The Phoenix Suns’ High-Efficiency, Low-Cost Centers Are Slowly Pushing Deandre Ayton out the Door

Has anything gone wrong for the Phoenix Suns yet?

Following a dream run to the NBA Finals, the Suns sit at a league-best 37-9 record. And they’ve done so with center Deandre Ayton missing 18 of the team’s 46 games. But thanks to impressive performances from backup centers JaVale McGee and Bismack Biyombo, Phoenix is soldiering on and proving that life without the former first-overall pick might not be so bad.

Deandre Ayton and the Phoenix Suns were unable to reach a contract extension

Over the offseason, several members of the 2018 draft class received massive paydays, including superstars Luka Doncic and Trae Young. Though one glaring omission was Ayton, the top player selected in ’18.

Ayton and the Suns failed to agree to terms on an extension before the Oct. 17 deadline. As a result, the fourth-year center will now become a restricted free agent this summer.

“We didn’t have real negotiations,” Suns general manager James Jones told The Athletic one day after the deadline passed. “You talk about conversations — it was a five-year, max extension like the other peers, the other former number one picks, and that’s where the conversation started and ended. Anything less than a five-year max wasn’t something to be considered — not something to talk about. It’s evident.”

In a contract season, health has eluded Ayton. The 6-foot-1 center has played in only 28 games due to a variety of injuries and ailments. First, a leg contusion forced the big man to miss half of Phoenix’s first 12 games. Then a stint in health and safety protocols cost him a few more. Now, an ankle sprain has kept Ayton out of the lineup for the last four games and counting.

When healthy, the 23-year-old is a steadily-productive big man. Ayton is averaging 16.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game on a career-low 29.9 minutes.

The Suns are overcoming Ayton’s absence with a pair of cheap centers

Losing a player like Ayton isn’t an easy thing to overcome. But the Suns are finding a way to do it with Biyombo and McGee, two backup centers over-delivering on their respective contracts.

Biyombo has been one of the bigger surprises in the NBA, let alone for the Suns. The 11-year vet is averaging 10.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in just 21.4 minutes after signing a 10-day hardship contract on New Year’s Day. For perspective, the big man has never averaged more than 7.4 points or 8.0 rebounds in a season.

Over his last two games, the 29-year-old Biyombo has put up 37 points and 26 rebounds despite coming off the bench. He has also notched three double-doubles in just nine games. Needless to say, Phoenix rewarded its diamond in the rough with a rest-of-season contract on Jan. 11.

Meanwhile, McGee has served as a valuable contributor even when Ayton is in the lineup. The three-time NBA champion has averages of 10.0 points and 7.1 rebounds in only 16.3 minutes a night. To highlight that efficiency, McGee is averaging 22.2 points per 36 minutes, just ahead of James Harden (22.1). The Brooklyn Nets star, for what it’s worth, has played over 800 more minutes than the 7-footer.

Like Biyombo, McGee isn’t costing a fortune. The 14-year veteran is on a one-year deal for $5 million, the eighth-largest cap hit on Phoenix’s championship-caliber roster.

Biyombo and McGee might force the Suns to reconsider re-signing Ayton

As good as Biyombo and McGee have been for Phoenix, neither has the ability to take over a game like Ayton. Though their play at the very least should force the Suns to ponder whether re-signing their former first-round pick is the right move.

Ayton was an integral part of Phoenix’s rise to prominence over the last couple of years. But guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul are ultimately the two players the Suns revolve around. As good as Ayton is, he’s still the third option on an elite team.

The center was unable to come to terms last offseason because he was asking for a max extension — a deal that would have netted him as little as four years, $133 million, or as much as five years, $172.5 million. For perspective, the only true centers currently earning max contracts are Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert.

Those four bigs are far more deserving of big paydays than Ayton given their overall numbers. Realistically, Ayton is closer to the Myles Turner and Clint Capela category of center, two vets earning just under $20 million a season. If Ayton is willing to settle for around $20 million a year on a title-contending team, the Suns could swing that. But asking for the max won’t be a realistic option. Especially when you consider how Phoenix is a whopping 15-3 without Ayton.

This isn’t to say the Suns should let Ayton go and shell out big money to McGee and Biyombo. But the latter two prove how Phoenix can theoretically survive without Ayton and how his original asking price will need to drastically change in the coming months.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

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