If nothing else, the early days of Mat Ishbia’s stewardship of the Phoenix Suns have showcased a willingness to take big risks.
Sending Brooklyn a massive package headlined by Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and four unprotected first-round picks to pair Kevin Durant with Devin Booker — mere hours after officially being confirmed as the Suns’ new governor? Pretty big risk! Having a fugue-state flashback to his Michigan State walk-on days, prompting him to incite a modest fracas with Nikola Jokić in the middle of a playoff game? Ditto!
Firing Monty Williams, who’d rolled up a .623 regular- and postseason winning percentage across four seasons and led Phoenix to the 2021 NBA Finals? Risky (if understandable after a second consecutive second-round exit). Shipping out Chris Paul plus nearly all the draft capital that wasn’t nailed down for Bradley Beal — and the $207.7 million he’s slated to make over the next four seasons — in hopes that he’ll be the shot-creating piece they were missing against Denver in Round 2? Risky (although hell, it’s not my money).
This embedded content is not available in your region.
And now, by working their way into the league-shaking blockbuster that landed Damian Lillard in Milwaukee, the Suns have rolled the dice again, sending starting center Deandre Ayton and 2023 second-rounder Toumani Camara to Portland in exchange for three former Blazers — center Jusuf Nurkić, forward Nassir Little and guard Keon Johnson — and ex-Bucks shooting guard Grayson Allen.
It’s not as flashy as dealing for Hall of Famers and All-Stars, but moving on from Ayton represents a different sort of gamble for these Suns: that the former No. 1 pick wasn’t going to help them achieve their championship goals, and that trading him for players without his pedigree or potential won’t hinder that pursuit.
“Phoenix surely looks at the departure of Ayton as addition by subtraction,” Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer wrote Wednesday. “… Phoenix leadership was not sold on Ayton’s consistency and ability to impact winning amid this franchise’s expensive title chase. Various Suns figures were eager for a change of direction, sources said, from players to front office members.”
That’s a hell of an indictment for a 25-year-old double-double machine who’s just two years removed from playing an integral role in Phoenix’s first Finals berth in 28 years. But while Ayton’s numbers stayed steady, averaging 17.6 points on 60.9% shooting and 10.1 rebounds in 30 minutes per game over the past two seasons, so too did the noise that surrounded him.
There was his reportedly rocky relationship with Williams, marked by multiple high-profile blow-ups and rumblings of similar strife with other members of the organization. There was the uncertainty within Phoenix’s brain trust about whether he was worth a maximum extension of his rookie contract, which led to the Suns letting him join the injury-ravaged Greg Oden as just the second former top pick in the lottery era to hit restricted free agency. That forced Ayton to find a shorter, less lucrative offer sheet on the market in Indiana … which Phoenix promptly matched, as much to retain control of Ayton as an asset as to signal belief in his value.
There’s his persistent inability to translate his size, strength and athleticism into a more forceful offensive game — that maddening tendency to fade away from contact rather than attack the rim:
This should be a dunk and maybe even an and-1. Instead Ayton spins away from the hoop and goes for a fadeaway, just no force at all pic.twitter.com/QgdCvle47n
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 11, 2022
Over the past two seasons, nearly 60% of Ayton’s shot attempts have come outside the restricted area. Over the past five seasons, the only other centers to get to the free-throw line less frequently while using more than 20% of their team’s offensive possessions have been Serge Ibaka, Nikola Vučević and Bobby Portis — all of whom spend a ton of time popping to the perimeter, where they could pressure defenses with the threat of drilling 3-pointers. That hasn’t been Ayton’s game, though; he’s never taken more than 24 triples in a season, or made more than seven. (Nurkić isn’t exactly Dirk Nowitzki out there, but for what it’s worth, he shot 43-for-119, 36.8%, from deep last season.)
Perhaps most important, though, was Ayton’s defensive decline.
This embedded content is not available in your region.
After a dismal start on that end when he first came out of Arizona, Ayton starting making strides late in his rookie season, held opponents to 53.6% shooting at the rim as a sophomore (a top-20 mark among players to defend at least 200 up-close shots) and anchored units that finished sixth and third in points allowed per possession in the next two seasons. It’d be unfair to pin the Suns slipping to ninth last season solely on Ayton; erstwhile starter Jae Crowder sat out until he was moved at the trade deadline, a number of Suns missed serious time with injuries, and the KD trade effectively dynamited the roster with two months left in the season. But his effort and focus waned, and Phoenix defended worse with him on the floor than off it for the first time since his rookie season.
Things turned disastrous in the playoffs. Two years earlier, when Phoenix met Denver in the second round, Ayton defended Jokić as well as anybody in the league had managed to that point. This time around, though, Jokić absolutely cooked him — 93 points on 38-for-66 shooting (57.6%) with nine shooting fouls drawn over five games, according to NBA.com’s matchup data — before a rib contusion left Ayton on the sideline to watch Phoenix get eliminated in six games. That now stands as the final image of Ayton’s time in the Valley: a series where, more often than you’d like, backup Jock Landale seemed like a better option than the nine-figure No. 1 pick.
