As the Phoenix Suns were bounced from the playoffs in embarrassing fashion on Sunday night, the door swung even further open.
The reigning Western Conference Champions failed to reach a rookie extension with former No. 1-overall pick Deandre Ayton last offseason. The news came as a pretty big surprise considering he played a significant role in the organization’s first trip to NBA Finals since 1993. But, hey, it wasn’t the end all be all. The two could always pick negotiations back up one offseason later. And as long as Ayton put together another strong campaign, they would surely lock in one of the better young centers in the league, right?
If Game 7 against the Mavericks was any indication, the Ayton saga isn’t about to come to an expected or easy end. Head coach Monty Williams played the big man for only 17 minutes in the team’s blowout loss. When asked why, he uttered just two words: “It’s internal.”
Fast forward to Monday afternoon, and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski took the air and reminded everyone that Ayton “did not feel valued by this Phoenix organization” coming into the season. Wojnarowski also went on to state that “there are a lot of teams lining up to figure out: ‘How can we acquire him?'”
So I think even a newborn baby can guess what I’m about to ask next: Could the Chicago Bulls be one of those teams?
"Deandre Ayton did not feel valued by this Phoenix organization… [He] is going to get a max contract in the marketplace, somewhere… There are a lot of teams lining up to figure out: how can we acquire him?"@wojespn on Ayton's future with Suns 👀pic.twitter.com/d6flmZNCjz
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 16, 2022
Let me start by saying that Arturas Karnisovas and several players made absolutely clear that continuity is the likely path forward for the Bulls this summer. In other words, the plan is to keep the Bulls’ existing core together as they try to improve things around the margins. But plans change. Whether it was Billy Donovan becoming available on the head coach market, DeMar DeRozan’s legitimate interest in Chicago, or the Lakers refusing to pay Alex Caruso, we’ve already seen this Bulls front office adjust on the fly, and who is to say Ayton’s situation will not provide another opportunity to do just that?
There is no getting around the fact that Nikola Vucevic struggled to produce in the way we know he’s capable of this season. The big man shot his worst percentage from behind the arc since the 2017-18 season, and his 17.6 points per game were his fewest since that same year. Defensively, expectations were never that high for a player who lacks verticality and lateral quickness, which is part of the reason why Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso were brought on board. With their relentless ball pressure and perimeter defense, all Vucevic had to do was put his seven-foot frame in the right place at the right time. He did that just fine … but then Ball and Caruso suffered injuries.
We saw how bad things can get down low when those two players can’t stay on the floor. Neither LaVine nor DeRozan is a talented enough defender to take similar pressure off Vucevic, and we saw it lead to the Bulls allowing the 4th-most points in the paint per game since the start of the new year.
So as good as the Bulls’ defense could look with Ball and Caruso in the lineup, one has to wonder if the front office wants to bank on that small of a margin for error moving forward. Perhaps the answer is “yes” if Vucevic can return to playing at the dominant offensive level he used to, but what if he can’t? Plus, we can’t forget he isn’t getting any younger.
All of this to say that hearing the Bulls have at least some interest in investigating alternative options at the center wouldn’t be the most surprising. Don’t get me wrong, the option would have to be an All-Star-caliber player like Vucevic, but that’s exactly what Ayton is.
At just 24 years old, Ayton has continued to look more and more like the versatile center many found worthy of the first-overall pick in 2018. He averaged 17.2 points this season with 10.2 rebounds on a career-high 64.0 effective field goal percentage (which ranked in the 86th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass). He continued to take steps in the right direction on the other end of the floor and finished as a plus defender for the second year in a row. Dunks & Threes put his estimated plus-minus for the season at a +3.2, which sat in the NBA’s 93rd percentile.
The most attractive thing about Ayton is that he’s a developing big who already has significant and proven playoff experience under his belt. If the Bulls were to swap him for Vucevic, it could potentially expand their competitive window while still offering a guy who fits alongside scorers like LaVine and DeRozan (he’s a good screener and strong PnR threat). To be clear, Ayton isn’t the most physical post player or polished defender. Teams can still find ways to attack him, but there is more room for him to grow on this end of the floor than someone like Vucevic.
The problem is if the Bulls wanted to make an aggressive run at Ayton, they would have to be fully sold on that continued development. Ayton is going to demand max-level money in free agency, which would be a sum of $131.2 million (h/t HoopsHype) over four years in any kind of sign-and-trade deal, which is the only way the Bulls could add him.
We also have to factor in that any kind of sign-and-trade would likely have to come with additional assets (one of which would presumably have to be Vucevic – unless he’s sent elsewhere in a separate deal).
Speaking of which, I should probably wind up this talk. I honestly have to do more research on the ins and outs of an exact S&T deal, but I also think we probably shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. The whole point of this post is more about putting it on our radar as a big offseason for the franchise approaches.
I’ll continue to believe the Bulls do not move on from Vucevic for now. But, if Karnisovas feels like he must, it would most likely be for a player like Ayton. And there is no question Ayton feels more available than ever before.