Deandre Ayton Likely to Leave Suns: Potential Landing Spots For The Center

Deandre Ayton is “more likely than not” to leave the Suns in free agency, according to a report from The Athletic. Ayton, the first overall pick of the 2018 Draft, hasn’t emerged as a superstar like fellow lottery picks Luka Doncic and Trae Young, but he was a major piece of a Phoenix team that came within two wins of a championship last year. Now, a change of scenery is on the horizon.

What Derailed Ayton’s Relationship With The Suns?

Ayton is no Doncic, but that didn’t matter much last summer when the former No. 1 pick averaged 16.3 points and 12.8 rebounds between the conference finals and NBA Finals. The Suns could live with Ayton being a key starter on a title-contending team, and while the team fell short in the Finals, it looked like he was coming into his own. Most figured he would sign a max or near-max deal as soon as he was eligible in the offseason.

Doncic signed a massive extension after the start of free agency, and he was far from alone. Trae Young, Michael Porter Jr., and even Ayton’s teammate Mikal Bridges were among the 2018 first-rounders to ink a new deal before the October deadline. An agreement never came for Ayton. Owner Robert Sarver wouldn’t approve a max offer, and Ayton wouldn’t accept less than that.

Despite averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds this season, it doesn’t look like Sarver’s mind has changed. The Suns were ousted by Doncic’s Mavericks in the conference semifinals, which ended with coach Monty Williams confronting Ayton on the sidelines. Bleacher Report later reported Williams had a problem with Ayton’s lack of focus throughout the season. Ayton will be a restricted free-agent in July, giving Phoenix the chance to match any offer he receives, but the Suns don’t seem prepared to try to make this work. Ayton’s time in Phoenix is likely up.

Potential Landing Spots For Ayton

A sign-and-trade seems likely if the Suns decline to match an offer sheet for Ayton. Phoenix has the leverage with Ayton being a restricted free-agent, and as the franchise hunts for a title, James Jones has every reason to try to upgrade the roster along the way.

The Trail Blazers have long been speculated as a potential landing spot for Ayton. Portland has some money to play with as GM Joe Cronin tries to rebuild the roster around Damian Lillard, and Ayton would give the Blazers a steady second option. The ability to take on a major offensive role might be attractive to Ayton, and playing alongside Lillard is better than what most teams with cap space can offer.

The Hornets have been in the market for a center since last offseason, and latest acquisition Montrezl Harrell isn’t the answer. Ayton can be Charlotte’s franchise center, playing alongside LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges in a role similar to what he did in Phoenix. Mitch Kupchak would have to make moves to clear space for Ayton, however, and the uncertain contract status of Bridges is a potential obstacle.

The Pistons were recently listed as the betting favorites to land Ayton if he leaves the Suns, due in part to their projected cap space of $27 million. Isaiah Stewart hasn’t shown enough to prove he’s the long-term answer at center, and the Pistons are set to pick in a range of the draft that lacks a standout big man. Why not draft a backcourt mate for Cade Cunningham and shore up the frontcourt by signing Ayton?

The Knicks are 7th in projected cap space, according to Spotrac. It’s not enough to sign Ayton outright, but all it might take is a couple of moves to create some room. The allure of New York would give the Knicks an advantage over Portland, Charlotte, or Detroit, and Mitchell Robinson’s pending free agency could allow the Knicks to seamlessly plug Ayton in as their center. Whether Leon Rose would pursue Ayton is still a question. Do the Knicks save their money and aim higher? Would a lack of focus be a problem under Tom Thibodeau? There’s a fit here, but I’m not sure the Knicks will be enticed enough.

Dan is a lifelong sports fan and graduate of Boston University. He’s covered several sports on Instagram since he was 12 and now writes about everything from betting trends to breaking news for Lineups.

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