Ayton’s Guaranteed Max

Updated: April 29, 2022
Pelicans Suns Basketball

Despite the theatrics and fireworks in New Orleans, Paul, Bridges, Ayton, and the shadow of Devin Booker put the Pelicans to rest once and for all. D-Book’s slim box score of 13 was made irrelevant by the CP3 masterpiece of a perfect 33 points on 14 for 14. In a nail-biter much closer than the final score indicates, the unsung hero of this series was the Phoenix Suns’ second-leading scorer in this closeout game on the road.

DeAndre Ayton, at the ripe age of 23 years young, averaged 20 & 10 on 70% shooting from the field. One would assume with such ridiculous efficacy throughout a series that Ayton was a traditional big feasting only inches from the rim off the gravity of his top-tier guards. On the contrary, DeAndre confidently took jumpers from the free-throw line and the elbow every time the defense made these open shots available. His shot from inside the arc is not only above average for his position, but there is very few power forwards in the association who have a sweeter mid-range jumper than Ayton.

All this production and efficiency on the offensive end was executed in the midst of having the defensive responsibility of covering a wide range of bigs the Pelicans used at their disposal. And unlike 95% of the true centers in the NBA, when caught on an island with a guard on the perimeter, Ayton remains poised and decisive, showing discipline beyond his years. It is this last skill that allows him to stay on the floor in crunch time of 4th quarters since he cannot be constantly hunted like the Joker was in the Bay in their neighboring series.

Now the question has to be asked, what else does this young big need to prove to lock up the Brinks truck come this summer? Does Robert Sarver expect a young New Orleans’ Anthony Davis-like production? Or perhaps the two-way domination of Joel Embiid? He should though, right? A max contract is supposed to be given out to top-tier talent that displays pure dominance and All-NBA status.

This is all true…for a player’s second max received in their 3rd contract. However, the max that is scheduled to follow most top 5 pick rookie contracts is regularly attached to their perceived ceiling. In order for a young blue-chip asset to remain tied to the franchise that drafted them, if they have shown promise and put up good numbers, they should receive a rookie max contract.

We have seen this equation play out dozens of times over the last 5 years with varying results, however, it is the assumed process of operations. Unfortunately, for Ayton, his draft class has in a way poised the well. Luka and Trae both received the max, but they are already ahead of schedule and play the primary role on playoff teams. And because they play point and put up godly numbers, they immediately get talked about as top 20 players (Luka for good reason, Trae arguably more a product of his position and the opportunities it creates).

So, Robert Sarver, a known cheap owner who loves to shave a few mili off the tab whenever possible asks himself a logical question, “why should I pay my above-average big as if he were an All-NBA point guard?”

And to be fair, there is a strong argument and philosophy behind why he shouldn’t. Right or wrong (that debate can be held elsewhere), there is a belief that the center position can be dealt with by committee as we have seen by Golden State in the KD dynasty years. A set of vets and/or rookie contract bigs ranging from minimums to 8 million dollar contracts soak up the minutes at the 5 and together create a solid center at less than half the price of a max traditional center.

There are also the questions surrounding the overall value of traditional bigs and that dollar for dollar they simply are not worth what premium wings and primary facilitators hold. Again, whether these belief systems are true or not is irrelevant for they are surely the conversations that were held last offseason when the Suns’ front office failed to max Ayton despite his amazing playoff run that helped lead Phoenix to the Finals for the first time since the Barkley era.

Let us assume that these ideologies are true or at the very least that Sarver and his staff subscribe to them. Then they shouldn’t have wasted the #1 pick in a loaded draft on a center. Because the only argument this offseason between the front office and Ayton that he should take a discount off the max is a philosophical one based on the value of positions. As a center and a player on his rookie contract, Ayton has not only been a perfect fit in a well-oiled machine that arguably is the most flued franchise in the NBA, but he has also achieved something almost no rookie achieves this early in his career. He has shown up in the playoffs.

So, if Sarver thinks somehow by waiting for the last possible moment, he can slap an 80 million dollar 4-year contract on the table, and Ayton and his agent will take a discount simply because he likes the weather in the Valley, he is wildly mistaken. Ayton, 100% after this last series will get every dollar he is eligible for, if not from Phoenix, there are at least a half dozen teams that will move heaven and earth to acquire him.

The thing is, the center-by-committee method that Golden State has utilized is based on a variable that none of their sub-par bigs are going to play in crunch time because of Draymond at the 5 in the death lineup. Because of Ayton’s defensive versatility, even against an elite small-ball lineup, he is able to stay on the floor on the defensive end and punish teams for going small on the offensive end.

Not only that, there are 4 franchises below 90 million on their payroll this offseason who can all opt to play the OKC card and absorb contracts for draft capital if the Suns refused to cooperate in a sign-and-trade situation. Because Ayton is a restricted free agent, they do have leverage and could swap him for wings and guards from teams like Atlanta or Toronto, and if this was their plan all along then good for them. His value should be at an all-time high after these playoffs.

However, if they intend to keep him, from a relationship-building standpoint, this is one of the most idiotic business moves in the modern era. Because Ayton will make an All-NBA team in the next 4 years (ironically because of the position he plays), in turn, will command a super-max

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