Which team will Deandre Ayton play for next season?
That’s a question that’s been gaining more credence over the past few weeks, pointing to what should be the most interesting storyline this off-season. The soon-to-be 24-year-old Suns bigman, who was No. 1 in 2018, is entering the restricted free hand this summer after Phoenix flopped in the postseason. Rumors continue to mount about Ayton and his relationship with the organization that drafted him. We’ll get into that below, but sources say so the athlete that it’s “more likely” that Ayton will play somewhere else than Phoenix next season.
One of those targets could be Detroit, where the rebuilt Pistons go free with plenty of cap space, a franchise player in Cade Cunningham, and one of the more readily available and attractive trade chips in the league in Jerami Grant. The Pistons are expected to do their due diligence and run towards Ayton, according to sources. However, the extent to which Detroit is willing to use his services is unclear.
With the Ayton saga sure to dominate the off-season once the NBA Finals wraps up, The Athletics John Hollinger, a former NBA executive, and James L. Edwards III (Pistons beatwriter) discuss Ayton, the likely end of his time in Phoenix, whether Detroit makes sense as a travel destination, and whether the Pistons got to do everything they can to land Ayton.
(Editor’s note: Conversation edited for clarity and length)
Edwards: Given the ongoing dysfunction between Deandre Ayton and the Suns, the consensus is consistent with what I’ve heard and it appears he will be playing for a different team next season. How sure are you that his time in Phoenix is up?
Hollinger: I was skeptical until recently when I started talking to a few more people. Well, I think it’s more than likely he’ll be on a new target next season, especially if the Suns can work out a sign-and-trade that brings back some value. For some reason, I don’t think Phoenix is entirely comfortable making a big-money deal with him, and I think Ayton might be okay with going elsewhere if he can play a bigger offensive role.
Edwards: The confrontations between Ayton and Suns head coach Monty Williams are out there. There are also rumors that Ayton doesn’t get much sleep because he plays video games all night. Do you think teams are more reluctant to maximize and acquire it now than they were, say, six months ago? Or are these concerns a bit exaggerated?
Hollinger: As long as he’s playing Strat-O-Matic basketball I don’t see the problem. Seriously, I think the questions each team asks are sort of a version of “What don’t we know?” Why is Phoenix reluctant to pay him? Is Robert Sarver just Robert Sarver or is there something else going on here?” I don’t see any particular reason why his score is any lower than the questions any front office will be asking, which took out the Suns.
Ayton has had a good season and will be one of the best free agents out there. The past two postseasons have shown he can compete at a high level in a game and not be played off the floor.
Edwards: As previously mentioned, I believe the Pistons will do their duty of care towards Ayton and, if the price is right, will be in contention for his services. However, I don’t feel like they’re going to break the bank for him. On the surface, do you like Ayton’s fit with the Pistons? Is there another team you think he would fit better into?
Hollinger: I like the fit. First off, the Pistons are in a position where they need quality talent of all stripes to compete at a high level. Cade Cunningham is part of that solution and the fifth pick could see another player of this level, but Detroit is still at a stage where talent acquisition is more than adequate.
The problem I see for Detroit is that because Ayton is a restricted free agent, it will likely cost them something to pull it off. Even if Phoenix is reluctant to bring him back, the Suns are better off matching an offer hand than letting him go for nothing. On the other hand, a return in a sign-and-trade could reshape their roster to stay under the luxury tax limit and still allow them to compete next year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw a solid line to Jerami Grant here.
If not the pistons, the other two strong fits I see for Ayton are in Portland and San Antonio. Portland, in turn, would almost certainly go through a sign-and-trade given the Blazers’ current cap situation; Spurs have the cap space to sign Ayton directly, but a sign-and-trade – for Jakob Poeltl and Keldon Johnson, for example – seems a more likely endgame.
Edwards: As you mentioned, Detroit can pursue Ayton in limited hands, but a sign-and-trade with Jerami Grant appears to be a path that both sides could benefit from. If Ayton leaves Phoenix are you sure it will be through sign and trade? Do you like the fit with Grant on the Suns?
Hollinger: Yes, the Suns will almost certainly do a sign-and-trade if Ayton leaves because they simply have no option to replace him otherwise. You can only take back $18.9 million and Grant makes $20.9 million, but that part is easily solvable by adding small deals from Phoenix.
The biggest benefit to Detroit is the ability to make such a trade and Also be a player in the rest of free agency. They could pick up the options for Frank Jackson, Luka Garza, and Carsen Edwards, invest about $25 million in freelance, and then when they’re done shopping, operate as an “over the cap” team and do a sign-and-deal , which sends out Grant, Jackson, Garza and Edwards for Ayton and Torrey Craig.
As for Grant’s fit with the Suns… I like it to a point. I don’t think he’s as good as Ayton, but Phoenix has a hole in their list where the lack of big wings is a problem and we’ve seen it in the Dallas series in particular. I think Grant’s gotten pretty overrated, but if he’s willing to be the fourth option on an elite team, he could fit well into the Phoenix roster and give them a viable small-ball 5 in playoff matchups, which they last missed 2 years.
Edwards: Last thing, I’m on board that while the Pistons have a good amount of cap space, they don’t have to use all their free hand this summer. This class is blah. Jalen Brunson seems to have gone to New York or stayed in Dallas. Zach LaVine isn’t joining the Pistons. I don’t see Detroit chasing Miles Bridges given the price he’s likely to charge. Ayton’s judgment has been passed. I loved how Isaiah Stewart ended the season. Saddiq Bey is all right. Cade Cunningham is the face. A top 5 pick comes in.
I guess my question for you is, do you think the Pistons should feel pressured to make a big move? This Summer how the acquisition of Ayton? I personally think the pressure to really turn the corner is a year away.
Hollinger: I agree with you on the time issue. Detroit’s big jump in the standings is likely to come in a year when the Cunningham-Bey-Stewart group has another year together, the fifth pick has a full year under their belt in 2022, and the Pistons will be sitting on a huge hoard of the cap space.
On the other hand, I don’t see how turning Grant into Ayton harms either of those approaches, except to the extent that it results in a worse first-round pick in 2023. Grant is on an expiring contract, his value will never be higher, and he will want a salary that may differ slightly from his actual standing in the league. Detroit’s cap situation is so clean that taking maximum pay this year wouldn’t prevent them from doing so again next year; Cunningham is the only player guaranteed more than $10 million in 2023-24.
Given the general difficulty of bringing big-name players to Detroit as free agents, and the rarity of good young players of any stripe becoming free agents at all, I think it behooves the Pistons to explore all their options on Ayton. You are right that they don’t have to Do this and there should be a price point in sign-and-trade talks where they’re willing to walk away. However, this opportunity will not necessarily present itself again in the next two to three years.
(Top Photo Credit Deandre Ayton and Isaiah Stewart: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)