Before the Phoenix Suns' season ended with a disastrous blowout loss to the underdog Dallas Mavericks in Game 7 of the West semifinals on Sunday inside Footprint Center, there were several questions regarding Deandre Ayton's role and limited playing time. The star big man played just 17 minutes in their must-win home game, and recorded a playoff career-low five points on five shots.
There appeared to be tension between Ayton and Suns coach Monty Williams midway through the third quarter. With the game out of reach, the 23-year-old was sent to the bench at the 8:46 mark, and he spent the rest of regulation in a chair. Following the game, Williams told reporters that Ayton's benching was an "internal" matter, and Ayton didn't even appear before the media. Whatever caused Ayton to watch most of Game 7, his future with Phoenix is now murky.
"From what I saw watching the game, watching the film, and talking to a few people, there was a defensive rotation in front of the Mavericks' bench, and Ayton didn't fully rotate. He stopped short," former Phoenix general manager and current Audacy insider Ryan McDonough told The Zach Gelb Show on Tuesday. "Williams took him out of the game. Ayton had words for Williams, Williams snapped back. The situation seemed to deteriorate from there...
"It doesn't seem that [Ayton will play for them next year]. He's a restricted free agent -- he has a qualifying offer that he can sign that's for $16.5 million. And basically the qualifying offer is a one-year contract... I imagine, in a weak free-agent class, teams are going to have interest... This isn't a star-studded class. And so, given the seeming attention or friction between Ayton and the Suns, given the way the season ended, I'd be very interested to see what happens."
The Suns declined to offer Ayton a supermax rookie extension last offseason, and this reluctance is most likely at the root of the problem. Since they didn't reach an extension agreement by its Oct. 18 deadline, Ayton's a restricted free agent this offseason, which means that he sign an offer sheet with any team. However, Phoenix will have the right to match the deal and possibly keep him. As stated by McDonough, the Suns must tender him a one-year, $16.4 million qualifying offer in order to maintain the opportunity to match other teams.
Ayton, who was drafted first overall by the Suns in 2018, averaged 17.9 points with 8.9 rebounds across 13 playoff games this spring. In the regular season, the 6-foot-11, 250-pound center averaged 17.2 points with 10.2 boards and a career-high 63.4 field-goal percentage over 58 games. Entering the Western semifinals, Phoenix had a league-best 54-percent chance to reach the NBA Finals and a 30-percent chance to win the title, according to FiveThirtyEight.
The entire NBA playoffs conversation between McDonough and Gelb can be accessed in the audio player above.