk injury without the safety net of another contract, all because he’s beholden to the financial preferences of an exorbitant billionaire.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Ayton and the Suns ended extension talks ahead of Monday’s 6 p.m. ET deadline without reaching an agreement. Ayton rightfully wanted the max. Owner Robert Sarver refused to grant it. Sure, Ayton will probably receive a max contract next summer, whether it’s Phoenix outright or the organization matching another team’s offer, but this is a matter of principle and acknowledging the human aspect of sports. Sarver is disregarding relationships. He’s jeopardizing an environment that has been lauded for its culture since head coach Monty Williams took over following years of dysfunction fueled in part by Sarver’s previous ineptitude.
Ayton took a backseat and welcomed the grunge work of NBA basketball. He posted career-lows in points per game (14.4) and usage rate (16 percent). After frequenting midrange jumpers his first two seasons, perhaps in the hope of stretching out beyond the arc, he largely excised those shots from his profile. He guarded three top-10 superstars across four playoff series. He played his absolute tail off to try and deliver the Suns a title.
Some may try to justify this move by referencing Ayton’s struggles in the NBA Finals. Maintaining such prolific impact in that context simply cannot be threshold for a 22-year-old in his third season, tasked with containing Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is en route to one of the greatest careers in league history. If that’s the bar, almost every player in the NBA fails to meet it.
What’s more is even if you don’t deem Ayton to be the caliber of guys at similar price points, which is roughly the 40th-highest-paid player, he has another year to reach that level (at worst, he’s already close). Given how much he’s developed and altered his game since entering the NBA, future growth should be expected. He recently turned 23. Who he was in July 2021 will not be who he is in October 2022 when a new deal begins.
Sarver should reward Ayton for his vast, difficult improvements and commit to him long-term. Affirm your belief in him and the team’s title aspirations. Relationships matter and this was a golden chance to strengthen one. Sarver bungled it, seemingly because of greed.
Bypassing an extension for Ayton does not and will not free up significant money to be applied elsewhere and mitigate his potential departure in restricted free agency during this era of Suns championship contention. This “saved” money does not translate to the open market. Phoenix had avenues to retain its key players like Chris Paul and Mikal Bridges because of provisions in the CBA that allowed them to go over the cap to re-sign them. Ayton, even if he came off the books completely next summer, wouldn’t create any space for Phoenix to replace him. This is predominantly use it or lose it money that exists only within this context.
In re-signing Paul and extending both Bridges and Ayton, Sarver and the Suns had a chance to help maintain or accentuate the rosy vibes cultivated last season. Instead, this story line will lurk in the shadows. That’s not to say it will derail anything this year, but it’s an unnecessary risk motivated by relatively mild financial gain.
The Suns will not reach their goals without Ayton. He deserves his money. This was a disheartening misstep in which an owner wielded too much power over a player. Pay the big fella, he’s done everything possible to earn it.