Are the Suns truly out of the running for Kevin Durant?
The Boston Celtics just made it to the NBA Finals with a young core of All-Stars Jayson Tatum (23 years old) and Jaylen Brown (25), but appear to be willing to break up that core to bring in Kevin Durant.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news the Celtics are interested in Durant, and then The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that the Celtics have already made an offer to the Brooklyn Nets that, on the surface, trumps anything the Suns have offered to date.
The Celtics offered Brown, guard Derrick White and a draft pick to the Nets for Durant, sources said. The proposal was rejected, and Brooklyn has asked Boston — in any proposal — to include Brown, Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, draft picks and potentially one more rotation player, those sources added. Currently, the Celtics are less inclined to include Smart along with multiple other player assets or pick assets, but the franchise is mulling over next steps on how to approach discussions.
The Celtics have become contenders with a super young pairing of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, having already made the Conference Finals three times and the NBA Finals once in the five years since the pairing became the faces of the Celtics. Tatum is a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA, while Brown made an All-Star team in 2021. And they’re still just 23 and 25 years old, respectively.
But all the Celtics included in their offer, in addition to Brown, was middling rotation player Derrick White and a single draft pick, because they know they still need to be a contender after the deal is done. If Smart AND Brown leave — the second and third best players on the team — then are the Celtics that much better after acquiring Durant?
So why not include more draft picks in the offer? Because the Celtics have already tied up two of their first round picks in other deals. They owe their 2023 first round pick to Indiana for Malcolm Brogdon, and their 2028 first rounder is encumbered in a pick-swap to San Antonio for Derrick White. Because of the Stepien Rule, the Celtics cannot outright offer the 2024 pick either. They can offer, at most, three distant firsts (2025, 2027 and 2029).
There are some remaining questions:
- Do the Celtics want to mortgage their future for Durant, after already reaching the Finals with their current roster and upgrading with Brogdon?
- Now that word is out, do they really want to leave Jaylen Brown hanging in the wind, wondering what might happen by training camp?
- Does Kevin Durant want to commit to a team that came up short against his former team, the Warriors, that would only have one All-Star in place when he arrives?
We don’t know.
In the meantime, the Suns hopes are still alive despite continued discounting from reporters who have been shut out by Durant for weeks, including Shams.
With Ayton currently unable to be traded, the Suns appear to be all but eliminated from the Durant sweepstakes.
These guys are still dead set on Ayton having been a linchpin on any potential deal with the Nets.
Yet, Ayton was never part of the Durant package and word around the league is that Mikal Bridges is more desirable in trade than Ayton.
Word that the Nets didn’t even want Ayton in a Durant package has circulated for weeks, with Ayton detractors saying ‘see! even the Nets don’t want him!’. But the real problem for the Nets with Ayton this summer was his contract situation as a restricted free agent. Acquiring him in sign-and-trade would have triggered a hard cap and severely handicapped the Nets, forcing them to shed $20 million in other salaries — prior to the Durant/Ayton trade — to get back under the Tax Apron to make the deal happen. Teams like the Warriors, Clippers and Nets can stay well over the Tax Apron because they don’t do dumb things to trigger a hard cap. Acquiring any player in a sign-and-trade after you’re already well over the line is one of those dumb things.
That’s why Ayton was never a possibility for the Nets. And yet somehow the Suns are still the front-runner to land Ayton, to the point that other teams aren’t even going out of their way to make godfather offers to the Nets for an MVP-candidate still in his prime.
Bridges was always the most catchable prize on the Suns, anyway.
Ayton is younger than Bridges (24 vs. 26), could develop into an All-Star in the future, gets better in the playoffs and is a proven No. 3 on a Finals team. But he’s still limited in that he can only guard the other team’s biggest player the majority of the time, and cannot make his own offense out of nothing.
Mikal is also limited offensively (he cannot create his own offense out of nothing) and failed once again to step up on that end in the playoffs, but he’s a dead-eye three point shooter and he’s much more versatile defensively than Ayton. Bridges can guard the league’s best guards and wings, so much so that he received nearly enough votes to win Defensive Player of the Year this season.
Are the Suns ‘all but eliminated’?
Now our favorite irregular contributor, Brynn Tannehill, addresses the Suns ‘in’ or ‘out’ status on the Durant trade front.
First, the idea that if something was going to happen it would have already happened is just plain wrong. Remember that Chris Paul deal happened a month before the season started in 2020 (The year that season start was delayed until December 22nd 2020 due to the lock-out and COVID, and Chris Paul was traded to the Suns on November 16th, 2020). Similarly, we might not see a Durant trade until mid-September.
This is because several things are going to fall into place before Durant is moved. One of the big ones is whether LeBron James signs a 2-year extension with the Lakers by August 4th. This is the last date by which the Lakers can sign an extension, otherwise King James becomes a free agent in 2023. This is important, because the Lakers don’t want to commit to Kyrie Irving unless they have LeBron locked up for several more years. LeBron, for his part, is rumored to want a reunion with Kyrie, but doesn’t want to stick with the Lakers unless they commit to winning a championship.
