The Phoenix Suns have entered their offseason earlier than expected after laying an egg in Game 7 of the West semis against the Mavs, getting thoroughly outplayed by Luka Doncic and company, who seemingly made the Suns quit on their home floor by halftime in a must-win game.
It was an astonishing thing to watch because the hallmark of the Suns for the past two years has been their fight and resiliency, only to fold almost immediately under the pressure applied by Dallas in the biggest game of their season thus far. While an impressive performance from Dallas that made it clear that they have grown from postseason heartbreak in recent years, it raises some questions about the Suns and where they stand going into this summer.
Another Finals run would’ve all but guaranteed the Suns run it back again, no matter the outcome, but with Chris Paul very suddenly looking old (to the delight of some like Patrick Beverley) and a weird situation involving Deandre Ayton and Monty Williams that saw the star big man play just 17 minutes in Game 7, that doesn’t seem assured.
The Suns brass will huddle up over the next month-plus to figure out their path forward, but with cap room tight, Ayton figures to be the decisive piece on how they will proceed. Ayton was not given the max extension his fellow Class of 2018 cohorts were, and he wasn’t happy about that but pressed on this season. For the Suns, they’ll have to decided whether to match a max offer or look to swing a deal for him (as just letting him walk doesn’t solve any cap issues). Bringing him back locks them into this group with little flexibility to make changes, but obviously this group has a high ceiling when everything is clicking. If they believe something needs to change, though, he is the only avenue to make significant upgrades elsewhere on the roster via a sign-and-trade.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski laid out those options and made clear that there wasn’t a world in which Ayton wasn’t getting a max this offseason, it’s just a matter of where he ends up. The Suns can match any offer sheet, but if they want to trade him, they’ll need to work with Ayton to find the place that best fits what he’s looking for in a team who can also offer something substantial in return for the Suns to get something out of the former No. 1 overall pick.
"Deandre Ayton did not feel valued by this Phoenix organization… [He] is going to get a max contract in the marketplace, somewhere… There are a lot of teams lining up to figure out: how can we acquire him?"@wojespn on Ayton's future with Suns 👀pic.twitter.com/d6flmZNCjz
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 16, 2022
It is rather stunning that Ayton finds himself in this position given his growth into a very good big man and a crucial piece of a Finals team last year. Still, his inconsistency in effectiveness and impact on games was evident this postseason, and the Suns may view their biggest need as some more ball-handling and creation rather than a big man who needs others to get him involved offensively. Ayton still has room to grow, and if he taps into that remaining potential, he’ll be well worth a max, but Phoenix clearly has questions about whether he will take that extra step.
Other teams won’t be as worried about that, believing they can bring the rest of it out of him and seeing the potential two-way dominance as a welcome addition worthy of a max. While the list of teams that can clear max cap space is very small, there are far more that could put together the salaries necessary to bring him in on a sign-and-trade. One would expect the majority of those teams to reside in the East, given the presence of Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo, and other quality bigs.
When July 1 rolls around, we’ll start to learn where all parties involved stand, and it’s possible the West’s top-seed will see a major shakeup.