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Deandre Ayton to the Pacers Makes Too Much Sense Not to Happen

Indiana is reportedly close to landing the Suns restricted free agent in a move that could accelerate its rebuild, but things might not be as simple as they appear. With Ayton, and restricted free agency at large, nothing usually is.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note: As of Thursday afternoon, Deandre Ayton and the Pacers have reportedly agreed to terms on a four-year, $133 million maximum offer sheet. The Suns have 48 hours to decide whether they’ll match the offer.

Eleven months after he became eligible for his rookie extension, and nearly two weeks after the start of free agency, Deandre Ayton—the no. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, and the league’s top restricted free agent—is still waiting for that bag that Chris Paul was so certain Deandre would be getting.

After Phoenix’s disastrous exit from the playoffs at the hands of Luka Doncic’s Mavericks, Suns general manager James Jones expressed interest in hanging on to his starting center. “I know it’s a big question, a topic everybody wants to talk about, but I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: DA is a tremendous part of what we do,” Jones told reporters last month. “We want to keep this team together.”

That desire comes with some cost constraints attached, though. The Suns balked last fall at offering Ayton the five-year maximum-salaried extension of his rookie-scale contract, preferring instead to let him join the injury-plagued Greg Oden as just the second former no. 1 pick in the lottery era to enter restricted free agency. Since then, the Suns have declined to offer him a deal of their own, letting him seek his fortune elsewhere—perhaps because, as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann notes, they went 18-6 without Ayton last season, and outscored opponents by nearly 17 points per 100 possessions in the minutes Paul and Devin Booker played without Ayton. And so, while the Suns built up the depth behind Ayton—re-signing Bismack Biyombo, trading for ex-Spurs backup Jock Landale—Ayton, again, played the waiting game.

It seemed like the wait would finally end over the weekend, once the Pacers—a rebuilding team with some cap space and movable contracts, long tipped as a potential Ayton destination—completed their reported deal to send Malcolm Brogdon to the Celtics. Swapping Brogdon’s $22.6 million 2022-23 salary for a handful of smaller deals allowed Indiana to create somewhere between $26.4 million and $30 million in cap space—likely one or two small moves away from the $30.9 million salary that Ayton would command in the first year of a new max deal.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported Monday that he believed the Pacers were “very close” to either furnishing Ayton an offer sheet or executing a sign-and-trade with Phoenix—likely for the exceedingly available Myles Turner, who would provide a suitable replacement at center for the contending Suns—possibly by the close of business that day. Monday came and went, with the conclusion of the Brogdon deal reportedly held up by a delayed physical. Ayton remains a Sun and may well continue to be one, if Indy comes up with a sub-max offer or Phoenix decides to match a max. But the Pacers’ pursuit makes plenty of sense.

After a fits-and-starts opening to his career overshadowed by draft classmates Doncic and Trae Young, Ayton emerged as a screen-setting, scheme-busting scorer and burgeoning back-line anchor for a Suns team that came within two wins of the 2021 NBA championship and won 64 games last season. He was one of only nine players to average at least 17 points and 10 rebounds per game last season. He’s an excellent interior finisher, with a feathery touch on floaters and hooks, and enough range to step out and knock down face-up midrange jumpers.

Ayton also finishes defensive possessions, ranking in the top 15 in defensive rebounding rate in three of the past four seasons. He’s a solid rim protector who helps keep opponents out of the lane by unfurling his long arms in drop coverage and holding opponents to 55.5 percent shooting at the basket; he was 20th out of 90 players to guard at least 200 up-close tries last season. “Internal” strife and video-game-inspired agita aside, he’s one of the best young bigs in the sport—a combination of consistent production and high upside that marks him as an excellent target for a Pacers team that shipped Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento last season.

