It was Phoenix. It was always Phoenix.
Even before Kevin Durant requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets last June, mere minutes before the NBA’s 2022 free agency period began, word had already spread among league personnel: Durant’s eye was wandering toward the Suns. If he could ever angle away from the franchise Durant joined in 2019 alongside Kyrie Irving, the prospect of teaming with Chris Paul and Devin Booker loomed on a tantalizing horizon. One of the greatest point guards to ever patrol the court and one of the sport’s most dangerous scorers behind Durant were waiting in a warm-weather metropolis on a team flush with draft capital, plus Finals-tested players rife with trade value.
The Nets finally traded Durant, and TJ Warren, to the Suns in the early hours of Thursday morning on the East Coast, hours before the NBA’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline, for Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder, four unprotected first-round picks between 2023 and 2029, plus a pick swap in 2028, league sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports.
Durant never handed Brooklyn’s front office a list of preferred destinations last summer, sources told Yahoo Sports, but Nets staffers always knew. That’s an unwritten element of any savvy front office’s required acumen. The transaction world of the NBA is full of twists and winding turns among individual agendas and conflicting aspirations. Durant had told confidants of his interest in Phoenix, his admiration of Booker and the All-Star scorer’s evolving game, and that intel certainly made its way to Brooklyn officials as well as rival front offices — just as they’d gotten wind of James Harden’s growing desire to flee for Philadelphia.
Durant has harbored an affinity for Phoenix head coach Monty Williams from shared days in Oklahoma City and with Team USA basketball. He’s known to hold deep respect for Paul. Like LeBron James annually choosing Damian Lillard in the league’s recent All-Star Game draft between captains, you may recall Durant selected Booker with his first choice among All-Star reserves ahead of last February’s midseason classic.
Come July, the Raptors called on Durant. The Celtics called on Durant. Everybody called on Durant. The Heat always check in for due diligence whenever a worldly talent becomes available. But the offseason trickled on, Durant remained a member of the Nets, Brooklyn found an upgrade with Royce O’Neale and re-signed Nic Claxton. Even still, figures around the NBA braced for the possibility that another turbulent season at Barclays Center could send the Nets’ castle to a crumble, leaving Durant up for grabs — where Phoenix was always said to be waiting with open arms.
Who knows what an open bidding for Durant would have brought? But few teams could have traded a commensurate haul to the Nets and still been left with a roster capable of supporting Durant’s chase for another ring. Could New Orleans or Memphis have a similar capacity to deal young players and draft capital? That’s for certain. But Phoenix was the ending Durant clearly sought for this script to include. By all accounts, the Suns and Nets worked on this blockbuster in relative quiet. Despite mounting speculation and league-wide curiosity on Durant’s availability this week, the news of a completed megadeal swiftly rumbled across the league like an unexpected blast.
Brooklyn had soared as high as second in the Eastern Conference this season.
Yet, Durant being sidelined with an MCL sprain in his right knee, the Nets stumbling down the standings and Irving requesting his own trade on the Friday before the league’s trade window closed, all begat a palpable inevitability. Rival teams were monitoring Durant’s status as much as his All-Star teammate’s. No matter Brooklyn’s competitive return of Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith in exchange for sending Irving to the Dallas Mavericks, the Suns were armed with a bountiful offer, bracing for an aggressive new team owner in Mat Ishbia to assume control of the franchise on Tuesday, and Durant was dealt as Wednesday turned into Thursday.
If basketball can be described as a game of inches, team building in the NBA is a competition decided by fortune. It is a cruel combination of fate and fitness and injury. Durant’s ruptured Achilles and Klay Thompson’s torn ACL in the 2019 NBA Finals squashed Golden State’s title hopes that season and closed Durant’s tenure with the Warriors. Harden and Irving’s inability to face Milwaukee at full strength in the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals sank those Nets on the Bucks’ path to that year’s championship — over these rising Phoenix Suns. Coincidentally, two consecutive Januarys brought Brooklyn an MCL injury to Durant, a trade request from one of his All-Star counterparts and this time, Durant’s eventual exit, as well.
His possible departure had lingered over the Irving trade talks and the rest of the NBA’s trade market at large. Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith marked win-now additions in the wake of Irving’s send off, but the likelihood that Brooklyn could viably compete for a championship this season, and sustain the winning environment a 34-year-old Durant craves, had dwindled significantly.
The time was now, while Phoenix can still make a title push in Paul’s waning twilight. He is 37 years old with only next season’s 2023-24 salary largely guaranteed. The Suns have already contacted opposing teams in search of point guard reinforcements, sources told Yahoo Sports, searching for premium reserve ballhandling options who could even perhaps replace Paul in the future. Deandre Ayton’s long-term future remains curious after a prolonged restricted free agency last offseason in which Phoenix explored signing-and-trading Ayton in order to land Durant. There is little belief among people familiar with the situation that Suns management truly values Ayton at the $33 million average annual value over the four full seasons on his offer sheet from Indiana.
But a foursome of Durant, Booker, Paul and Ayton, with whatever finishing touches the Suns front office can apply to this roster before the deadline — plus whatever veterans may come their way on the buyout market — stands as fierce as any threat in this jumbled Western Conference. Durant to Phoenix is the domino of all dominoes that could spark a flurry of activity among contenders in the West playoff picture, and that’s before reconsidering Dallas’ addition of Irving. Not to mention the three-team deal that brought D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt to the Lakers in exchange for Russell Westbrook, to also help reunite Mike Conley Jr. with Rudy Gobert in Minnesota, where Anthony Edwards has bloomed into an All-Star talent and Karl-Anthony Towns should return along the way.
The Pelicans and Grizzlies are still primed with assets, and the Raptors have dangled talented forward O.G. Anunoby on the market for weeks. The first-place Denver Nuggets, sources said, are still searching for ways to move second-year guard Bones Hyland for a postseason rotational player at a minimum. The Clippers have been linked to veteran point guards like Toronto’s former All-Star Fred VanVleet. And the reigning champion Warriors are also looking to buy.
Opportunity can provoke action. Windows to win a championship can close as quickly as they open.
Just ask the Brooklyn Nets.