Deandre Ayton and the Indiana Pacers have agreed to a four-year, $133 million max offer sheet, his agent told ESPN, which was later confirmed by CBS Sports' Bill Reiter. The Phoenix Suns, Ayton's original team, will have 48 hours to decide whether or not they are willing to match the offer from the moment he signs it. As that clock does not start until midnight, the Suns and Pacers still have a few hours to try to work out a sign and trade before he inks the deal.
The Suns had, in the past, been hesitant to give Ayton a max contract. He wanted one after helping lead the Suns to the 2021 NBA Finals, but Phoenix reportedly did not believe he was worth such a hefty contract. Now, if Ayton signs the sheet, the decision is out of their hands. They can either match the offer sheet and retain Ayton at this price point, or they can lose him for nothing. Those are the only two options once he signed on the dotted line. Once that clock starts, they can no longer negotiate a sign-and-trade with Indiana, and perhaps more importantly, they can no longer dangle Ayton as a signed-and-traded asset in negotiations for Kevin Durant.
Now, if Phoenix does want to trade Ayton rather than lose him for nothing, they'll have to wait until Jan. 15, 2023, and even then, there are some complications they'll have to work around. When a restricted free agent's offer sheet is matched, that player gains the right to veto any trade for one year, and he cannot be traded to the team that signed him to that offer sheet until one year has passed. That means that the Pacers will be off of the table as a trade partner for Ayton for the foreseeable future.
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Considering how long they've been linked to Ayton, their willingness to sign him to an offer sheet, therefore, suggests some degree of confidence that Phoenix will decide not to match. Teams frequently turn down sign-and-trade offers as an attempt to try to scare teams off of their restricted free agents. Atlanta famously offered Sacramento draft picks for Bogdan Bogdanovic in the 2020 offseason, and the Kings said no, but still declined to match the offer sheet the Hawks signed him to. Such is the nature of restricted free agency, where bluffs and leverage are critical.
The Pacers reportedly discussed a possible Ayton trade at the deadline, and with Domantas Sabonis now in Sacramento and Myles Turner on an expiring contract, Indiana needed a long-term solution at center. Ayton, a former No. 1 overall pick who has grown into one of the better all-around centers in basketball, certainly fits the bill. He just averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game for the Suns, and with less scoring around him in Indiana, he would have a chance to improve his scoring even more.
Unless Phoenix manages to pull an appealing sign-and-trade out of its hat in the next several hours, this outcome is exactly what the Suns had wanted to avoid. Their goal this offseason is to land Kevin Durant. Ayton signing an offer sheet with Indiana makes that goal significantly less realistic. With the Suns possibly off of the table for the time being, Durant might have to keep an open mind about destinations if his heart is set on getting traded.
Even without Durant, this is a blow for Phoenix. The Suns have made it clear that they do not consider Ayton to be a max player. If there isn't a sign-and-trade, their options are now to sign him to a contract they don't feel he deserves or lose a former No. 1 overall pick only four years into his career.