About five weeks ago, we broke down possible destinations for Deandre Ayton in anticipation that all the noise about the Phoenix Suns' lack of interest in signing him to a max extension would be proved real, especially after a Game 7 blowout loss at home. Since then, there hasn't been much movement on the Ayton front. Today, the Suns got the ball rolling on his restricted free agency in an official capacity, offering him a qualifying offer of $16.4 million. So it feels like a good time to revisit where he could end up.
A lot has changed since then, though. The NBA Draft came and went without an Ayton trade. Rosters are closer to finalized. With two days to go before free agency officially kicks off, here are a few possible landing spots for Ayton.
The Pistons seemed like the most obvious suitor for Ayton to the point that there were pre-draft leaks about the big man's willingness to team up with Cade Cunningham in the long term. Then the draft happened and Detroit ended up getting Jalen Duren, the most athletic big man in the draft, for cheap alongside their own top pick in Jaden Ivey. The franchise was reportedly extremely high on Duren, and coupled with their enthusiasm for Isaiah Stewart, it seems like there's no room for Ayton at this point.
Is that true? Maybe not. Duren is a project and Stewart has his limits athletically. Ayton can provide back-to-the-basket scoring in a way that neither of those two guys can, and he still fits the timeline at 25 years-old. Detroit seems unlikely to throw a max at Ayton now, but their interest could remain as forming a three-center rotation with those bigs isn't the worst idea. The Pistons are probably out in any sign-and-trade scenarios, but hey've got money to spend.
New York Knicks
The Knicks spent draft night and the days afterwards aggressively clearing cap space, which seems like a strange move. Everybody knows they want Jalen Brunson, but New York could have made a good offer with the cap space they already had. What if they're gearing up for a double-dip in the restricted free agency market? They could send out some assets for Brunson in a sign-and-trade and then throw the max at Ayton.
Why? The Knicks seem desperate to return to relevancy and after the Kyrie Irving news the likelihood of a Grade-A superstar hitting the open market is very low for at least this offseason. Bringing in Brunson and Ayton to create a new core with RJ Barrett would give the orange and blue a reasonably high floor, even if their ceiling leaves something to be desired. It would take even more creative cap work, but the Knicks could pull it off.
The Suns probably don't want to ditch Ayton no matter what, although they may have to at this point. They just don't want to pay him max money, whether that's a directive from ownership in a cost-saving move or a legitimate belief that he isn't worth it. As you can see above, the landscape is not very friendly to Ayton's desire to land a max deal. The teams that could've used him like the Pistons or Hornets found cost-friendly alternatives in the draft, and there is no team out there that believes Ayton is the missing piece for their hopes to contend and will pay him as such.
So the Suns may very well end up keeping him, whether it's on the qualifying offer that will allow him to hit unrestricted free agency next offseason or on a cheaper long-term deal. This would be a good outcome for Phoenix. They'd get to keep a talented young player who was rather important to their NBA Finals run in 2021, either for one more season while reaping the benefits of contract-year play or for the next few years at a more acceptable price tag. This appears to be the most likely option heading into free agency.