The Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul Rumors Have Started … Should the Bulls Pay Attention?
History practically repeated itself for the Phoenix Suns on Thursday night.
After being blown out by the Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of last season’s Western Conference Semifinals, we saw the same thing happen this season in an elimination Game 6 against the Denver Nuggets. The team lost 125-100 in one of the least competitive postseason games this year. The Nuggets ran them out of the building over the first 12 minutes of action, outscoring the Suns 44-26 in the 1st quarter.
As Nikola Jokic and Co. now head to the Western Conference Finals, the tandem of Devin Booker and Kevin Durant head toward a high-stakes offseason. New owner Mat Ishbia mortgaged the Suns’ entire future on this duo. And while many around the league would do the same, the pressure is on for him to retool the roster to ensure games like the ones against Dallas and Denver never happen again.
With that in mind, it came as little surprise that reports immediately surfaced about potentially significant changes coming inside the Suns’ organization. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported that a retool around the team’s two stars could be on the horizon, which could mean a new home for two of the team’s big-name starters.
“Ayton would be excited about a fresh start with another franchise,” sources told ESPN’s MacMahon. “The Suns are expected to aggressively explore the trade market for him this summer, league sources said.
The futures of both Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton are now in flux. One is a savvy veteran that helped turn the franchise around and one is the organization’s first-overall pick, both were critical to the Suns’ run to the NBA Finals two seasons ago. However, with so few assets and dollars at their disposal, moving both could be the only way to fill out the rest of the roster appropriately.
“The challenge for Phoenix is to create a championship-caliber supporting cast around its pair of superstars,” MacMahon wrote. “Paul and/or Ayton might need to be moved for the Suns to address their glaring depth issues, which factored into the heavy burdens placed on Durant and Booker, who rank first and second, respectively, in minutes per game during the playoffs. The priority is to surround Durant and Booker with quality role players who complement them well, not add another perennial All-Star.”
So I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask the following: Does either make sense for the Chicago Bulls?
Let’s start with Chris Paul. Investing anything in the aging point guard would only feel like kicking the can down the road. As badly as this team might need a lead facilitator, Paul is 38 years old and is coming off his fewest games played since the 2018-19 season. Let’s also not forget that Paul is owed $30.8 million next season – although, to be clear, only $15.8 million of that is guaranteed.
If the Bulls were a player away from a championship run – like, maybe the Milwaukee Bucks – perhaps this conversation stretches on longer. But the fact of the matter is that adding Paul at this stage of his career, particularly when we consider how many other changes are needed on this team, would be a short-sighted and somewhat brash move.
Ayton, on the other hand, is interesting.
I’d say it’s more likely than not that Nikola Vucevic returns to the Bulls on a fresh contract next season. The primary reason for that is that the Bulls aren’t in a position to replace him with someone better. However, if Ayton became an obtainable target, the front office would be silly not to at least think about it.
A 24-year-old who already has 29 more playoff games under his belt than Vucevic, a change of scenery might be all he needs to take the next step in his career. He averaged 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds this season while appearing in 67 games for the franchise. While his overall field goal percentage dipped a bit, he did shoot 79 percent at the rim, which ranked in the NBA’s 91st percentile, per Cleaning the Glass.
Ayton has yet to develop the jumper that some hoped he could upon entering the league, so he wouldn’t offer the Bulls the same kind of spacing they’ve had with Vucevic. However, Ayton does have plenty of experience playing with mid-range dominant players in Paul and Devin Booker. Likewise, Ayton has shown he can offer similarly positive production to Vucevic as a screener, finishing 7th in screen assists this season.
Also, while Ayton can undoubtedly improve on the defensive end, he’d still have to be considered an upgrade from Vucevic. A far more mobile big man with a seven-foot-six wingspan, he has the tools to be a solid rim-protector and switchable defender. There is no question he can ramp up his level of physicality, but he has the frame to theoretically handle some of the better big men in the East.
Ok … so what’s the problem? Why isn’t Arturas Karnisovas personally camping outside the Phoenix Suns offices to get a deal done as the new league year begins? Well, the main issue is obvious: he’s still owed $102 million over the next three seasons. That’s an AAV of 34.0 million. Not only is that A LOT of money to pay a center, but it’s A LOT of money to give a player that still has to prove he can (1) perform consistently and (2) take the next step.
Plus, if you’re giving Ayton that much money, you simply have to be all-in on making a LaVine-Ayton duo work. DeRozan would almost surely have to be a casualty for it to make sense financially (you know, because the Bulls are NOT paying the luxury tax). I guess if things were to go south, though, Chicago could at least deal LaVine and have another youngish asset in Ayton to retool around.
When we consider the change of scenery upside with Ayton and the lack of any real direction for the Bulls, I wouldn’t be completely opposed to an Ayton acquisition. But I also understand why searching for other options could make more sense.
If one thing is for sure, I have a hard time seeing the deal that Heavy’s Sean Deveney pitched that sends DeRozan to Phoenix for Ayton. With Durant and Booker already in town, how does adding another high-usage, mid-range-dominant player make much sense? I’d say that a Nikola Vucevic sign-and-trade could be something that fits better, but it would also hard cap a team with a boatload of money spent on two players. Not to mention, Vucevic isn’t necessarily the cheapest asset either.
My gut tells me this isn’t the last time we’ll have this conversation, so I’ll withhold any more thoughts for the time being. I doubt anything actually gets done between the two parties right now, but that could change as free agency inches closer and close.r