Perhaps the most intriguing subject coming out of last week's NBA Draft Combine was speculation around Deandre Ayton's impending restricted free agency following the Phoenix Suns' second-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Ayton is expected to command a maximum salary, sources said, but there is skepticism among league executives the Suns would match such a lucrative offer.
Last offseason, Phoenix balked at the five-year, $170 million-plus maximum figure during Early Bird negotiations with Ayton's representatives. The Suns then quietly gauged his trade value in February, sources told B/R, including one structure with Indiana that featured Domantas Sabonis.
Now, there are three teams most often linked by league personnel as Ayton's potential suitors on the open market: Atlanta, Detroit and Portland. Multiple team executives also pointed to Charlotte, with a clear hole at center, and San Antonio, one of the few teams with significant cap space, as possible landing spots for Ayton.
The Spurs began weighing their long-term frontcourt plans at the trade deadline, with Jakob Poeltl's contract set to expire in 2023.
Suns head coach Monty Williams' recent comments about Ayton only added fuel to speculation about the center's prospective departure from Phoenix. After benching the Suns' starting center for the entire fourth quarter of Game 7 against Dallas, Williams offered a blunt explanation: "It's internal."
Later, when addressing the media for his exit interview, Williams was noncommittal to Ayton, revealing he had not yet spoken with Ayton 1-on-1 following the defeat and said, "the DeAndre situation is something we'll deal with this summer."
There were intel questions surrounding Ayton's motor and work ethic dating back to his days at Arizona, but the 23-year-old has seemed to largely answer those doubts throughout the first four seasons of his professional career.
The recent Williams dynamic may simply echo consistent word—dating back to the trade deadline—from league sources with knowledge of the situation that Ayton is not particularly a favorite of Phoenix's head coach. Williams has purportedly griped about Ayton's waning focus, which some people contacted by B/R said has often been reflected by the ebbs of his playing time.
There's a stronger sense among league figures that Phoenix brass simply does not view Ayton, or any center, as a player worth greater than $30 million annually.
The Suns romped through seven-straight games with Ayton sidelined in mid-January. Veteran journeyman centers JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo capably filled that 7-foot hole in Phoenix's lineup.
If the Suns could sign Biyombo midseason to just a veteran minimum deal and Chris Paul could steer him into a serviceable rotation player, could Paul not have the same success with a big man far less costly than Ayton's next deal?
Paul still has two years of roughly $30 million guaranteed on his contract. Devin Booker's five-year, $158.3 million deal expiring in 2024 will give way to an even pricier extension for the All-Star scorer. Mikal Bridges signed a four-year, $90.9 million agreement in October.
Adding Ayton to his own massive number will make things rather difficult for Phoenix to then extend sharpshooting wing Cam Johnson, who's eligible for extension talks this summer.
If the Suns let Ayton walk, league officials expect Phoenix to try and engineer a sign-and-trade for some frontcourt help. That would require tricky cap calculations and possibly a third team.
Perhaps Portland, where free-agent center Jusuf Nurkic is expected to command far less than Ayton on the open market, could be a trade partner. Detroit's longstanding willingness to discuss Jerami Grant could provide a window for Phoenix to nab a versatile frontcourt defender in return.
Atlanta Hawks Ready for Serious Change?
The Hawks are expected to be one of the more active teams this summer.
Following a disappointing season on the back of a 2021 Eastern Conference finals appearance, Atlanta governor Tony Ressler and president Travis Schlenk have already made public comments about needing to upgrade the Hawks' roster.
Behind the scenes, league insiders consistently mention Atlanta as a team willing to make wholesale changes. Rival executives view all Hawks players aside from Trae Young as eligible for trade.
Would a package surrounding Clint Capela help facilitate a sign-and-trade to bring DeAndre Ayton to Atlanta? Ayton has been a popular rumored target for Schlenk's front office, but multiple league sources with knowledge of the Hawks' thinking have also pointed to various wing scorers as Atlanta's prioritized endgame.
The Hawks hold all their first-round picks plus a 2023 first-rounder from Charlotte, in addition to a series of contracts that can be stacked to match a maximum salary: Capela, John Collins, Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter.
League sources told B/R Atlanta already explored Collins, Huerter and Gallinari trade conversations prior to February's deadline.
At this juncture, Bradley Beal and Donovan Mitchell are both expected to remain committed to Washington and Utah, respectively, this summer. But if any trade request did arrive, the Hawks could create as strong an offer as any suitor.
Atlanta has also been mentioned by multiple league sources as a potential destination for Zach LaVine.
The Irony of Zach LaVine's Free Agency
The premise that Zach LaVine's contract expiration would swiftly result in a lucrative extension with Chicago has dissolved, sources told B/R. However, the Bulls are still considered likely to retain LaVine on the open market.
Injuries to Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso derailed promising momentum in Chicago, where the Bulls were once the Eastern Conference leaders and considered a bonafide playoff contender before a flameout against Milwaukee.
Chicago brass had upgraded the roster around LaVine, bringing on Ball, Caruso and DeMar DeRozan, largely to build a postseason threat around LaVine before his impending free agency. The net result may have ironically played some factor in LaVine's current wandering eye.
One specific note has been frequently repeated by league figures with knowledge of the situation: The fourth quarter brilliance that put DeRozan in the MVP conversation often left LaVine watching from the corner as DeRozan isolated in the midpost.
While Chicago was supposed to be LaVine's team, featuring new running mates for the Bulls' All-Star centerpiece, LaVine was routinely rendered to a supplementary role alongside DeRozan.
This is not to suggest a rift between LaVine and DeRozan, but it provides necessary context as to why LaVine is suddenly viewed as a gettable free agent from rival front offices, as opposed to a straightforward extension case.
Few teams outside of Chicago can offer LaVine both the maximum salary and the alpha dog scoring role he is said to covet, but sign-and-trade options could deliver him to any number of destinations.
Along with Atlanta, Portland is most often mentioned as a top LaVine suitor. LaVine is a Seattle native, just a few hours' drive north of the Trail Blazers' facilities, and shares a relationship with Damian Lillard from their Team USA days.
Another Seattle native, Dejounte Murray, could provide another All-Star pairing for LaVine in San Antonio, where the Bulls guard could reunite with his Olympics head coach Gregg Popovich.
The Spurs would, in theory, present a clear lead scoring opportunity for LaVine, ironically filling a hole that has been vacant since DeRozan fled for LaVine's Bulls last summer.