Ayton played just 17 minutes in a must-win Game 7 between his Suns and the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs were exceptional but the lack of effort from Phoenix was clear.
Following the game, head coach Monty Williams was asked about the lack of minutes for his starting big man and he simply responded with: “it’s internal”. Quite an unimpressive response from a coach who has been always been effusive in his praise for his players across his entire career but more specifically with this Phoenix squad.
Adding fuel to the fire is Ayton’s contract status. Entering the 2021-22 season, Ayton, alongside his 2018 draft class, was eligible for a contract extension. While many of his peers signed lucrative extensions, namely Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., and Jaren Jackson Jr., the Suns apparently didn’t offer the former number one overall pick a max extension.
Fast forward to the end of the season and when Monty subbed out Ayton for lackluster effort on his final defensive possession, we might’ve seen Ayton’s last possession in a Phoenix Suns jersey.
Since the Williams ‘internal’ comment, Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN, reported that there definitely is a max contract offer on the free agency market for Ayton. I use the term ‘reported’ loosely as Woj does a lot of favors for agents looking to buff up their client’s value and this came at the perfect time.
Following this news, Zach Lowe, ESPN reminded everyone that at the most recent trade deadline, the Suns had exploratory talks with the Indiana Pacers about a possible deal for Ayton. Since the Pacers were trying to tank, we don’t know if it was a swap for Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner but one of those deals might still be on the table.
Because Ayton is finishing his rookie contract, he’ll be a restricted free agent, meaning any offer another team sends his way can be matched by the Suns. If they ask Ayton to sign an offer sheet from another team, he could sign for as short as one season, and even if Phoenix matches, he could walk in free agency this time next season.
It was a confusing decision not to extend the former Arizona big man in the offseason but the way this season ended and the comments from many in the Suns organization points to this potentially being the end of Deandre’s time in Phoenix.
But what does Deandre Ayton’s free agency have to do with the Denver Nuggets?
I’m not sure if the Phoenix Suns are rivals with the Denver Nuggets but at the very least, they’re in the same conference, they’re both good enough to compete for titles, and their most recent playoff battle featured some hard fouls and ejections.
It has definitely the makings of a rivalry.
Battles between the two teams have featured a key matchup between the two big men: Nikola Jokic and Ayton. While the Big Honey is a two-time MVP and one of the best offensive players in the league, Deandre plays him well and he has earned the respect from the MVP.
Whether it be his physicality, his athleticism, or knowledge in the post, Ayton plays well against Jokic and Nikola has always praised how well the other plays. After their four-game series in the second round of the 2021 playoffs, Jokic sent Ayton a signed jersey.
Ayton was more than happy to accept the jersey after the series:
"“That’s amazing. I’m doing something right.“I give him his praise. … That’s the number one center in this league to me. Just what he do and what he brings to the game is tremendous. I always look up to him and try to take things from him and just try to learn from it and put it in my game as well.”"
It’s rare praise from Nikola who has quietly blitzed the rest of the league’s big men in his time in the league. He famously cooks Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert in their matchups and it’s always a must-watch when Jokic plays against Joel Embiid.
There’s something about Ayton that Jokic just appreciates more than other players in the league. It’s definitely not their stats, in the 13 games the two have played against one another, Jokic has averaged 25.8 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 6.6. assists and hasn’t conceded much of anything on the other end.
But Ayton’s defense clearly does something against Jokic because the Nuggets weren’t able to get anything going in the 2021 second-round series and Phoenix won in four. If Ayton is on the outs with the Suns, it’ll only help the Denver Nuggets in future playoff series.
Assuming Phoenix sign-and-trade Ayton for another big man or use his money on another position, they’ll open up a very important weakness at the center spot should they run into Denver. It’s not okay to hope you can dodge the Nuggets because we see teams try and play the standings to no avail every season.
In the most recent episode of The Deep Two NBA Podcast, we talk about the team building process for teams. Some organizations have to sign whichever good players they can get their hands on while the better teams can focus on specific matchups and fine-tune their roster.
While Ayton is a much bigger building block than a single addition, he’s the best big man out there to defend Jokic, a player Phoenix will likely have to get through to win the West. Losing Ayton is ideal for the Denver Nuggets.