The Phoenix Suns made a big call in moving on from center Deandre Ayton during the offseason last year, but it was one that looked to pay off early. The two main players they received in exchange for Ayton - Jusuf Nurkic and Grayson Allen - becoming two of their starting five players immediately.
Nurkic has quickly endeared himself to Suns fans for his back-to-back spats with Draymond Green when facing the Golden State Warriors, and even better he has remained healthy and on the court for most of the season so far. A great return given the injury issues that have kept Nurkic off the court for large portions of each season going back as far as 2019.
Ayton on the other hand has had a rocky start to life with the Portland Trail Blazers, and the latest intel is that it is not going to get better anytime soon.
Although the Trail Blazers are a rebuilding organization and Ayton helped to anchor a Suns defense that made it all the way to the NBA Finals as recently as 2021, he has failed to grasp the opportunity to be a major contributor for that team. Still only 25-years-old, the belief was that he would put up some big numbers while the franchise lost plenty of games.
Instead the Trail Blazers are 15-37, with only the San Antonio Spurs trailing them in the Western Conference, and Ayton has put up a paltry 13.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. A terrible return given Ayton is young, athletic, has plenty of upside and managed 18 points and 10 boards last season while seemingly miserable with the Suns.
Ahead of the NBA's trade deadline - which has since past and saw the Suns make a couple more moves - Jason Quick of The Athletic took stock of where the Trail Blazers are at right now in their rebuilding process. In the piece, one comment from Quick caught the eye regarding Ayton's tenure so far in Portland;
"But I would have liked something bold. A trade of Deandre Ayton, for starters. Although his play has spiked for the better in the past month, his first months in Portland were defined by tardiness and tantrums according to team sources. And there has been an eerie resemblance to Hassan Whiteside, the former Blazers’ center whose statistics looked nice, but had little to no impact on a game. The quicker the Blazers can move off Ayton, the sooner I will believe this franchise is headed in the right direction."- Jason Quick - The Athletic
Any time a player is being compared to Hassan Whiteside, that is not exactly a good thing. Even less so when you consider the Trail Blazers had hoped that Ayton could be a franchise center to pair with their exciting backcourt players like Anfernee Simons and Scoot Henderson. This is also the same player who missed a game earlier this season because of ice as well.
Really though this is further proof that the Suns moved on from Ayton at the right time - and although the haul they got in return seemed underwhelming at the time - it continues to look like a win for the front office. As long as Nurkic is healthy, then he is helping this team. He fills the role excellently and in a way Ayton never would, and he also doesn't mind going to the bench in crucial moments too.
It may be that come the postseason Kevin Durant is moved to the five position a lot more, as it looks like a lineup that head coach Frank Vogel can use to have great success. Nurkic doesn't care if that happens, he just wants to win. Allen has been superb for the Suns this season, and his play and league leading 3-point shooting has helped them win some games.
Nassir Little was also part of the trade - and as we explored in the aftermath of the trade deadline here - he gives the Suns some flexibility to maybe make future roster moves. Keon Johnson was the final player in the deal, and although he is no longer on the roster, getting three players who help in very different ways for Ayton has been huge.
It is sad that Ayton's career has taken a backwards step, and Suns fans and the organization as a whole surely wish him nothing but the best. But they did not have the time to wait to see if he could figure out how to best help the team win, and it has now become the problem of the Trail Blazers to sort through. A sorry next chapter for a former first overall pick.