Kevin Durant makes the Suns legit contenders, but the team will still explore ways to improve

The past has a way of forecasting the future, and that certainly applies within the world of NBA team-building. An overwhelming majority of the league’s significant roster changes occur within the week of February’s trade deadline and the stretch in which June’s NBA Draft bleeds into free agency. That has organically split the calendar into two effective periods for team executives to tweak here and deal there, with leftovers from the previous negotiating table resurfacing at the next meal. Predicting that upcoming menu can be an exercise as simple as spotting what’s left for the taking.

The Sixers, once upon a time, attempted to move Ben Simmons for James Harden in January 2021, only for Simmons to request a trade from Philadelphia when his representation met with team officials at the NBA Draft Combine. The absence of a satisfying trade for Simmons that offseason previewed just how adamant the Sixers would be in holding Simmons until their optimal return — Harden at the 2022 trade deadline — finally presented itself.

It was only a few months later that Kevin Durant requested his own trade from the Brooklyn Nets in June, with a keen eye on the Phoenix Suns. And it left the door open for his eventual departure for The Valley at last week’s trade deadline. This is a square dance, in a fixed marketplace, in which partners that come together in one sequence are liable to sync on the next go-around for another spin. How the final quarter of the regular season and playoffs unfolds will certainly set this summer’s stage for activity across the league — and a few notable situations outlined below.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 30: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)  Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets looks on against the Los Angeles Lakers at Barclays Center on January 30, 2023 in New York City. The Nets defeated the Lakers 121-104. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The Suns are all in on a partnership between Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) (Jim McIsaac via Getty Images)

Is Phoenix the title favorite?

How Durant melds with the Suns’ star backcourt of Devin Booker and Chris Paul — after Phoenix mortgaged four unprotected first-round picks between 2023 and 2029, plus a pick swap in 2028, plus talented starting wings Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson — will be the key question at the center of the NBA moving forward. Splurging to that degree for a 34-year-old Durant, while the 37-year-old Paul has already exhibited notable signs of decline — and factor both All-Stars’ history of nagging injuries — sets Phoenix in the pure position of championship or bust.

A title, though, requires so much good fortune that it’s an impossible outcome to guarantee when prolonged health, throughout a two-month postseason, swings title races every season. We’ll see what further bench reinforcements arrive on the buyout market following former Magic shooter Terrence Ross. T.J. Warren and Darius Bazley will help provide much-needed depth after Jae Crowder left in the outgoing package for Durant as well.

There does appear to be a thinner margin for error facing this Phoenix super-team iteration than most All-Star conglomerates. However Phoenix fares, the Suns are too pot-committed and seem far too eager to spend under the aggressive ownership of new team governor Mat Ishbia for Phoenix not to search for further artillery ahead of next season. The Suns approached the Nets about trading for Kyrie Irving once the All-Star point guard asked out of Brooklyn, sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports, and there were rumblings around the league that Phoenix was hoping to somehow land both Irving and Durant.

That isn't just a window into another present reality. A future reunification of Durant and Irving with the Suns will loom on the periphery of both Phoenix and Dallas’ stretch runs. Phoenix had already contacted rival teams about other ball-handlers on the February trade market, sources said, and was expected by league personnel to pursue Fred VanVleet if he truly reached unrestricted free agency this summer.

Some future, at some point in Phoenix with Booker still at the controls, seems guaranteed to not feature Paul at his side, and that clock has now certainly started to dwindle. Durant’s addition could mitigate some concern of relying on Paul’s table-setting and maybe even extend the point guard’s career. Or Durant's arrival — with elevated expectations for a team that was already a title hopeful — could leave the Suns more actively exploring contingency plans beyond Paul at point guard this offseason.

Durant and Booker, though, are both under contract through 2025-26. We have seen the fragility of these dynamic duos and terrific trios. Durant, Irving and Harden infamously played just 16 games together. But that long view of Durant and Booker under team control for the better part of a half-decade is the foundation any contender dreams of, a sturdy bedrock like the one the Golden State Warriors are still clinging to.

The Mavericks’ Kyrie Irving experiment

Dallas does not face that luxury. Irving will have the opportunity to reach unrestricted free agency this summer, the very leverage he exacted when requesting a deal from Brooklyn in the first place. Even if you refuse to believe that Dallas and Irving don’t have some handshake deal to re-sign this summer, as has been reported, Irving’s verbal testaments about team commitments have proven quite weightless in the past. He sought to leave Cleveland in preparation for LeBron James’ own departure for Los Angeles. He fled Boston to team with Durant in Brooklyn. He left the Nets after failing to secure the long-term contract extension that he desired.

The Mavericks, though, absolutely cannot afford to lose Irving for nothing. Dallas could have dealt Jalen Brunson at last year’s trade deadline and instead watched him walk to New York as a free agent. That has to position Irving well for any unresolved contract negotiations, provided this experimental pairing with Luka Doncic becomes more than a flammable hypothesis. Or else the mutual attraction of Irving and James’ Los Angeles Lakers, not to mention Durant’s aforementioned Suns, will certainly resurface. Irving and the Lakers are going to dance around each other, it seems, until the music on James’ top-billing tenure stops.