The other piece that has to be resolved before Durant is Kyrie Irving. Irving was a major distraction with his vaccine refusal, and inability to play home games for Brooklyn. Both he and Durant were criticized this offseason by Goran Dragic for being “me first, team second” kinds of players. The Nets, for their part, seem ready to move on from Irving after failing to sign him to a contract extension, and he is a free agent in 2023. If LeBron re-signs, it means the Lakers are probably making a real play for Irving. Once Irving is gone, the Nets have committed to the rebuilding process.
The “recent” reports that the Celtics are in trade negotiations for Durant don’t seem so recent. Shams Charania reported that their talks centered on Jaylen Brown. After his best season as a pro on a team that reached the finals, Brown seemed less than happy with these rumors. Brian Windhorst of ESPN commented that these trade talks are weeks old, and that little is happening now. “I don’t think the Nets are involved in active talks right now. … I know it came out today so it’s front of mind, but those are not fresh talks.”
Windhorst’s reporting is more in line with what Flex from Jersey has been saying that things will remain quiet until the LeBron James contract situation is resolved. Of all the voices in the Durant trade talks, Flex seems to have the best “inside line”, having announced that the Suns were in the market for a top-5 superstar as early as May.
There is also a lot of strategic leaking happening right now. After Minnesota dramatically over-paid for Rudy Gobert, the Nets are doing everything they can to drive up the asking price for Durant. This includes strategic leaks to people like Windhorst, whom they are telling that they’re perfectly willing to keep the roster as is if their price isn’t met. Realistically, NBA owners recognize that Minnesota gave up way too much for Gobert and are upset at how this has affected the trade market.
For the Suns part, their trade hand isn’t nearly as bad as Brooklyn wants to pretend it is. First, they have about $40 million in contracts that are expiring, or only partially guaranteed after the end of this season. This includes Payne, Shamet, Crowder, Saric, and Craig, none of who has a massive contract, or is completely unplayable (Remember Ryan Anderson? Good example). Given the free agent extravaganza coming in 2023, a lot of teams would really like to maximize the cap space they have available. Other teams are above the luxury tax, going nowhere, and looking to cut their losses. (Remember how the Suns traded Kurt Thomas and two unprotected first round picks for cash after a 61-win season in 2008 to get under the LT? Yeah, I still have nightmares too.)
In other words, the Suns have a lot of very desirable assets right there to teams that specifically want to reduce their spending after the 2022-2023 season. Teams will give up a lot to get their shot at an all-star. Remember the Suns trying to clear space for LaMarcus Aldridge?
The Suns have all their draft picks, allowing them to offer up to 4 first round picks, plus up to 3 draft pick swaps. While they cannot swap with the Nets, they can use swaps with other teams as “lubricant” to make a multi-team deal happen.
On top of that, the Suns have $25 million in young talent, namely Cameron Johnson and Mikal Bridges. One of whom is arguably the best 3-point shooting forward in the NBA and solid defensively at two positions, and the other came in second in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
While the Nets pretend to be completely disinterested, in a multi-team trade the Suns can put together an impressive package. This makes a multi-team trade seem more likely. They have the trifecta of young talent, picks, and expiring contracts. If the Nets want more picks (which they reportedly don’t), James Jones can move expirings for picks. If they want more young talent, the Suns can use Bridges and Johnson, while using expirings and picks to make more talent go to the Nets via another team. In short, whatever the Nets want, the Suns have the assets to “tip” the trade towards the thing the Nets want (so long as they don’t get stupid greedy.)
People might question why the Nets can’t just run it back and keep Durant if their demands aren’t met. This isn’t the best idea for them in the long run. First, the Nets roster experiment is a failure, and everyone knows it, even if the Nets themselves haven’t explicitly done so. Kyrie is difficult. Durant wants out. As much as Adam Silver dislikes it, the NBA is a player’s league. If an aging superstar looking for a title sees his team is going nowhere, and the team is eyeing rebuilding, teams usually accommodate their wishes. That’s how Chris Paul ended up in Phoenix.
Similarly, Durant has four years left on his contract, the window for winning championships is closing, and the Nets look done. Eventually, the Nets will have to move on, and they will want to avoid being seen as a place where management doesn’t accommodate the wishes of players, and ESPECIALLY superstars. There’s a good reason why small market Oklahoma City is seen as one of the best managed franchises in the NBA. Durant has kept this all very low-key and professionally, so far, and the Nets desperately want to avoid an “I don’t wanna be here,” scenario. The longer they hang onto Durant against his wishes, the more likely this becomes.
Finally, according to Flex (and others), Phoenix is by far Durant’s favored destination. He wants to play with Booker and loves Monty Williams as a coach. The only other team mentioned as a desired destination was Miami. However, they have less to offer, and the Nets would likely prefer not to move him to an Eastern Conference rival.
Thus, I would advise people to wait until August 5th to get a better feel for where this is going. The Suns have a lot of movable assets, and Durant has far more leverage than anyone wants to admit publicly. The real insiders are saying this is still a thing, and the Nets are desperate to set market value prior to the situation exploding and having their hand forced by a tweet.