Suns To Explore Deandre Ayton, Jusuf Nurkic Swap?

Deandre Ayton‘s name hasn’t come up in rumored trade discussions nearly as much this summer as it did a year ago. In June, John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM reported that Ayton was “very unlikely” to be traded.

However, in a Twitter thread posted on Thursday (Twitter link), Gambadoro writes that while Phoenix hasn’t been actively seeking trades for Ayton, if Jusuf Nurkic were to be on the table as an available trade option, he’d be surprised if the Suns didn’t look into making such a swap.

Gambadoro goes on to tweet that such a move would be contingent on Damian Lillard being traded out of Portland, which Gambadoro expects will happen “very soon.” The Trail Blazers have shown no interest in trading for Ayton, Gambadoro writes, but that could change if or when Lillard is on the move.

On paper, such a trade would be surprising. While Ayton’s youth and upside could be appealing to the Trail Blazers, which Gambadoro notes, Nurkic is arguably a downgrade from Ayton. It would be peculiar for Phoenix, who is looking to contend in 2023/24, to soften its rotation, especially so close to the start of the season.

It’s also unclear how such a move would take place. A straight one-for-one deal for the two players is impossible, considering Ayton’s $32.5MM salary in ’23/24 and Nurkic’s $16.9MM salary. Because Portland is currently below the luxury tax but above the cap, they could not take in Ayton’s salary as is. The Suns and the Trail Blazers would need to salary match in a hypothetical trade. While a framework involving Nurkic, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson, for example, works, it would push the Blazers over the luxury tax, complicating matters.

It’s also important to note that the Suns and Trail Blazers cannot trade any of the free agents they signed this offseason until at least three months after they signed or December 15, whichever is later. Players like Keita Bates-Diop and Eric Gordon, for instance, are not eligible to be traded until December 15. Another list of players, such as Matisse Thybulle and Jerami Grant, are ineligible to be traded until January 15.

In a separate piece, Gerald Bourguet of PHNX Sports wrote that the Suns are a “dark horse team” to help facilitate a potential Lillard trade. According to Bourguet, talks around the league for Lillard are heating up, which matches Gambadoro’s reporting, with teams like Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago and Toronto among the most active potential suitors.

Bourguet also addresses the difficulty in matching salaries between the two teams, but perhaps a multi-team trade involving Lillard is how Nurkic ends up in Phoenix and Ayton ends up in Portland.

For what it’s worth, Rose Garden Report’s Sean Highkin tweets that while he can’t speak to whether any deal is imminent, Portland has wanted to upgrade the center spot and had interest in Ayton in the past.

Ayton holds career averages of 16.7 points and 10.4 rebounds, though his play in the postseason this year fell short of that mark, as he averaged 13.4 PPG and 9.7 RPG. Ayton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, is still just 25 years old.

Nurkic, on the other hand, is 29 and averaged 13.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season. While their production isn’t necessarily far apart, Nurkic’s leg injury in 2019 seems to still be affecting his athleticism. Gambadoro reasons that even after the injury, Nurkic is a better defender than Ayton and could make more sense in head coach Frank Vogel‘s system.

Regardless of whether Nurkic winds up being moved for Ayton, his situation in Portland is certainly one to monitor. It’s possible Nurkic is included in a potential Lillard package, but if he’s not, it would be surprising if the Trail Blazers kept him around much longer than this season given their apparent commitment to a youth movement.

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