The Pacers & Deandre Ayton are the will-they-won’t-they plot of the NBA off-season

The Indiana Pacers are interested in restricted free agent center Deandre Ayton and could give him a max offer sheet or complete a sign-and-trade for him with the Phoenix Suns as early as well yesterday. This according to media reports for what feels like the last week but most recently by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

Scott Agness of The Fieldhouse Files confirms the Pacers are interested in Ayton. Marc Stein has reported that much of the league is waiting to see if Indiana will make that widely anticipated offer. Windhorst has been all over the ESPN world rumor mongering for a few days about this one including that the Pacers have met with Ayton. Plenty of smoke just from yesterday in the NBA Rumor Mill.

You may be thinking: So what’s the hold up? Why aren’t the Pacers making this move already that I’ve been hearing rumors about for the entire off-season? Are these two going to end up together or what? Come on, Ross and Rachel! We don’t want to go through 236 episodes of every ESPN talk show waiting for the answer here. Let’s get on with it!

I am right there with you, hypothetical reader, and ready for the constant Ayton anticipation to reach its climatic ending whether that’s in Indiana or elsewhere. There are lots of layers to this slowly-developing situation, but the biggest reason that the Pacers and Ayton are stuck in this will-they-won’t-they loop typically reserved for sitcoms is restricted free agency. RFA can be a tough situation for players but for Ayton and Indiana it’s made even trickier by Pacers owner Herb Simon who’s not a fan of the process.

Simon historically has avoided offer sheets. In the 2019 off-season, the Pacers acquired RFA Malcolm Brogdon in a sign-and-trade with the Milwaukee Bucks after Simon called the Bucks ownership to work out a deal instead of signing him to an offer sheet. This cost the Pacers a first-round pick and two second-round picks when the Pacers could have signed him to an offer sheet with the same 4-year, $84 million deal that the Bucks were unlikely to match.

Larry Bird mentioned once during his tenure in the Pacers front office that they would not pursue any restricted free agents because “that’s not Simon’s style.” The Pacers even seem to avoid being on the other side of offer sheets like when their own RFA Roy Hibbert initially looked like he would sign an offer sheet with the Trail Blazers but then instead just signed the exact same 4-year, $58 million deal with Indiana instead of going through the matching process.

The only time that I am aware of the Pacers signing a player to an offer sheet is when they acquired Chris Copeland in 2013. And that situation was very different than Ayton in not just the stature of the player and the contract but that the Knicks had no ability to match the Pacers offer due to salary cap limitations in what they had remaining to offer Copeland.

If Simon had a change of heart regarding making an offer sheet in this situation, there are still some hurdles to clear for Kevin Pritchard and the front office. Namely, they don’t actually have the cap space to offer the max contract that he wants and that the Suns don’t seem interested in giving to him. In order to get there, they first need Brogdon to finalize his Celtics trade by passing a physical which hasn’t happened yet because of his foundation’s work in Africa. Brogdon said on the Woj pod that this will happen in the next few days.

Whenever that does happen, it will create a few million in space itself and then the Pacers would still need to do something like trade Daniel Theis to another team without taking any money back to have the ability to offer the full 4-year, $131 million max to Ayton. (Update: Brogdon has passed his physical according to James Boyd of the IndyStar.)

And remember even if the Pacers did all of this to sign Ayton to an offer sheet, the Suns could just emphatically state, “We were on a break!” as it turns out they were Ross to Ayton’s Rachel all along by deciding to match the deal. Yes, they may not be inclined to offer that max themselves but compared to losing him for nothing, it wouldn’t be surprising if they did choose to match it. His extension talks broke down last year because he wanted a 5-year max but the Suns would only consider three or four years at the max, and the Pacers can only offer him at most four years. I’m not sure that much has changed where the Suns, who are still trying to win a title now, would no longer be willing to go there in order to keep the center.

That combined with Herb’s dislike of the RFA system, makes the sign-and-trade situation the more likely of the two in my opinion. Though there are challenges down this path as well.

The sign-and-trade scenario doesn’t have to wait for anything. Indiana and Phoenix just have to agree to terms and they are good to go if Ayton agrees to a deal with the Pacers. There is also the layer where the Suns would probably like to potentially use Ayton in a trade for Kevin Durant so anything that the Pacers are offering for Ayton, they probably are checking the temperature with Brooklyn. According to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer last week, Myles Turner combined with the Suns package doesn’t move the needle for the Nets.

The fact that the Suns haven’t said, “Okay, we’ll take Myles Turner so we don’t have to pay Ayton the max,” already and locked in this trade signals in my opinion either that they would rather match any potential offer sheet than replace him with Turner knowing the Nets aren’t interested in him, that they are daring a Pacers team that historically hasn’t gone the offer sheet route to actually do it while they continue to look for something more appealing to Brooklyn, or they are simply trying to get more out of Indiana knowing they don’t typically go after RFAs.

The last time we heard this much chatter about a potential sign-and-trade with the Pacers and a free agent it was in regards to Gordon Hayward, who at the time was not restricted but Indiana didn’t have the cap space to sign him outright. As we know, Hayward never came to Indiana. Danny Ainge and Pritchard could not agree to terms as Ainge wanted multiple starters, and Pritchard offered Turner, Doug McDermott, and a first-round pick. Eventually Hayward got tired of waiting and signed a fat contract with the Hornets which they may or may not regret now.

Knowing that the Pacers were willing to “overpay” (Pritchard’s word) for Hayward at the time makes me believe that he would be more likely to offer more than just Turner to the Suns. Perhaps the first-round pick acquired in the Brogdon deal, if that was included it would need to wait for Brogdon’s physical to finalize the trade. I’m not sure that’s enough to push the Suns over the edge on pulling the trigger.

Chris Duarte played in just one Summer League game and there were rumors he was dangled by the Pacers in an attempt to move up in the draft, would Pritchard consider offering Duarte and Turner? The second-year player looked fantastic in the first Las Vegas Summer League game but is he not playing because he could get moved? Perhaps the Pacers are only now considering going the offer sheet method because the Suns demands in a deal are too high. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.

If the Pacers can manage to catch up to Ayton at the airport in time (hopefully I got these Friends references correct), he’d be the first player drafted number one overall to play for the Pacers in franchise history. The fit between him and Tyrese Haliburton seems ideal and at 23 years old, he’d fit the rebuilding timeline to perfection. Until something actually happens though, we’re just stuck wondering will they or won’t they.

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