It is no secret that the Phoenix Suns are going to need to get creative in adding some depth to their roster as they look to make another championship run next season. Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton is an enviable place to start, but all four of those players will make over $30 million in 2023-24.
Working within the confines of those monster deals is difficult, and if you were to ask the front office of the Suns which player they’d move from that quartet if they could, the answer would surely be Paul. At 38-years-old he is beginning to really slow down, and the introduction of Durant means that a different kind of point guard could also excel with the group.
With Paul still a member of the team for now, the future of Ayton is one that is going to be deliberated long into the offseason. But trading him to shore up the rotation has its pitfalls.
Ayton has attempted to leave town on his own terms in the past, signing an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers last year. The Suns quickly matched this, yet rumors of his perceived fit and how he felt as part of the franchise persisted. If Ayton felt like he should be featured more, then adding possibly the best scorer of all-time in Durant pushed him further down the pecking order.
If he is still a part of this team come opening night next season, then Ayton is going to be asked to be the team’s best defender (to save Durant’s legs), chief rebounder and somebody who will be expected to set a ton of screens and do all of the dirty work. In other words, do all of the ugly stuff that backup big Jock Landale seemed to relish when given his chance in the playoffs.
It is not that Ayton is below this kind of role, but at 24-years-old and with a ton more to his game than the big body and bigger desire to work hard that Landale brings to the table, he would certainly be overqualified as some sort of rim runner. Finding a happy medium for the player is hard though, which is why some continue to lobby for the center to be traded.
Ayton’s usage last year in the regular season of 22.9 percent was below Durant, Booker and also Cam Payne, who saw a lot of action as a result of Paul’s deteriorating health. He led the team in rebounds at 10 per night, and was third amongst his teammates at 18 points per contest. These are solid numbers for a starting five in a vacuum, but the drop off after those “Big Four” players plus Payne was startling.
Once Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson were traded to the Brooklyn Nets in the Durant deal, their next highest scorer was — Terrence Ross at nine points a night. A player who was bought out by the Orlando Magic, and who played 21 times for the organization. All of these games coming off the bench.
That’s a massive problem, but selling Ayton to add just any old players to fill out spots six through nine in the rotation isn’t the quick-fix solution. A recent tweet by Eric Pincus claiming that the Dallas Mavericks could offer Tim Hardaway Jr., JaVale McGee, Josh Green and the 10th pick in this year’s NBA Draft highlighting not only Ayton’s current value, but the small list of teams who would want him as they are currently constructed.
Outside of a valuable lottery pick this summer, are any of those three players in a potential Mavericks deal helping to get the Suns closer to a championship? McGee is finished as a true impactor for a contender, while Hardaway Jr. is predominantly an offensive weapon, which the Suns have plenty of. Green intrigues, but he is years away from being the player he is going to top out as.
On the other hand, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo have won the last five MVP awards. All are centers, and although Ayton isn’t going to win that award himself in the future, the need for a dominant big man is now back in fashion in the NBA. You need a player who can combat those guys, especially if you want to embark on a deep postseason run. Ayton already did just this in helping the Suns to the finals in 2021.
You need only look at the value of a player like Kevon Looney to the Golden State Warriors, to see the importance of having the right big man on your team. Especially alongside Durant, who the Suns will want to keep out of the paint defensively as much as possible during the regular season. Put another way, what available big man would you have take Ayton’s place? A Landale type can only do so much, and there’s a reason Bismack Biyombo is still on the roster.
Ayton makes a lot of money, but replacing not only his productivity but everything else around that which he brings to the team would not be easily done. He has his price, and it would allow the franchise to move one of their massive contracts, but going down this road is not something the Suns should do lightly. He is the youngest member of their core group, and his importance defensively would be sorely missed if he was gone overnight.