NBA free agency – Will the Phoenix Suns match Deandre Ayton’s max offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers?

NBA free agency – Will the Phoenix Suns match Deandre Ayton’s max offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers? post thumbnail image

What does the Indiana Pacers‘ looming max offer sheet for restricted free agent Deandre Ayton mean for them and the Phoenix Suns?

If Ayton signs the long-rumored deal on Thursday, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported he plans to do, the Suns will have until the end of the day Saturday to decide whether to match and retain the 2019 No. 1 overall pick. Ayton was a key part of Phoenix’s run to the 2021 NBA Finals but was not extended by the team prior to the deadline last October, allowing him to test restricted free agency.

A signed offer sheet would drastically limit the Suns’ options with Ayton, preventing them from sending him elsewhere in a sign-and-trade deal. Once that happens, Phoenix’s choices are either to match Ayton — which Wojnarowski reported it plans to do — and go far above the NBA’s luxury tax line or let him walk for nothing.

Meanwhile, an offer sheet for Ayton would be unprecedented for Indiana. As I noted earlier this week, the Pacers have signed only one restricted free agent to an offer sheet since 1982 — backup forward Chris Copeland. How would Ayton fit with Indiana if the Suns decline to match? Let’s break things down.

Limited options for Phoenix once offer sheet is signed

As long as Ayton remains unsigned, the Suns have plenty of alternatives available if they don’t want to pay him the max. A sign-and-trade could send him out for multiple players to enhance the Suns’ forward depth and bring back a cheaper replacement at center. Or Ayton could be included as part of a larger deal to bring Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant to Phoenix, one of his preferred destinations.

Once Ayton officially inks the Pacers’ offer sheet, those possibilities are off the board. Ayton can’t be traded until Jan. 15 and can’t be sent to Indiana for a full year. He also must sign off on any trade in that span.

That leaves Phoenix with what is evidently a more difficult choice. If the Suns weren’t willing to max out Ayton last fall or again at the start of free agency — when they declined to make him an offer, per Wojnarowski, all but daring him to sign an offer sheet with another team — why would they do so now?

Constraining Phoenix’s options alters that decision. The Suns are no longer choosing between a sign-and-trade or Ayton at the max, but strictly between whether to keep him at that price (which is slightly cheaper than a four-year max deal from Phoenix would have been because an offer sheet is capped at a 5% annual raise as opposed to 8%, a difference of about $5.5 million over the life of the deal) or let him walk entirely.

In the latter scenario, the Suns would sit $15 million under the luxury tax line with 13 players under contract (including center Jock Landale, whose minimum salary is lightly guaranteed), giving them access to the nontaxpayer midlevel exception. At this point of free agency, however, there are no remaining unrestricted free agents worth a starting salary north of $10 million. The remaining restricted free agents of note would likely want a larger offer sheet, meaning Phoenix has no real alternative use of its spending power in free agency.

The Suns could potentially benefit from more payroll flexibility if they complete a deal for Durant that sends out less combined salary than the $44.2 million he’s set to make this season. For example, a package of Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Landry Shamet would produce a legal trade that adds about $9 million to Phoenix’s ledger. At the same time, without Ayton as part of the return — whether heading to Brooklyn or going elsewhere in a multiteam deal — it’s unclear whether the Suns have enough to get Durant.

That leaves Phoenix considering the possibility of simply matching the offer. That move would take the Suns deep into the luxury tax. They’d be about $16 million above the tax line with 14 players under contract. But Phoenix would have the opportunity to lessen that bill with midseason moves, including possibly trading Ayton after Jan. 15.

Key to the Suns’ decision here is that even if they don’t think Ayton is worth the max, other teams clearly do. If there’s any hesitation about matching an offer sheet, Phoenix would be wise to strike a sign-and-trade with the Pacers before it happens, potentially yielding starting center Myles Turner in return.

If they’re not interested in that move, the Suns would still be better off matching Ayton and hoping to trade him down the line than simply letting him walk. A team in championship contention can’t afford the talent drain that losing Ayton would mean, no matter how skeptical it might be of his value.

Talent grab for Indiana

Although it’s unclear that adding Ayton would be part of a long-term strategy for the Pacers, who have Turner at center and have been thinking long term with their recent trades — sending Domantas Sabonis to the Sacramento Kings for a package headlined by Tyrese Haliburton and trading Malcolm Brogdon to the Boston Celtics — picking up a talented young player would make sense.

At nearly 24 (he’ll celebrate his birthday next weekend), Ayton fits the timeline of Haliburton (22) and recent first-round picks Chris Duarte (25) and Bennedict Mathurin (20) better than Brogdon (29) and Turner (26).

In the short term, Indiana’s roster would probably be too imbalanced to compete for anything more than a spot in the play-in tournament, barring a trade sending out Turner for a forward. Playing Ayton and Turner together would be no less awkward than the Sabonis-Turner combo the Pacers eventually broke up, but would be necessary without a trade because of Indiana’s limited power forward depth.

Right now, the Pacers are counting on another former Suns big man (Jalen Smith) at power forward, along with former Celtics big Daniel Theis (another player better off at center) and two players on minimum salaries (Oshae Brissett and Terry Taylor).

Down the road, Indiana could rebalance around a Haliburton-Ayton core that looks promising. Haliburton is the kind of pick-and-roll playmaker who unlocked Ayton in Phoenix with the arrival of Chris Paul. Per Second Spectrum tracking, Haliburton ranked fourth in pick-and-rolls run as a ballhandler last season, just behind Paul. Meanwhile, Ayton was fifth in pick-and-rolls as a screener, and the Suns’ effectiveness in terms of points per play on those screens was tops among any player who set at least 1,000 of them.

Surely, the Pacers are hoping for continued development from Ayton. As I discussed before free agency, he could join a group of players who saw their usage rate jump after changing teams. Ayton finished plays at a much higher rate in 2019-20 prior to the Paul trade, albeit at lower efficiency. As Ayton develops, it’s possible he could add more efficient self-created attempts to his high-volume pick-and-roll play.

The biggest concern for Indiana right now is going through the necessary hurdles to create space for a max offer sheet only to see Phoenix match. Per Wojnarowski, the Pacers plan to get to Ayton’s max ($30.9 million) by waiving Duane Washington Jr. (whose salary is nonguaranteed), and waiving and stretching the contracts of three players added in the Brogdon trade: Malik Fitts, Juwan Morgan and Nik Stauskas.

Although it’s unlikely the newcomers fit into Indiana’s plans, and Washington could always re-sign a similar deal if he clears waivers, the stretch would leave a small amount of dead money on the Pacers’ books for the next three seasons. Those moves can’t be undone if the Suns match an offer sheet.

As a result, Indiana surely wants to exhaust every opportunity to strike a sign-and-trade deal before officially completing an Ayton offer sheet. We should know soon whether there’s a trade to be made.

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