Deandre Ayton is headed back to the Phoenix Suns after the team matched a four-year, $133 million offer sheet tendered by the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Now, please excuse me while I make all this about the Kevin Durant trade sweepstakes.
Viewing the Ayton contract through this lens is not a farce. Woj previously reported the Suns and Miami Heat were “among two of the teams” on his list of preferred destinations. Any major or could-be or would-be transactions involving either of them invariably has a colossal impact on the future of a top-15 player in NBA history.
So, yeah, this exercise matters. Let’s parse through the fallout from all angles.
Phoenix Path to KD is getting complicated
They are on Durant’s wish list. That matters in this situation, even with four guaranteed years remaining on his contract. Equally, if not more, importantly: Ayton was never going to be among the primary assets heading to the Brooklyn Nets.
They already re-signed the much cheaper Nicolas Claxton, and maxing out another big man via sign-and-trade who does not space the floor makes zero sense when you need to plan your roster around Ben Simmons’ finite range. The Nets could have always rerouted Simmons, but that is an awful lot of trouble to go through for Ayton, an extremely talented play finisher who is neither a certified All-Star nor a proven self-creator.
Acquiring any player via sign-and-trade also meant Brooklyn would have to get under the $157 million luxury-tax apron. It is roughly $25 million over that number now. Taking on Ayton would be convoluted and prohibitive at best.
Even so, this deal significantly affects the Suns’ tippy-top offer for KD.
Ayton’s unresolved free agency allowed them to suss out sign-and-trades with facilitating parties who would send additional assets Brooklyn’s way. Though base-year compensation issues would remain in play, sending out Ayton’s salary in any KD deal would theoretically reduce the collateral damage of Phoenix’s package. Maybe it would not need to include Mikal Bridges or, more likely, Jae Crowder or Cameron Johnson.
That path to Durant is now off the table. Ayton cannot be moved until Jan. 15, and he has the capacity to veto any agreed-upon trade for a full year.
But wait: Hope is far from lost for the Suns
All of this dramatically alters the Suns’ best offer to the Nets, and the convenience with which they could strike a deal.
Phoenix needs to send out a hair over $35.2 million to acquire KD’s $44.1 million salary. Bridges becomes necessary-include (and arguably already is a non-negotiable inclusion) for his $21 million price point. The Suns can come up with the $14.2 millionish difference in a variety of ways, but without supplementary assets from an Ayton sign-and-trade, they are not getting away with flat-out flotsam.
They also have to compete with any overtures coming out Miami, Toronto or another dark horse yet to be named. Rather than fleshing out packages with Landry Shamet, Dario Saric or Cameron Payne, the Suns may need to unload both Crowder and Johnson. Their tippy-top offer looks something like Bridges, Crowder, Johnson, four first-rounders (2023, 2025, 2027, 2029) and three first-round swaps (2024, 2026, 2028).
This is not to say that has to be the package. They could add other salaries if the Nets (inexplicably) want to get off Joe Harris. Maybe it takes slightly less draft equity. Perhaps the Nets will take Shamet instead of Crowder, etc. However, Bridges, Crowder, Johnson and your entire draft is now the Suns’ top-shelf proposal.
Who has the better KD offer now; Phoenix or Miami?
It remains to be seen how the Suns’ maxed-out cupboard now compares to other possible offers.
The Heat loom here since they are the only other team on KD’s reported list thus far. Their salary filler is very much up in the air. They cannot feasibly match KD’s money without including Kyle Lowry or signing-and-trading Udonis Haslem somewhere to overcome the math.
Regardless, the meat and potatoes of their all-in package is Tyler Herro, Nikola Jovic, three fully unprotected first-round picks (2023, 2027 and 2029) and three first-round pick swaps (2024, 2026, 2028). Mind you, this all presumes they can rope the Oklahoma City Thunder into removing the protections on the 2025 first rounder that the Heat already owe to them.
Phoenix has that framework beat unless Brooklyn is in love with Lowry’s post-prime and/or smitten by the idea of shelling out near-max money for the extension-eligible Herro.
This is where things get interesting.
KD’s short wish list always suggested dark-horse outcomes could bubble to the surface. Phoenix’s capacity to offer what felt like by far the best package limited that speculation.
