It’s that time in the offseason. As the playoffs are drawing to a close, the draft and free agency frenzy is kicking into overdrive. Traditionally, the Spurs have remained on the margins of those conversations, but this year they should be one of the most common teams thrown around in terms of potential trades and signings.
While talking about those topics can be a lot of fun, it will be important to remember that just because something can technically happen doesn’t mean it actually will. The possibility of Deandre Ayton finding his way to San Antonio falls into that category. It’s not impossible by any means, but it’s also not as likely as it might seem. Let’s look at why.
Ayton is a restricted free agent, so Phoenix holds all the cards
By making some significant sacrifices, the Spurs could carve out enough cap space to offer Ayton the max contract he’s looking for. They are one of just a handful of teams that can afford to do that, and their young core could entice the 23-year-old center. Unfortunately, even if they get him to sign an offer sheet with them, that doesn’t mean they’ll get him.
The Suns can match any offer he gets, since Ayton is coming off his rookie deal and will be a restricted free agent. They famously didn’t sign him to a max extension last offseason when they had a chance, which makes some believe they don’t think he’s worth it, but it’s not totally uncommon for a team to wait until the end of a player’s rookie deal to max them out instead of doing it sooner. San Antonio did it with Kawhi Leonard, and the same happened recently with another favorite target for Spurs fans, John Collins. Either because they want to maintain cap flexibility for as long as they can or because they want to gamble on the possibility of the price going down after a bad season, front offices have waited until the last possible minute only to eventually pay up, even after posturing about having reservations about doing so.
Now, there’s an interesting wrinkle when it comes to Ayton, which is that something happened on the last game of the series against the Mavericks that enraged Coach Monty Williams, which could mean the Suns will be ready to move on from him. But that doesn’t mean he’ll definitely be gone or that the Spurs will be interested.
We don’t know how serious that Game 7 incident actually was
It’s unclear exactly what happened on the second half of the Suns’ absolute collapse in Game 7 of their series against Dallas. Some rumors suggest Ayton refused to check back in. Let’s assume that’s what happened, since it would arguably be the most serious offense. It still doesn’t mean the Suns will give up on him.
Ayton and Williams reportedly don’t have a great relationship, but Ayton is young, was probably upset about not getting a max extension after helping his team get to the NBA Finals, and was likely frustrated by being on the wrong end of a historic beatdown. A sitdown and apology once free agency starts might be all it might take for him to patch things up with his coach and the franchise.
If the problem runs deeper and Williams and the Suns simply believe the center is too immature or not focused enough on basketball to be a centerpiece, then that could scare other teams away, including the Spurs. Williams has deep ties to San Antonio since he’s been part of the organization on different roles on and off for decades. Would Brian Wright and Gregg Popovich take a chance on someone who couldn’t get along with one of their own while contending for a championship? Maybe fans are more excited about Ayton than the Spurs actually are.
An Ayton sign-and-trade is actually very complicated
Even if the Spurs don’t have any concerns about his character and the Suns are motivated to move him, actually pulling off an Ayton sign-and-trade could be complicated because of a cap rule called based year compensation. Essentially, it means that in a sign-and-trade in which Ayton gets the $30 million max, only around $15 million count as outgoing salary for Phoenix, which makes matching contracts tough.
The Spurs could actually put together a trade that abides by the complex rules by carving out around $20 million in cap space and sending out roughly between $11 million and $20 million in salary to Phoenix. The problem is the Suns would actually have to want something they have. The players that fit outright in such a trade are Doug McDermott and Josh Richardson, and neither would likely satisfy Phoenix’s requirements. A trade centered around Jakob Poeltl would make more sense, but the Spurs would have to add a few million on top of it. They could easily get there by throwing in either a young player or one of their draft picks (after the player gets signed), but they would essentially be trading Poeltl, a first rounder, most of their exceptions, their entire cap space and the guys whose rights they have to renounce to get that cap space. Their offseason would be basically over.
Assuming the Spurs believe that it’s worth it to do so, they would have to get the Suns on board, because other teams could put together similar offers. The Pacers could offer Myles Turner outright, for example, which might be more enticing to the Suns than any package the Spurs could prepare. There are a couple of other teams with the cap space to make a good offer, others who can carve out cap space if they are motivated enough, and third teams that might facilitate trades for those without the necessary cap space. The idea that the Spurs are uniquely positioned to pull off a deal is just not true.
Even if Wright does get the Suns to agree, he would still need to convince Ayton, who could throw a wrench into any sign-and-trade deal if he doesn’t like the landing spot. There are not a lot of teams with max cap space, but Ayton could have some options. If he prefers Cade Cunningham and the Pistons over the Spurs, for example, he can sign an offer sheet with them and dare the Suns to match it or coerce them into negotiating with Detroit by threatening to just sign there outright. Even if the Spurs and Suns agree to one, actually pulling the sign-and-trade off is all a lot more complex than it seems.
Is it possible for the Spurs to get Ayton?
Absolutely. If they actually want him despite the rumored character concerns, they can get the cap space to sign him to an offer sheet that Phoenix might not want to match, or they can get him via a sign-and-trade. But they could just as easily miss out on him if the Suns want him back despite their posturing or don’t like what the Spurs have to offer in return. They could even be unable to get him simply because he doesn’t want to play in San Antonio.
It’s fun to speculate in the offseason, and fans should absolutely dream big, but in informed ways. Hopefully the Spurs will make a big splash during the summer, but if they don’t, it won’t necessarily mean they didn’t try. Sometimes, the reality of free agency is more complicated (and boring) than we would all like it to be.