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January 22, 2023

Another year, another round of competitive free agent rankings. This year like last year, the Phoenix Suns have at least one of the most coveted free agents out there.

John Hollinger of The Athletic says his nerd count calculations have Suns center Deandre Ayton worth $31.4 million next season, slightly above the $30.5 million maximum he it is allowed to obtain with an average annual value of $33 million over four years. This ranks Ayton as the 5th most valuable free agent in the market, just behind All-Stars Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine. Each of these players ahead of Ayton has long-term concerns regarding age, injury and/or commitment.

Here’s Hollinger’s analysis of Ayton.

5. Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix (restricted): $31,406,061

Phoenix surprisingly didn’t extend Ayton until last season and seem reluctant to pay him top dollar after the Suns failed in the playoffs. Signing and trading him instead could also help the Suns avoid the luxury tax, both in 2022-23 and the next two seasons, while the idea of ​​getting extra size at advanced points is much more possible if Ayton is trading. bait.

As a result, rumors are growing that Ayton could indeed be available, particularly if a sign-and-trade scenario develops that allows Phoenix to bring back talent. (A straight offer sheet would likely be matched by the Suns, who could always turn around and trade Ayton later; they really don’t have any outs if Ayton leaves without compensation.) A note on a sign and trade : Phoenix can only bring about $20 million in salary on an Ayton sign-and-trade, even if he’s paid the maximum, due to the so-called base year pay rule. (The ABC stopped referring to it that way, but most people in the league still do.)

As for the question of how much he’s worth: even in my rating system which devalues ​​centers quite heavily, the numbers suggest Ayton is worth the crunch. My eye exam also suspects he could be a more hard-hitting goalscorer elsewhere, with a fairly deadly mid-range game for a player of his size. Finally, Ayton turns 24 next season, so this contract should cover some of his best seasons. Committing to a deal for him long could yield additional value if he continues to improve.

Hollinger, formerly in the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies, is not a fan of one-position centers and talks openly about downgrading them in his player rating formulas because he doesn’t believe their raw stats equate to wins as much as d other positions.

Still, even with that taken into account, Ayton is one of the most valuable free agents out there and is typically ranked in the top 10% of NBA players (top 40 in a 450-player league).

So, for the second year in a row, the Suns must decide what to do with one of the best free agents around.

The dilemma of CP3 2021

Last year, Chris Paul had to opt out of his $44 million player option to sign a long-term deal to stay with the Phoenix Suns (very likely) or move to another team (very unlikely) just to make sure the bag is insured for several seasons. He was one of the highest-ranked free agents on the market after another All-NBA season, this one ending with his first trip to the NBA Finals. Still, the 36-year-old who had just turned 36 was battling Father Time as the most productive late-30s playmaker in three decades.

He ended up signing a very good compromise with the Suns – two years fully guaranteed for $60 million, then only $15 million guaranteed over two more years. The deal was perfect – Paul had a security of up to $120 million if he could stay healthy and at All-Star level for four more years, while the Suns had a security after two years if Paul fell off a cliff.

Now, a year later, Paul, now 37, is closer to the edge of the cliff. His long-term NBA future is in question with another injury-plagued playoff run and the Suns need only worry about a year more guaranteed money if the trend to decline continues.

This year, the Suns have a new question with another of the league’s top free agents.

Ayton’s Dilemma 2022

Are they keeping or trading Deandre Ayton, maybe but maybe not unhappy, for a high dollar deal that would easily top the deal Chris Paul signed a year ago, and make Ayton the second highest paid player on the team?

Ayton is expected to make $30 million next season with anyone but the Suns. He’s a restricted free agent who can sign an offer sheet from another team, which the Suns have the right (and ability) to match and keep. Alternatively, as we’ve been discussing a lot lately, he could work with the Suns to get traded to the team that wants to pay him $30 million a year in a mutually beneficial deal for him, the Suns and the team. receiving team.

While the contract value ($30 million to start, plus raises, over four years) is nearly identical between the two, the concerns the Suns might have about Ayton in the long run are completely different — you might say the exact opposite – that the concerns they had about Chris Paul.

While Paul’s value drops dramatically every year due to his age, Ayton’s value only increases far beyond the maximum increases he is allowed to get under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) at 8%. per year. Even if Ayton remains on cruise control, the 24-year-old is only going to get better over the next four years. And he’s already proven to perform better in the playoffs than he does in the regular season — a huge hurdle that most young players can’t get past.

Yet Paul’s hyper-competitive drive to exceed expectations is unmatched, while Ayton’s own will is always in question. Ayton is a hard worker, but nothing like Paul or his All-NBA teammate Devin Booker. Paul has made the All-Star and All-NBA teams more than two handful times in his career, but Ayton may never make one. He has the talent to do as much as Paul, but has yet to show the drive.

Still, Ayton is a low-max player even though he never accelerates outside of cruise control. We say low-max to mean that the maximum contract a 4th year veteran can receive is 25% of the salary cap, much lower than the 30-35% that guys like Booker and Paul are now eligible for.

Ayton’s maximum contract would be worth up to $130 million over four years, while Devin Booker’s would be worth more than $210 million over four years, assuming current salary caps.

Just for smiles, let’s take a look at how Hollinger’s formula rated all 2021-22 Suns players who signed or were eligible to sign new contracts last summer.

Hollinger’s 2021 ratings on Suns free agent signings:

  1. Chris Paul is worth $36 million a year (signed for $30 million a year over 4 years, $75 million guaranteed)

  2. Deandre Ayton worth $34 million per year over 5 years (no signed extension)

  3. Mikal Bridges is worth $30 million per year over 4 years (signed for $21 million per year over 4 years, $90 million guaranteed)

  4. Landry Shamet is worth $8 million per year over 3 years (signed for $10 million per year over 4 years, $20 million guaranteed)

  5. Aaron Holiday worth $5.8 million per year over 4 years (no signed extension)

  6. Cameron Payne is worth $3.9 million per year (signed for $6 million per year over 3 years, $13 million guaranteed)

  7. Abdel Nader is worth $3.5m for one year (signed for $2.1m)

  8. Frank Kaminsky is worth $3.1m for a year (signed for min league, around $2m)

  9. Torrey Craig is worth $2.9 million for one year (signed for $5 million per year over 2 years, $10 million guaranteed)

  10. Elfrid Payton is worth min league (signed for min league)

  11. JaVale McGee is worth a league min (signed for $5 million for one year)

  12. Bismack Biyombo is worth league minimum (signed for 10 days, then league minimum)

Phew! That’s 12 players who were free agents last summer — or at least eligible to sign an extension — who spent time on the Suns’ 15-man roster during the 2021-22 season.

While last summer was contract negotiation season, this summer will be more about trades than free agent signings.

The Suns don’t have as many contract issues going forward — only six players on the 15-man roster are free agents of some sort and two more eligible for future-year extensions in Cameron Johnson and Devin Booker. Eight is much less than 12.

This summer will be more about trades than anything else. Not only could Ayton’s signing be part of a trade, but another half-dozen players are easily mobile on short-term contracts with reasonable wages (just below average).

In mid-July, after the draft and two weeks of free agency, I expect to see 6-8 new names on the Suns roster. That’s how offseasons work in the NBA, where half of the league’s berths change every year.

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