The Ayton deal potentially shifts the KD landscape to undefined—not accessible to everyone, but broader than its current narrowness. Brooklyn is more incentivized to explore alternatives that Durant does not approve of, and he may be more inclined to expand his list of destinations, particularly if he believes the Nets will send him elsewhere without giving a damn about his initial preferences.
How does the Suns’ peak KD offer stack up with the “other” Favorite?
Only one other team has been prominently lurking about the KD sweepstakes: the Raptors. They may not be a Durant favorite right now, but team president Masai Ujiri is equal parts brilliant, creative and a giver of zero-you-know-what’s.
Dangling Bridges, Crowder, Johnson, four firsts and three swaps doesn’t give Phoenix a leg up over a Toronto package assembled around the more tangible intrigue of Scottie Barnes plus picks and salary filler.
If Barnes is off the table, as expected, the Raptors’ best offer becomes Pascal Siakam and picks. That should resonate more with a Nets team looking to remain competitive post-KD. Siakam is an established All-NBA player and an actual self-creator. Getting him on top of draft equity trounces Phoenix’s offer of non-stars and a crapton of picks.
The Suns’ offer looks a lot better if the Raptors also are not willing to unload Siakam. And they might not be. Pairing him with KD has to be part of the appeal, especially if you are not on Durant’s list of desired landing spots.
Without including Barnes, Siakam or Fred VanVleet, the Raptors’ sexiest proposal becomes OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr., Precious Achiuwa and their entire draft through 2029 (four firsts, three swaps). The combined value of OG and GTJ edges out the aggregate appeal of Bridges, Crowder and Johnson, but Trent can be a free agent next summer (player option) and Anunoby will be right behind him in 2024 (player option).
That is probably a footnote. The Nets could simply pay both players to stay, and the Suns’ all-in package does not promise much more long-term security. Bridges is under contract for the next four years, but both Crowder and Johnson (restricted) are scheduled for free agency next summer.
Choosing between Phoenix’s new best offer and Toronto’s not-actually-all-in package most likely comes down to a matter of draft-pick preference.
Do you short the Suns’ future, knowing Durant is entering his age-34 season, Chris Paul is entering his age-37 season and the historically frugal and under-league-investigation Robert Sarver still controls the team (for now), but that Devin Booker is only 25 and signed for the next six years? Alternatively, do you bet on the Raptors going belly-up in the long term despite keeping Barnes because KD and Siakam (28) are not particularly young, and because, at this moment, Durant does not have Toronto on his list?
Does KD now open up the Trade Market?
Phoenix is, for now, helped along by the finite market for KD. He may have four guaranteed years left on his deal, but you aren’t mortgaging your future for someone on the back end of their prime who doesn’t want to play for you.
Durant can continue to insist this is an either-or proposition and hope Brooklyn “settles” for the best offers coming out of Miami or Phoenix. But what if the Nets try to call his bluff? Or what if they really are prepared to keep he and Kyrie Irving into next season?
KD needs to at least consider other teams if he is hell-bent on leaving the Nets. And for what it’s worth, there are suitors who become contenders (or favorites) upon acquiring him that wouldn’t need to drain their asset pool.
Can he talk himself into a title window alongside Zion Williamson on the New Orleans Pelicans? Do the Cleveland Cavaliers have enough non-draft assets to cobble together a viable offer without Darius Garland (just extended) or Evan Mobley?
Are the Nets so committed to competing that the Milwaukee Bucks could enter the fold by offering Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton? Does Deni Avdija, Johnny Davis, filler or Kristaps Porzingis and every first-round pick and first-round swap the Washington Wizards can feasibly offer pique Brooklyn’s attention?
Do the Golden State Warriors actually factor into this equation? And how much draft equity are they willing to pair with Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman?
Would the Memphis Grizzlies dare to include Jaren Jackson Jr. in a prospective deal? Does Desmond Bane, Ziaire Williams and a metric ton of draft equity stack up with the likely offers from Miami, Phoenix and Toronto?
Right now, the scope of KD’s market is not nearly large enough to deem these sweepstakes wide-open. Assuming Sarver does not whine about paying KD, Ayton, CP3 and Booker, the Suns might still have the best package available to the Nets. However, their viability in this has always been largely predicated on Durant wanting them and no one else.
If the Ayton contract does anything, it increases the likelihood that Phoenix cannot cobble together the best trade proposal for Durant—and that KD will be convinced, perhaps forced, to broaden the currently narrow market he has created for himself.