The Phoenix Suns won't exactly be at the top of most NBA fans' minds over the coming days, given that the Milwaukee Bucks just pulled off the Ocean's Eleven-like heist of swiping Damian Lillard from the expectant clutches of the Miami Heat. Lillard joining Giannis Antetokounmpo immediately creates one of the most formidable duos in the league, and potentially one of the most dynamic we've ever seen.
Meanwhile, the Suns have a pretty decent superstar duo of their own in Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, bolstered by the addition of Bradley Beal earlier this summer. The prevailing question was how Phoenix was going to finagle enough production out of the rest of its roster, mostly comprised of minimum contracts, to be a realistic playoff contender. After all, we just watched Durant and Booker do everything humanly possible to win a playoff series, and still fall considerably short against the eventual champion Denver Nuggets.
To that point, on Wednesday the Suns cashed in their biggest trade chip, Deandre Ayton -- the former No. 1 overall pick who was a key factor in the team's 2021 NBA Finals appearance -- for a handful of players (Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson) who won't necessarily make headlines, but can fill necessary roles as new head coach Frank Vogel attempts to sort out his rotation.
Ayton looked like a future All-NBA center during the 2021 postseason run, seemingly content with his role as a defensive-minded rim-roller who was only sporadically a featured player in the Phoenix offense. That following summer, however, Ayton was forced to watch as other notable players from his draft class like Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Michael Porter Jr. signed max extensions. The Suns failed to offer Ayton a max deal, and the rumblings of his discontent began to swirl.
After another productive season in which Ayton averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds per game on a career-best 63% shooting, the Suns could have seemingly mended the tenuous situation by offering their big man a five-year, $180 million deal on the first day of 2022 free agency. Instead, they let him enter restricted free agency and later matched a four-year, $133 million offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers.
"I've come to understand that this is a business," Ayton said after signing the deal with Phoenix. "So, I was more anxious to know the end of the result so I could focus, move on and just get back to work. I just treated everything like a business. Just keep being professional, approach everything with professionalism and not looking too deep into it."
The rift between Ayton and the organization became even more glaring when he announced at the start 2022-23 training camp that he hadn't spoken to then-head coach Monty Williams over the entire summer.
Despite putting up another double-double season of 18 points and 10 rebounds per game in 2022-23, Ayton struggled during the Suns' postseason run. Things came to a boil in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Nuggets, when Ayton was visibly upset after being subbed out for backup Jock Landale with just under five minutes remaining. At the time, Ayton had four points on 2-of-6 shooting in 25 minutes.
The Suns went on to win the game but lost the series in which Ayton averaged 11 points and eight rebounds on 58% shooting. It didn't take long for the discourse about the rift between Ayton and Phoenix to reemerge. There was a sense that the Suns' firing of Williams following the postseason exit could signal a fresh start for Ayton but, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe, the issues went well beyond the player and his coach.
"The organizational discontent, impatience, eye rolling with Ayton…go way beyond Monty Williams. There’s a lot of people in that organization that are tired of Deandre Ayton" - Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post a few days ago.— Mike Vigil (@protectedpick) May 19, 2023
All of the history helps explain why Ayton, a 25-year-old walking double-double with plenty of remaining untapped potential on both ends, was traded on Wednesday. Phoenix saw an opportunity to swap one talented player for four potential rotation pieces, eliminating an organizational headache in the process. Here's a look at what the Suns got in the deal.
A veteran bruiser who averaged 13 points and nine rebounds last season for the Blazers, Nurkic will have the inside track to be the Suns' starting center after Ayton's departure. He's more than capable offensively, able to do some damage in the post, but Vogel likely won't ask much of him in terms of scoring. Instead, Nurkic will be asked to dominate the glass on both ends and set screens to free up Durant, Booker and Beal. Nurkic was sixth in the league with 4.4 screen assists per game last season, and that number will almost certainly jump given his new surroundings.
Nurkic's defensive limitations on the perimeter are evident, but he's a decent enough rim protector to play drop coverage, which Vogel has employed with great success in the past. An intriguing aspect of Nurkic's offense is his emerging 3-point shooting -- he shot 36% from deep last season on over two attempts per game -- and he should get more of those looks with the offensive attention his superstar teammates will draw.
Despite some rough playoff showings, Allen has been an extremely reliable role player over the past three seasons. A career 40% 3-point shooter who averaged over 10 points for the Bucks last season, Allen will absolutely feast on open looks created by Durant, Booker and Beal, as he knocked down 42% of his "wide open" 3-pointers last season, according to NBA.com.
Allen is also a somewhat underrated playmaker, notching a career-high 2.3 assists per game last season. He ranked in the 72nd percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency including passes, according to Synergy Sports, and he could be tasked with even more creation on a Suns squad that lacks a true point guard.
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The subject of much hype from the Blazers over the past few years, Little was limited by injuries in each of the last two seasons. His 6-5, athletic frame provides some serious defensive upside, while he shot a career-high 37% from 3-point range last season. Little ranked in the 52nd percentile in catch-and-shoot situations last season, per Synergy -- far from elite, but good enough to be a capable floor-spacer around Phoenix's offensive firepower. He should be able to compete for wing minutes, assuming he fully recovers from April core surgery.
The owner of the highest vertical leap at the 2022 NBA Draft Combine (41.5 inches!), Johnson has yet to consistently translate that athleticism to the court. He had a three-game stretch during the Blazers' Tankapalooza toward the end of last season in which he averaged 15 points and six assists on 40% 3-point shooting, but that's about as small of a sample size as one can muster. While he's not likely to be a fixture in the rotation, Johnson could be helpful in stretches if the Suns' player development staff can work some magic.