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Deandre Ayton’s free agency could swing the NBA’s power balance

The 24-year-old center is the best player who’s most likely to wear a new uniform next season.

Deandre Ayton’s free agency could swing the NBA’s power balance

NBA free agency doesn’t technically begin until Thursday at 6 p.m. ET, but we can already check a bunch of guys off the wishlist thanks to a number of Woj and Shams media leaks. 

Kyrie Irving is staying in Brooklyn, Bradley Beal is likely to stay in D.C., and it’d be a shock if James Harden moved from Philly. But Deandre Ayton, the Suns budding star center, is a name rumored to be leaving this offseason — and that could take Phoenix out of the championship picture (or, at a minimum, change their place in the hierarchy).

The 23-year-old is already one of the league’s best two-way bigs, averaging 17.2 points per game on 63.4% shooting with 10.2 rebounds per game. The Suns enjoyed the best record in the league by a wide eight-game margin in the regular season, but were embarrassed in a Game 7 loss to the Mavericks in the conference semifinals by 33 points. 

There’s still the ongoing questions of what went wrong in the playoffs, and though we’re without clear answers, Ayton’s rumored departure may help us read between the lines. Prior to last season, Ayton was eligible for a max contract extension that Phoenix wouldn’t offer. Later, rumors swirled about head coach Monty Williams’ complaints of Ayton’s lack of focus.

During the draft last week, ESPN’s Wojnarowski re-confirmed what we already knew: the Suns don’t value Ayton at a maximum contract, which would be worth nearly $177 million over five years. The 2018 No. 1 pick is a restricted free agent, meaning any offer sheet he signs, Phoenix could match. The question is if he’ll find a team to offer him more money than the Suns will, and the answer is complex.

The Pistons were a favorite to land him, but since drafting center Jalen Duren at No. 13 and eating cap space on ex-Knicks Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel, that seems unlikely. The Raptors were another rumored spot, but landing Ayton would likely require a sign-and-trade and parting with one of their own rotation players. 

Everything else is a guessing game. The Spurs are shopping Dejounte Murrray, the Hawks have been trying to unload John Collins for months, Damian Lillard’s put pressure on Portland’s front office to give his team more starpower. Malcolm Brogdon, anyone? 

Keep an eye out for teams making precursory moves, because Ayton’s market seems to be everyone and no one all at once.

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