Just about every prospective two-man game partner that Ayton could find in a new destination would represent a step down from future Hall of Famer Paul; out of 111 players to run at least 500 pick-and-rolls last season, CP3 ranked first in points produced per chance, according to Second Spectrum. A move to Indiana, though, would mean partnering with Tyrese Haliburton, a 22-year-old playmaker who was one of the league’s highest-volume and most efficient pick-and-roll guards after joining the Pacers at February’s trade deadline, averaging 17.5 points on 50/42/85 shooting splits and 9.6 assists per game under head coach Rick Carlisle:

Giving Haliburton a screen-setter and dive man like Ayton—who rolled off screens more than twice as often last season as Turner, according to Second Spectrum, and whose rolls produced more points per chance than any high-volume screener besides Joel Embiid—would give Indiana’s offense a new, thumping heartbeat. Play a pure drop and Haliburton might just fire off the bounce; he’s knocked in 39.4 percent of his pull-up 3-point attempts through two seasons. Switch the screen to keep Haliburton out of the paint and Ayton can take a smaller defender, bury them in the paint, and get dunk after dunk. (Just ask the Clippers.)

Play up to the level of the screen, and Haliburton will begin to poke and probe. Lean too far back, aiming to stay connected to Ayton, and Haliburton can walk into floaters. Step up to stop the ball, and the 6-foot-5 Haliburton can just loft a lob over the top to a dude who’s finished 135 alley-oops in the past two regular seasons (and one pretty memorable one in the playoffs). Try to solve the problem by committing a help defender early to tag Ayton’s roll, and Haliburton will hunt opportunities to spray passes out to the perimeter, where rookie Bennedict Mathurin and other shooters might be waiting to feast.

Adding the 23-year-old Ayton would help propel the Pacers toward yet another quick pivot without spending too much time in the depths of the NBA’s basement. It could create a pathway to the Pacers establishing a new identity, with fresh hope that a new 25-and-under core—Ayton, Haliburton, Mathurin, Chris Duarte, just re-signed former top-10 pick Jalen Smith, Aaron Nesmith, and intriguing forwards Isaiah Jackson and Terry Taylor—might ascend toward a higher ceiling than the fine-but-not-much-more-than-that Victor Oladipo–Sabonis-Turner teams. And, if things don’t quite pan out as planned, it would give the Pacers a high-dollar salary and a gifted young player with pedigree whose contract might wind up being useful in the sure-to-come next round of Disgruntled Star Musical Chairs.

It’s a way forward—a gamble on the kind of high-end established player who’s rarely chosen Indiana in unrestricted free agency over the years, and whom the Pacers have hardly ever approached on the restricted market. (Indiana’s lone RFA offer sheet since 1982? A whopping two-year, $6.1 million deal for Knicks forward Chris Copeland in 2013. This would be a slightly bigger swing.) It’s also a bet that opportunity and youth-movement chemistry might unlock even more of Ayton’s tantalizing talent.

Ayton’s discrete physical tools are impressive: the 6-foot-11, 250-pound frame, 7-foot-6 wingspan, and 9-foot-3 standing reach; the balletic balance and pitter-pat footwork that allow him to slip into openings in the paint and maneuver in space on the perimeter. When playing alongside the midrange mastery of Paul and Booker, though, the total Ayton package has rarely leapt off the screen and smacked you in the face. He’s not obvious: a no-doubt-about-it force, an All-NBA-caliber superstar in the making. Not in the same way as those transcendent talents who show early in their careers that they can shoulder the massive burden of creating efficient offense.

The list of young players who’ve earned rookie-scale max extensions in the past few years is laden with the sort of bucket-getters and table-setters who make things happen: Doncic, Young, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ja Morant, Darius Garland. Even the frontcourt players who’ve gotten the off-the-bat max of late—Ben Simmons, Pascal Siakam, Bam Adebayo, Michael Porter Jr., Zion Williamson—have all shown the capacity to generate good looks for themselves, for others, or both. Ayton, by comparison, has thus far been more contingent than creative on offense. He’s got more turnovers (447) than assists (427) through his four-year career, and more than 70 percent of his baskets have come via assist through the past three seasons.

