As rumors continue to creep up about the Chicago Bulls’ potential interest in All-Star defender Rudy Gobert, I can’t help but turn my head back toward Deandre Ayton.
The Phoenix Suns’ former No. 1-overall pick was the first big-name center to have his future put into question this offseason. Not only did the Suns face a surprisingly early exit from the postseason at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks, but Ayton was headed toward restricted free agency. The organization refused to extend the big man one offseason ago, creating clear tension between the two parties heading into this summer.
Then, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski directly reported that Ayton “did not feel valued” by the franchise shortly after the team’s playoff exit. He also noted that there were already “a lot of teams lining up” to see how they could add the potential franchise centerpiece to their roster.
All of this has led to The Athletic’s John Hollinger sharing his most recent report, which states that our money should be on Ayton playing elsewhere next season.
I was skeptical until I started talking to a few more people recently. Now, I think it’s more likely than not that he’s in a new destination next season, especially if the Suns can work out a sign-and-trade that brings back some value. For whatever reason, I don’t think Phoenix is totally comfortable going forward with him on a big-money deal, and I think Ayton might be okay with going somewhere else if he can have a bigger offensive role.
So if we’re now starting to talk about Gobert as a possible Bulls target, is it crazy to think Ayton might also be on that list? I sure don’t think so.
The mere fact that Karnisovas could be thinking about Gobert tells us that he could be open to a number of big splashes, particularly at the center position. Ayton may not provide the proven resume that comes with Gobert, but he does provide two things that could make risking future flexibility to acquire him more palatable: Youth and upside.
Ayton is just 23 years old and already has a trip to the NBA Finals under his belt. Even better, he played a vital role on that Finals team, averaging 15.8 points and 11.8 rebounds on a 65.8 percent field goal percentage over his 22 playoff games in 2020-21. Add him to this pre-existing Bulls roster, and Karnisovas has a new two-way building block that could potentially extend this team’s competitive window.
Since I talked a lot about why the Bulls might be interested in Ayton earlier this offseason, I’ll just drop that below rather than re-hash it all here.
— Bleacher Nation Bulls (@BN_Bulls) May 16, 2022
Now, I don’t mention this idea of pursuing Ayton because I think it’s the best option. While it may be a “better” option than going after Gobert (depending on if you prefer investing in upside over a more established resume), we’re still talking about a situation where the Bulls would have to give up multiple assets to hand a center max money. In today’s NBA, that’s always a risk. Karnisovas would have to be confident either player is the defining piece in a championship pursuit.
I should also specify that going after Ayton would likely be far more complicated than going after Gobert. The Bulls wouldn’t be able to send him a max offer sheet in the free-agent market. Instead, they would have to negotiate a sign-and-trade with the franchise, which would prove quite difficult considering the Base Year Compensation rule that the Suns have to deal with (for more on that, check out Ryan Borja on Twitter, who does a great job describing the logistical problems).
Still, there is a world where the Bulls can land Ayton, which ties to the broader point I’m trying to make: We can’t rule out anything if the Gobert rumors are true, right?
At the end of the day, Karnisovas initially sold re-signing LaVine and improving around the margins as the path forward. I still think that’s the most likely outcome over the next few months, but real interest in Gobert means real interest in making another big splash. Just something to think about.