Suns match Pacers’ $133M offer sheet to Ayton

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The Phoenix Suns matched the Indiana Pacers’ four-year, $133 million offer sheet for restricted free agent center Deandre Ayton, clearing the way for him to return to the franchise, his agents, Bill Duffy and Nima Namakian, told ESPN on Thursday night.

The Suns had until 11:59 p.m. ET on Saturday to match the largest offer sheet in the history of the NBA, but matched it immediately and ended the Pacers’ pursuit of Ayton.

Phoenix showed no inclination to negotiate a sign-and-trade agreement with Indiana prior to Ayton signing the sheet, sources said, signaling that the Suns were likely to match the offer sheet once it was presented to them. If the Suns didn’t match, they would’ve lost Ayton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, for nothing.

The Suns cannot trade Ayton until January 15 — and cannot trade him for a full year without his consent. This takes Ayton out of any possible offseason trade scenario involving Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant.

Namakian of Innovate Sports and Duffy of BDA Sports and WME had insisted to the Suns that they could find a maximum contract offer for Ayton in the marketplace, and they delivered it with the offer sheet. The Suns had never made Ayton a max offer, suggesting they didn’t value him as a max player.

The biggest offer sheet signed by a team that wasn’t matched was when Harrison Barnes was signed by the Dallas Mavericks for four years and $94.4 million in 2016, the same summer when Barnes’ former team, the Golden State Warriors, signed Durant as a free agent.

Ayton had been enthusiastic about the possibility of pairing with talented young guard Tyrese Haliburton and becoming a centerpiece of the Pacers’ rebuild, sources told ESPN.

Indiana traded Malcolm Brogdon earlier this offseason and Domantas Sabonis last season, shifting into a new era centered around an exciting young backcourt of Haliburton, an emerging star, and rookie Bennedict Mathurin, the sixth pick in last month’s NBA draft.

The Pacers needed to clear out $4.7 million in cap space to sign Ayton to the max offer sheet. To do that, Indiana waived guard Duane Washington and waived and stretched the three players who arrived in the Boston trade for Brogdon: Malik Fitts, Juwan Morgan and Nik Stauskas, sources told ESPN.

Ayton, who turns 24 next week, was drafted with the first pick in the 2018 draft out of Arizona, part of a star-studded draft class that also included Luka Doncic (third), Jaren Jackson Jr. (fourth), Trae Young (fifth) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (11th).

After making the All-Rookie first team in 2019, Ayton has developed into a quality starting center, averaging 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds while helping anchor Phoenix’s defense during its run to the 2021 NBA Finals — the first time the franchise had reached the league’s championship round since Charles Barkley led the Suns there in 1993.

He averaged 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds this past season, shooting 63.4% from the field and 74.6% from the foul line.

After an outstanding regular season, finishing with the league’s best record, Phoenix’s postseason ended with a blowout loss to the Mavericks in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals — a game Ayton spent most of the second half watching from the bench.

When asked after the game why that happened, Suns coach Monty Williams said, “It’s internal.” Ayton, meanwhile, declined to talk to reporters after the game.

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps and Bobby Marks contributed to this report.

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