The Phoenix Suns' hopes for a repeat NBA Finals run spontaneously combusted last night, when they fell to pieces for all of Game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks. It was a team failure. No one person can possibly be blamed for the performance. It takes a village to score only 27 points in two quarters. At home. During a win-or-go-home game.
The ramifications for the loss will reveal themselves over the course of the next year, but the one we can already see involves center Deandre Ayton. Ayton did not receive a max extension offer from Phoenix last summer and decided to play out the final year of his contract. He was a critical piece for the 64-win team, averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game on 63 percent shooting from the floor while providing rock-solid rim protection.
But with the season on the line, Ayton managed all of five points, four rebounds, and three fouls. He didn't play at all after getting yanked with eight minutes left in the third quarter, and Monty Williams seemed particularly displeased with the young center afterwards on a night where everything and everyone was deserving of his disappointment.
Ayton was presumably unhappy the Suns didn't think him worthy of a max deal after playing a big role in their NBA Finals run in 2021 and the way this season ended will leave a bad taste in everybody's mouth. He'll be a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning the Suns can match any contract offer he signs elsewhere, but it's never felt more likely that Phoenix will decide to let him walk for big money and dedicate those financial resources elsewhere.
If that does happen, where could Ayton end up?
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers dumped various big-salary players and tanked the second half of the season in order to put themselves in position to retool the roster around Damian Lillard after the old formula grew stale. Ayton would be perfect for their roster. Lillard has never played with a legit roll threat that doubles as a rim protector like Ayton. Jusuf Nurkic reached that level for a while before he broke his leg and wasn't the same player upon returning.
Portland will have the money to go after Ayton after trading C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell and others. This move would keep Lillard happy and reinforce to fans that the franchise isn't planning on launching a full-scale rebuild. Ayton would also get his chance to show off his offensive chops a bit more as Lillard's No. 2. It feels like an obvious match for both sides.
Throwing max money at a restricted free agent isn't really Charlotte's MO, but times are changing with LaMelo Ball growing into a star and still on his rookie deal. Michael Jordan wants his team in the playoffs and that team has been searching desperately for a high-caliber starting center for years. Bringing Ayton aboard would be the kind of smart move that can elevate a team -- take advantage of a great young player on a cheap contract by signing a guy whose only job is to make that star's life as easy as possible.
Ayton would be a featured piece of the offense, gets his money, and would be on the receiving end of more than a few highlight-reel passes from Ball. In terms of need, Ayton fits perfectly with the Hornets, and they can give him what he's looking for.
New York Knicks
The Knicks, as always, can't be counted out when it comes to potential big-name free agents. They'd have to engineer some sign-and-trade shenanigans to get Ayton using the various medium-sized contracts they signed last offseason (Julius Randle, Evan Fournier, etc.), but they could do it. The question is why they would, and to that I say the Knicks are always looking for the next big attraction and could easily market the Ayton/RJ Barrett duo as the future of New York basketball. They'd still be a star away from legitimate championship contention but Ayton would keep their record respectable and give the team another young star to build around.
Going after Ayton would serve as a quasi-reset of sorts, too. The core that made the surprise playoff run in 2020-21 didn't work nearly as well this season and features several older pieces in key roles. Bringing in Ayton in exchange for such pieces and going forward with him and Barrett would position New York to go after an even bigger fish when the time comes and keep the basketball good in the Garden.
The motivation for the Pistons here is very similar to the motivation for the Hornets: get a big-money guy who makes life easier for everybody else while the franchise centerpiece is still on his rookie deal. Detroit isn't quite at the stage Charlotte is. Cade Cunningham appears to be That Guy but isn't yet at the level of Ball after one season. So there will probably be hesitation in Detroit's front office to commit to a max deal while the identity of the team is still in flux. But now might be the time for the Pistons to upgrade.
They're one of a few teams who can easily give Ayton a max contract and have money left over. If Cunningham is as good as he appears, the 2021-22 season may have been the last year in the basement for a while. Ayton would help propel the team to the next level while giving Cunningham a high-end pick-and-roll partner. If Detroit decides now is the time, Ayton is the perfect target.