What does the Phoenix Suns’ decision to match the Indiana Pacers’ max offer sheet for restricted free agent Deandre Ayton mean for them and the Pacers?
Shortly after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Ayton had signed the four-year, $133 million offer sheet from Indiana, the Suns made the decision to match it without using the full two days available to them. The move keeps Ayton in Phoenix but limits the team’s options for trading the 2019 No. 1 overall pick.
As with any free agent who gets a raise like Ayton did, the Suns are prohibited from trading him until Jan. 15. For the remainder of the next year, Ayton must consent to any trade and cannot be dealt to the Pacers.
Bringing back Ayton also pushes Phoenix well over the NBA’s luxury-tax line, a rarity for a team that last paid the tax in 2008-09, per Spotrac.com. That could mean more changes in store for the Suns and complicates their pursuit of a trade for the Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durantwho reportedly named Phoenix as a preferred destination when he requested a trade from the Nets.
Let’s break down the full implications of Thursday’s moves for the Suns and Pacers.
Matching the Pacers’ offer was the clear decision
As long as Ayton remained unsigned, the Suns had plenty of alternatives available if they didn’t want to pay him the max. A sign-and-trade could have sent him out for multiple players to enhance Phoenix’s forward depth and bring back a replacement at center on a cheaper contract. Or Ayton could have been included as part of a Durant deal.
Now, those possibilities are off the board. Ayton can’t be traded until Jan. 15 and can’t be sent to Indiana for a full year. He must also sign off on any trade in that span.
Still, the Suns could eventually trade Ayton to a destination he likes by the trade deadline in February. That helps explain why Phoenix would be willing to match Indiana’s offer sheet, despite being unwilling to offer Ayton a similar contract last fall as an extension or again at the start of free agency — when they declined to make him an offer, per Wojnarowski, all but daring him to sign an offer sheet with another team.
Back then, the Suns could hope for a few more favorable outcomes. With so few teams holding max cap space, Ayton might have languished in restricted free agency and been forced to choose between a smaller deal with Phoenix and signing his one-year, $16.4 million qualifying offer. Alternatively, the Suns might have found a sign-and-trade involving Ayton they liked.
Constraining Phoenix’s options altered that decision. The Suns were no longer choosing between a sign-and-trade or Ayton at the max, but strictly between whether to keep him at that price (which is slightly cheaper than a four-year max deal from Phoenix would have been because an offer sheet is capped at a 5% annual raise as opposed to 8%, a difference of about $5.5 million over the life of the deal) or let him walk entirely.
Matching Ayton does take the Suns deep into the luxury tax. They’re now about $16 million above the tax line with 14 players under contract, including center Jock Landale, whose contract is largely non-guaranteed. Phoenix will have the opportunity to lessen that bill with midseason moves, including a possible Ayton trade.
The tax bill could alter the Suns’ thinking on a deal for Durant. Because Ayton can’t be included this summer, Phoenix would almost certainly be sending the Nets less combined salary than Durant’s $44 million in 2022-23. Adding additional payroll could be untenable in that scenario.
Key to the Suns’ decision here was that even if they don’t think Ayton is worth the max, other teams clearly do. A team in championship contention could not afford the talent drain that losing Ayton would mean, no matter how skeptical they might be of his value.
Pacers pivot to using cap space for trades
Offer sheets to restricted free agents have been rare in recent years (this was the first since the Sacramento Kings declined to match the Atlanta Hawks’ offer to Bogdan Bogdanovic in 2020 free agency, and Tyus Jones signed the only other one in the previous three summers) in part because of the way they tie up a team’s cap space.
In this case, Indiana likely won’t mind not getting back the $31 million in cap room used to sign Ayton until after he officially passes his physical in Phoenix (a process the Suns can drag out up to four days if they wish). There are no other free agents remaining likely to command that kind of offer.
If they want, the Pacers could try their hand at restricted free agency again with the Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton, who also remains unsigned, with Indiana and the San Antonio Spurs as the only two teams left using cap space. However, Sexton wouldn’t fill a need for the Pacers, who have drafted wings with their past two first-round picks (Chris Duarte and Benedict Mathurin) and also have veteran Buddy Hield in the mix.
More likely, Indiana will put its remaining cap room to use acquiring salary via trade. Depending on what happens with Phoenix’s payroll, the two teams could eventually partner on a deal to help the Suns cut their luxury-tax bill by sending out a reserve like Torrey Craig (sent to Phoenix by Indiana last year at the trade deadline) or Dario Saric.
The Pacers could also get in on the competition with San Antonio if Russell Westbrook‘s $47 million salary is eventually traded into space, likely as part of a deal bringing Kyrie Irving to the Los Angeles Lakers. Doing so would require Indiana to send out a high-salaried player, with Hield and starting center Myles Turner obvious candidates to be included.
Despite the Suns’ decision to match, a remnant of the Ayton offer sheet will remain on the Pacers’ books. Creating the necessary cap space required Indiana to waive newcomers Malik Fitts, Juan Morgan and Nik Stauskas (Acquired from the Boston Celtics in the recent Malcolm Brogdon trade) and stretch their salaries over the next three years. That leaves a small amount of dead money (a bit less than $2 million) on the Pacers’ books for the next three seasons.