That’s the context informing Phoenix’s decision. On its face, choosing a player who’s four years older and 4 ½ years removed from a devastating leg injury doesn’t look great. But if the Suns just flat-out didn’t believe Ayton would or could do the job they needed him to do, and didn’t think he’d play well enough to meaningfully regain trade value in a market that doesn’t seem to have been all that hot for him, then there are worse shots to take than seeing if Nurkić can. Especially on a contract that some teams might view as a millstone, but that will pay him about $48 million less over the next three years than Ayton will make.
While it’s reasonable to arch an eyebrow at the notion of Nurkić as a “defensive-minded center” to plug into the heart of Vogel’s scheme, it’s worth noting that the Blazers prevented points at or near a top-10 level with Nurkić on the floor nearly every year of his tenure in Portland before last season. He blocks shots and snags steals more frequently than Ayton and has typically performed best when sinking back on screens to cover the paint in drop coverage — Vogel’s bread-and-butter since his days in Indiana.
And while nobody would suggest Nurkić is the answer for stopping Jokić, he held up pretty damn well in 2021’s first round: Portland outscored Denver by 45 points in the 173 minutes that Nurkić played and got drilled by 53 in the 125 he sat. The Bosnian Beast’s bête noire in that series? Foul trouble. Nurkić committed 30 fouls in six games, fouling out three times and leaving the likes of Enes Kanter, Carmelo Anthony and Robert Covington at Jokić’s mercy.
(Something to monitor: If Nurkić doesn’t hold up quite as well as Vogel and Co. hope, especially against mismatch-hunting opponents that can successfully draw him out into isolation defense on the perimeter, might Phoenix look to fellow new arrival Drew Eubanks — who, funny enough, just backed up Nurkić in Portland — as a more mobile and switchable option? And when it matters most, will Vogel damn the torpedoes, go with Durant at the 5 and just look to overwhelm opponents with an offensive onslaught?)
Nurkić hasn’t played more than 56 games in a season since breaking his leg in 2019, but it’s worth noting that he hasn’t missed time with chronic injuries. A fractured wrist cost him two months in 2021, and plantar fasciitis and a calf strain shelved him late in the last two seasons … though it’s very possible that he might’ve been able to play through those latter two issues had it not been particularly advantageous for the Blazers for him to hit the bench.
And while Ayton’s certainly more athletic and a superior finisher at the basket, Phoenix brass might see Nurkić as a cleaner fit — not only because he takes more shots at the cup and from the foul line, but also because he’s better suited to moving the ball to keep possessions humming:
Process didn’t change for Portland but the result did. Trap vs. Dame, Nurkic rolls. Green helps off Covington but watch the quick decision from Nurkic. Skips to Covington, extra pass to CJ, ball moved faster than the rotations. pic.twitter.com/dwVlvcvS0b
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 1, 2021
Nurkić has dished assists on nearly 18% of his teammates’ buckets over the last five seasons, 10th-best among 76 centers to log at least 2,500 minutes in that span. He’s not Jokić or Draymond Green when it comes to making plays on the short roll, but he reads the floor, processes options and connects the dots faster and more fluidly than Ayton, who still has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio five years into his career. On a Suns team that will likely see its fair share of traps to try to force the ball out of the hands of threats like Booker, Durant and Beal, that additional processing speed and playmaking versatility — as a solid screener, as a dribble-handoff hub, as a potential pick-and-pop threat, etc. — could add even more spice and punch to what promises to be one of the league’s most devastating offenses.
If Nurkić can stay on the floor enough to make the kind of impact that James Jones and Co. are envisioning, he could make the Ayton deal more than just “addition by subtraction” — and maybe a lot more, if the other newcomers hit, too.
Allen has shot 40% from 3 on more than seven attempts per 36 minutes over three seasons as a starter and adds a little catch-and-go/drive-a-closeout juice that Phoenix’s non-stars lacked last season. Little just shot a career-high 36.8% on career-high volume while showing the ability to defend multiple positions. They’ll give Vogel two more options to consider in a perimeter rotation featuring minimum-salary additions Eric Gordon, Yuta Watanabe, Keita Bates-Diop, Damion Lee and Josh Okogie — and another couple of credible contributors who could step in if any of Phoenix’s vets miss time.
If none of them pop? Well, then a Suns team that entered Wednesday with four players whose salaries put them over the $162 million luxury tax line this season has now broken Ayton’s $32.5 million into four smaller, more easily movable contracts. It’s the same gambit the Mavericks pulled a couple of years back when they split Kristaps Porzingis into Davis Bertans and Spencer Dinwiddie; Dallas would later re-route both in deals that netted Kyrie Irving and Dereck Lively II.
It’ll remain to be seen whether Jones and his front office can pull off a similar flip, or if they’d even want to. If they do, though, now they’ve got more financial flexibility to try, along with more lineup flexibility around their tentpole stars and a lot more depth than the Suns featured when they bowed out this past spring. That it took Ayton to get there might seem like a curious, self-sabotaging sacrifice. In time, though, we might come to see it as a gamble the Suns had to take.