Which team will Deandre Ayton play for next season?
That’s a question that has gained more credence over the last few weeks, and one that hints at what should be the most interesting storyline heading into this offseason. The Suns’ soon-to-be 24-year-old big man, who was the No. 1 pick in 2018, enters restricted free agency this summer after Phoenix flopped in the postseason. Rumors continue to intensify regarding Ayton and his relationship with the organization that drafted him. We’ll elaborate on this below, but sources tell The Athletic that it’s “more likely than not” that Ayton plays somewhere other than Phoenix next season.
One of those destinations could be Detroit, where the rebuilding Pistons enter free agency with a lot of cap space, a franchise player in Cade Cunningham and one of the league’s more obtainable and attractive trade chips in Jerami Grant. The Pistons are expected to do their due diligence and make a run at Ayton, per sources. However, the extent to which Detroit is willing to go to obtain his services is murky.
With the Ayton saga sure to dominate the offseason once the NBA Finals conclude, The Athletic’s John Hollinger, a former NBA executive, and James L. Edwards III (Pistons beat writer) discuss Ayton, the likely end of his time in Phoenix, if Detroit makes sense as a destination and if the Pistons must do everything that they can to land Ayton.
(Editor’s note: The conversation has been edited for both clarity and length)
Edwards: Given the lingering dysfunction between Deandre Ayton and the Suns, the consensus belief lines up with what I’ve heard and it appears that he will be playing for another team next season. How sure are you that his time in Phoenix has come to an end?
Hollinger: I was skeptical until I started talking to a few more people recently. Now, I think it’s more likely than not that he’s in a new destination next season, especially if the Suns can work out a sign-and-trade that brings back some value. For whatever reason, I don’t think Phoenix is totally comfortable going forward with him on a big-money deal, and I think Ayton might be okay with going somewhere else if he can have a bigger offensive role.
Edwards: The confrontations between Ayton and Suns head coach Monty Williams are out there. There are rumors, too, that Ayton doesn’t get a ton of sleep because he’s up playing video games all night. Do you believe teams are more hesitant now to both max him and acquire him than they were, let’s say, six months ago? Or are these concerns a bit overblown?
Hollinger: As long as he’s playing Strat-O-Matic Basketball I don’t see what the problem is. In all seriousness, I think the questions every team is asking are some version of “What don’t we know? Why is Phoenix reluctant to pay him? Is it just Robert Sarver being Robert Sarver or is there something else going on here?” I don’t see a specific reason for his value to be down beyond the questions every front office will ask regarding what turned the Suns off.
Ayton had a good season and will be one of the best free agents on the market. The last two postseasons have shown that he can hold up in a high-level game and not get played off the floor.
Edwards: As previously mentioned, I do believe that the Pistons will do their due diligence on Ayton and, if the price is right, be in the running to land his services. I don’t get the sense that they’ll break the bank for him, though. On the surface, do you like Ayton’s fit with the Pistons? Is there another team where you think he would fit better?
Hollinger: I do like the fit. First of all, the Pistons are in a position where they need high-level talent of any stripe in order to compete at a high level. Cade Cunningham is part of that solution and the fifth pick may net another player of that level, but Detroit is still at the stage where talent acquisition matters more than fit.
The issue I see for Detroit is that it likely will cost them something to pull off because Ayton is a restricted free agent. Even if Phoenix is reluctant to bring him back, the Suns are better off matching an offer sheet rather than letting him leave for nothing. On the other hand, a return in a sign-and-trade could reshape their roster in a way that keeps them below the luxury tax line and still allows them to compete next year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw a throughline to Jerami Grant here.
If not the Pistons, the other two strong fits I see for Ayton are in Portland and San Antonio. Portland, again, would almost certainly be through a sign-and-trade given the Blazers’ current cap situation; the Spurs have the cap room to sign Ayton outright but a sign-and-trade — for, say, Jakob Poeltl and Keldon Johnson — would seem a more likely endgame.
Edwards: As you mentioned, Detroit can go after Ayton in restricted free agency, but a sign-and-trade involving Jerami Grant seems like an avenue that could benefit both sides. If Ayton leaves Phoenix, are you certain it is via sign-and-trade? Do you like the fit with Grant on the Suns?
Hollinger: Yes, the Suns are almost certain to pursue a sign-and-trade if Ayton leaves because they just have no means to replace him otherwise. They can only take back $18.9 million and Grant makes $20.9 million, but this part is easily solvent with the addition of small contracts from Phoenix.
The biggest benefit for Detroit is the ability to make a trade like this and also be a player in the rest of free agency. They could pick up the options on Frank Jackson, Luka Garza and Carsen Edwards, spend $25 million or so in free agency, and then when they’re done shopping, operate as an “above the cap” team and conduct a sign-and- trade sending 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 does have a hole in its roster where the lack of big wings is a problem, and we saw it especially in the Dallas series. I think Grant has actually become fairly overrated, but if he’s willing to be the fourth option on an elite team he could fit nicely on Phoenix’s roster, and would give them a viable small-ball 5 in playoff matchups that they’ve lacked the last two years.
Edwards: Last thing: I’m in the boat that the Pistons, while having a good amount of cap space, don’t need to use it all in free agency this summer. This class is blah. Jalen Brunson appears to be gone to New York or staying in Dallas. Zach LaVine isn’t coming to the Pistons. I don’t see Detroit pursuing Miles Bridges given the price he’ll likely command. The verdict is out on Ayton. I loved how Isaiah Stewart ended the season. Saddiq Bey is good already. Cade Cunningham is the face. A top-five pick is coming in.
I guess my question to you is, do you think the Pistons should feel pressured to make a big move this summer, like acquiring Ayton? I think the pressure to really turn a corner is a year away, personally.
Hollinger: I agree with you on the timing issue. Detroit’s big push in the standings is likely to come a year from now, when the Cunningham-Bey-Stewart group has another year together, the fifth pick in 2022 has a full year under his belt and the Pistons will be sitting on a huge trove of cap space.
On the other hand, I don’t see how turning Grant into Ayton hurts any of those approaches, except to the extent it leads to a worse 2023 first-round pick. Grant is on an expiring deal, his value will never be higher, and he’s going to want a salary that may be a bit out of line with his actual standing in the league. Detroit’s cap situation is so clean that a max salary acquisition this year wouldn’t block them from doing it again next year; Cunningham is the only player guaranteed more than $10 million in 2023-24.
Given the difficulty, in general, of getting any big-name players to Detroit in free agency, and the rarity of good young players of any stripe becoming free agents at all, I do think it behooves the Pistons to explore all their options on Ayton . You’re correct 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. That said, this opportunity isn’t necessarily going to come up again in the horizon of the next two to three years.
(Top photo credit Deandre Ayton and Isaiah Stewart: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)