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January 22, 2023

As rumors continue to swirl about the Chicago Bulls’ potential interest in All-Star defenseman Rudy Gobert, I can’t help but turn my head towards Deandre Ayton.

The former Phoenix Suns No. 1 pick was the first major center to have his future in question this offseason. Not only did the Suns face a surprisingly early exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, but Ayton was heading into restricted free agency. The organization declined to extend the big man an offseason ago, creating clear tension between the two sides heading into this summer.

So, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski directly reported that Ayton “didn’t feel valued” by the franchise shortly after the team exited the playoffs. He also noted that there were already “a lot of teams lining up” to see how they could add the potential franchise centerpiece to their roster.

This all led to The Athletic’s John Hollinger sharing his most recent report, which says our money should be on Ayton playing elsewhere next season.

I was skeptical until I started talking to a few people more recently. Now, I think it’s more likely than not that he’ll be in a new destination next season, especially if the Suns can find a sign and trade that brings back some value. For some reason, I don’t think Phoenix is ​​totally comfortable moving forward with him on a big deal, and I think Ayton might be okay with going somewhere else if he can get a bigger attacking role.

So if we now start talking about Gobert as a possible Bulls target, is it crazy to think Ayton could be on that list as well? I do not think so.

The mere fact that Karnisovas can think of Gobert tells us that he could be open to a number of big splashes, especially at the center position. Ayton may not provide the proven resume that comes with Gobert, but he does provide two things that could make the risk of future flexibility to acquire him more palatable: youth and benefits.

Ayton is only 23 and already has a trip to the NBA Finals under his belt. Even better, he was a vital part of this Finals team, averaging 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds on a 65.8% field goal percentage in his 22 playoff games in 2020-21. Add him to that pre-existing Bulls roster, and Karnisovas has a new two-way building block that could potentially expand this team’s competitive window.

Since I talked a lot about why the Bulls might be interested in Ayton earlier this offseason, I’ll just drop that below rather than re-hash it all here.

Now, I’m not mentioning this idea of ​​suing Ayton because I think it’s the best option. While that might be a “better” option than chasing Gobert (depending on whether you prefer to invest in the upside rather than a more established resume), we’re still talking about a situation where the Bulls would have to give up multiple assets to put back a center money max. In today’s NBA, that’s always a risk. Karnisovas should be convinced that either player is the centerpiece of a championship pursuit.

I should also clarify that going after Ayton would probably be a lot more complicated than going after Gobert. The Bulls wouldn’t be able to send him a maximum offer sheet in the free agent market. Instead, they would have to negotiate a signing and a trade with the franchise, which would prove quite difficult given the base year compensation rule the Suns face (read more , check out Ryan Borja on Twitter, who does a great job describing logistical issues).

Still, there is a world where the Bulls can land Ayton, which ties into the larger point I’m trying to make: we can’t rule anything out if the Gobert rumors are true, can we?

At the end of the day, Karnisovas first sold re-signing LaVine and improving margins as the way forward. I still think that’s the most likely outcome over the next few months, but real interest in Gobert means real interest in taking another big dip. Just something to think about.

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