The Phoenix Suns are reportedly looking at ways to keep Deandre Ayton despite an unceremonious ending to the season.
Per ESPN's Jonathan Givony, the Suns are among the teams interested in acquiring the No. 8 pick from the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2022 NBA draft and could include "a player like Cameron Johnson in order to free up salary-cap flexibility" to re-sign Ayton.
The Suns currently have $129.2 million in payroll commitments to nine players next season. Team governor Robert Sarver has indicated a willingness to go into the luxury tax if they are in a position to "compete at the highest level" for a championship.
Ayton seemed to solidify his status as a key member of Phoenix's roster over the past two seasons. The 23-year-old was terrific in the 2021 postseason, particularly on the defensive end, to help the Suns reach the NBA Finals.
During the 2021-22 regular season, Ayton maintained his high level of play to help the Suns finish with the NBA's best record (64-18). He averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game with a career-best 105 defensive rating in 58 starts, per Basketball Reference.
Phoenix's dream season turned into a nightmare with a loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Semifinals. The team led the series 2-0 and 3-2 before falling in seven games.
Game 7 saw the Suns get blown out 123-90 on their home court, and Ayton mysteriously only played 17 minutes. Head coach Monty Williams cryptically told reporters "it's internal" on why his young center didn't play more.
Ayton was eligible to sign an extension for the first time last offseason. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported talks between Ayton's camp and the Suns stalled because the team didn't want to offer him a rookie max deal that would have paid him at least $172.5 million over five years.
Suns general manager James Jones told The Athletic's Sam Amick the team was open to discussing a shorter max deal of three or four years, but the two sides never had any "real negotiations."
The Suns can make Ayton a restricted free agent if they extend him a qualifying offer. That would give them the right to match any potential offer sheet he might receive from an opposing club.
Ayton could also sign the one-year qualifying tender worth $16.4 million, play out the 2022-23 season with Phoenix and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He could also work out a long-term deal with the Suns this offseason.