That’s not to suggest that Ayton, who told my Ringer colleague Seerat Sohi this spring that he sees himself as “a freestyle big” with a fluid offensive game, can’t do more. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted, Ayton had a significantly higher usage the year before Paul joined the Suns than the year after, and has produced well with Paul on the bench. Besides, it seems awfully uncharitable to dock a 23-year-old former no. 1 overall pick for accepting a more circumscribed offensive role, committing to contributing on the defensive end, and turning into a quiet two-way linchpin for a team that’s had the NBA’s best record through the past two seasons.

Ayton isn’t a world-breaking MVP-caliber offensive dynamo like Embiid or Nikola Jokic. In terms of overall impact, he’s probably also a step below the other centers who received All-NBA votes last season—third teamer Karl-Anthony Towns, Bam Adebayo, and Rudy Gobert—though his two-way play and greater malleability could arguably make him a more attractive option in the context of playoff matchups. He compares pretty favorably through four pro seasons to several other bigs who hit the restricted market in recent years—Kristaps Porzingis, John Collins, Jarrett Allen, and 2018 draft classmate Jaren Jackson Jr.—all of whom got deals ranging from $100 million to, in Porzingis’s case, the five-year max. If those guys were worth nine figures, isn’t Ayton?

The counterargument, though, comes in how tenuous such deals can be. The Mavs signed Porzingis to that five-year max to be Luka’s copilot, and after two-and-a-half meh seasons, they flipped him for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans and promptly made the Western Conference finals. The Hawks paid Collins after he did yeoman’s work during their run to the East finals, but have seemingly wanted to get off that deal ever since. The Grizzlies inked Jackson and watched him turn in an All-Defensive first team campaign for a Memphis team that pushed the eventual champion Warriors to six in the second round. Now, though, they’re experiencing the downside risk of their $104.7 million investment, waiting for the 22-year-old to work his way back from another extended absence due to a significant leg injury.

The waiting game is stitched into the fabric of restricted free agency. After spending three seasons carving out a niche in the league and demonstrating his value, a player waits to see if the team that drafted him wants to extend his rookie deal. If not, he plays out his fourth season and enters the restricted market; once he’s there, if he signs an offer sheet with another team, his current employer can make the interested suitor wait two full days while deciding whether to exercise its right of first refusal by matching to keep him in-house.

Heading into free agency, Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reported “a belief among rival execs” that Phoenix would match a max offer sheet—which could pay him nearly $133 million over four years—if Ayton landed one. No such offer materialized in the opening weeks, though. Predraft rumblings of interest from Atlanta and Detroit fell by the wayside, as the Pistons landed Memphis center Jalen Duren in the first round and the Hawks turned their attention to swinging a deal for Dejounte Murray. (That deal might have removed the cap-space-flush Spurs from the mix, too; a team that just traded its All-Star point guard in favor of stocking its future-draft-pick cupboard doesn’t figure to have much use for a nine-figure center.)

The absence of a huge early offer sheet is par for the course in restricted free agency. Few teams want to have their financial flexibility frozen and hamstrung by an incumbent’s hemming and hawing, so, for the most part, the RFA chase doesn’t really warm up until the unrestricted market cools down. Problems arise, though, when mitigating factors at the top of the market prevent that cooldown … like, say, Kevin Durant requesting a trade and making it clear that he’d like to go to Phoenix, where Ayton represented the likely centerpiece of the most commonly spitballed trade packages that could land KD in the Valley.

And so, Ayton again waited: for the Nets to canvass the league for the best trade offers from every interested party—including those, like Toronto, who might also have separate interest in Ayton—and for the chance to step into whatever comes next, whether it’s more of the same as a Sun or the opportunity to redefine himself, in Indiana or elsewhere.

“I don’t think anybody can really say, ‘He should be this, he should be that,’” Suns assistant coach/big-man whisperer Mark Bryant told Sohi this spring. “Deandre’s gonna dictate what he’s gonna be.”

If what he’s going to be is what he’s just been, and if a shuffled-up Suns roster winds up hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, then Phoenix and its fans likely won’t spend too much time weeping for the memories of Ayton’s time in the desert. But if Jones’s best-laid plans come to naught, the replacement centers can’t replace Ayton’s production, and he blossoms in Indianapolis, the Suns might come to rue the decision to let Ayton walk—and, before that, to make him wait.