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It’s almost like he’s an afterthought, a footnote in a larger story surrounding Lillard’s loyalty and desire to go to Miami being ignored, paving the way for Milwaukee and Phoenix to emerge and find a way to consummate this deal somewhat quietly before training camp begins next week.
Usually when players averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds on a close-to-max deal get moved from a contender, it’s big happenings.
But considering the drama between Lillard and Portland, one that’s bound to have more twists and turns before it winds down, Ayton probably prefers to stay beneath all the attention.
Ayton’s relationship with the Phoenix Suns soured over time, for various reasons. Having to go into restricted free agency always seems to create hurt feelings — the business getting in the way of the game, some would say — and having to fetch an offer from the Indiana Pacers last summer that was quickly matched only delayed the inevitable, a trade to a different kind of team.
The Suns were going to need Ayton to be less than what his talent dictated, as a distant option behind Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal. With the scar tissue remaining from previous situations with former head coach Monty Williams, it was best for all parties to move on.
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Portland and Phoenix swap centers in the bigger deal, Ayton for Jusuf Nurkić. Ayton will be featured in the Portland offense, even as the franchise turns things over to No. 3 draft pick Scoot Henderson and already employing Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe in the backcourt.
For all of Ayton’s experience and winding road, he’s just 25 — still with plenty of potential, the Blazers believe. They see him as a talented offensive player capable of playing winning basketball consistently for a team in foundational mode now. He did it as a stable force for the Suns in their run to the Finals and subsequent league-best ’21-22 season.
Gauging the value of top centers around the league is a bit tricky. The best, Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid and Bam Adebayo aren’t available, so going to the next tier has shown a mixed bag of asks and returns on the market.
Utah got five first-round picks (four and a swap) for Rudy Gobert, an absurd return so wild, it did nothing to reset the market. Jarrett Allen was part of a massive deal that sent him from Brooklyn to Cleveland as part of the James Harden deal in 2021.
The asking price for a player like New York’s Mitchell Robinson, sources told Yahoo Sports, is multiple first-round picks — probably a non-starter for most clubs.
So for Portland to find Ayton in the rubble of this deal, with his pedigree and a chance to start anew with three years remaining on the restricted deal he signed, is more than found money. After all, how else would this franchise get a player with this type of production and potential? If it were gonna happen in free agency, it would’ve occurred when Lillard was begging for someone, anyone to join him in the Pacific Northwest.
The view around the league is the Blazers see Ayton in the vein of a top-five center in the league, and a valuable asset particularly at his age. Brook Lopez and Nikola Vučević may beg to differ on the top-five list, and certainly Anthony Davis would if he classified himself as a center (he doesn’t).
Ayton could certainly play with more force on both ends, be more assertive and presumably, he can be coached up in his new surroundings. The things that can’t be taught, he possesses: touch around the rim with both hands, a reliable 15-foot jumper and a really good foul shooter for someone his size (75% for his career).
Being in the same draft class as Luka Dončić and Trae Young is bound to create comparisons, even if we’ve seen for decades on end centers develop at a different pace than other positions.
It happened when the center was the premier position on the floor — why wouldn’t it follow suit when the position, or at least the responsibilities of the spot, be somewhat marginalized by the evolution of the game?
Blazers coach Chauncey Billups knows reclamation projects. He is one himself, albeit with a different road than Ayton. Traded midway through his rookie season in Boston and a few more times before finding a home in Detroit some six years into his career, he knows the value of stability.
And honestly, of being loved on a bit.
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Trust will be big here, and considering Lillard’s trust in Portland was what started this domino effect of landing Ayton with the Blazers, one would think everyone is well-aware of what they’re walking into.
Fresh off that trip to the NBA Finals in 2021 — a series and playoff run where Ayton acquitted himself well, if memory serves (17.8 points, 13.7 rebounds in West finals, 14.7 points, 12.0 rebounds in the Finals) — he wasn’t immediately rewarded with a contract most expected.
He insisted he didn’t carry bitterness from the business, but it seemed to carry over, particularly as the Suns imploded in the second round of their 2022 series against Dallas.
That situation was primed to explode, and only Booker remains from that team. It would be a bit wild to frame Ayton as a culprit in that equation when it was clear the entire unit had run its course — he was just the last major piece to get moved when it was clear he didn’t fit into this iteration of the Suns.
Perhaps it’ll be better luck for the Blazers and Ayton, both sides seeking warmth, trust and patience from the other after experiences from previous situations that can leave each feeling gun-shy.
Ayton doesn’t need the reset button as much as he does a look with fresh eyes, and some natural improvement on his own.
Fresh eyes, fresh start.