Using a 2029 unprotected first-round pick to land Irving will allow Dallas to move both its 2025 and 2027 first-round picks this summer after the Mavericks’ 2023 selection finally conveys to New York as part of the 2019 Kristaps Porzingis deal. If Irving and Doncic manage to form the partnership Doncic and Porzingis never could fully cement, then perhaps the Mavericks will even take those picks and go shopping for an additional co-star for Doncic and Irving. Why stop at two alphas when you can chase a third? That has been the going order of operations for teams in the superstar-stacking business.

The opposite side of that coin flip could lead to some fascinating decision-making in Dallas. A sign-and-trade for Irving would be a viable exit ramp if the Mavericks need to help facilitate his departure because watching Irving escape like Brunson before him would be nothing short of a disaster.

That is why the Irving gamble has skeptics in rival front offices raising plenty of eyebrows. For the conversation this season about a purported window the Mavericks have to supplement Doncic, before it becomes his turn to look elsewhere, Dallas’ All-NBA engine had remained far from contemplating any future with another franchise, according to multiple people familiar with the situation. Doncic gave Mavericks leadership his approval before Dallas went forward with landing Irving, sources said.

Perhaps Irving’s creativity will afford Doncic the breathing room to better punish opponents and spare his usage. This was the Mavericks’ move that packed the most potential potency for a team that reached last season’s conference final. But any sideways result with Irving has far greater possibility to escalate real concerns about Doncic’s timeline in Dallas, as opposed to if the Mavericks spent less for a lower ceiling.

Brooklyn’s next steps

The respective fish bowls in Phoenix and Dallas, of course, come on the heels of Brooklyn’s deconstruction, which has left plenty of questions about the Nets’ franchise moving forward. League personnel are surely wondering about the long-term security of Sean Marks’ front office, though the Nets built a team with championship aspirations from a far worse starting point in 2016 than what’s currently left in Brooklyn’s cupboard. This braintrust netted strong returns despite its precarious position rife with trade requests.

The Rockets control the Nets’ first-round draft assets through 2027, thanks to the 2021 Harden blockbuster. Rebuilding through their own picks is not a realistic option. And Brooklyn is left with seven first-rounders plus an intriguing cast of wing players from dealing out Harden, then Irving and finally Durant.

The Nets can suddenly jump to the front of the line whenever another franchise focal point seeks a new destination. They quite literally hold the package that just acquired Kevin Durant and then some. Competing for championships has been Brooklyn’s mindset under Joe Tsai’s ownership. The front office did not deal to get under the luxury tax before the deadline, as some rival personnel expected. Brooklyn staffers believe this version of their roster will vie for a playoff berth under Jacque Vaughn. Smart money would bet on the Nets searching for pathways toward contention sooner than anything else.

Brooklyn did not seriously entertain offers for Bridges after landing him from Phoenix, sources told Yahoo Sports. He is under contract through 2025-26 at what’s considered a value deal of more than $22 million in average annual salary. There will be no shortage of title chasers who bid for Bridges this offseason. Memphis is one suitor to keep filed away, after the Grizzlies, sources said, pursued Bridges both from Phoenix and then Brooklyn and were willing to offer combinations of picks and players that did not include Ja Morant, Desmond Bane or Jaren Jackson Jr. for Durant.

What becomes of Simmons and the final two years and nearly $80 million remaining on his contract after this season is of course another dynamic to monitor in Brooklyn. The Nets are widely expected to gauge what trade market could materialize for Simmons after his disappointing campaign comes to a close. The three-time All-Star is still far from the form he exhibited during his best days in Philadelphia.

The Nets will also face an interesting restricted free agency for Cam Johnson, who was unable to come to an agreement in Phoenix. The Suns, sources said, were not willing to offer Johnson more than $72 million over four seasons.

Toronto’s direction

The Raptors appear to have at least been successful in steering much of the trade conversation leading up to last week’s deadline. When the Raptors’ only move of consequence ended up being the addition of Jakob Poeltl, whom Toronto has targeted seemingly ever since the Raptors dealt him with DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard in 2018, it surprised opposing executives under the impression that Toronto was willing to sell on VanVleet and O.G. Anunoby.

Perhaps Poeltl marks the obvious frontcourt upgrade Toronto was lacking, and the Raptors make another late-season surge up the Eastern Conference standings that they accomplished a year ago. Poeltl will become an unrestricted free agent in June, but league personnel expect Toronto will move to re-sign the 27-year-old to the four-year contract he covets. That type of tinkering doesn’t exactly spell rebuild.

Paying Poeltl, VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. — both guards are expected to waive their ’23-24 player option in search of richer deals — will be a hefty bill for a team that doesn’t find itself firmly in the postseason picture. The Raptors held Kyle Lowry at the 2021 trade deadline before signing-and-trading him to Miami. Maybe VanVleet follows the same script. Toronto had too much dialogue on Anunoby with Memphis, Indiana and New York, among others, to not have a strong sense of what his trade market will look like come June, either. Things above the border seem far from settled amid the deadline’s lingering dust.

Jerami Grant’s next contract

While there have been no indications that Jerami Grant will be interested in playing elsewhere, his unresolved contract in Portland is another critical offseason domino that league executives will monitor from this point until the summer. Grant is eligible for a four-year, $112 million contract extension he has thus far resisted, sources told Yahoo Sports, and will have the opportunity for a five-year deal at a greater average annual salary in the offseason. Until the talented forward signs on the bottom line, you can rest assured opposing front offices will pencil in Grant as a potential addition for their own respective builds, particularly as Portland presently stands outside the play-in tournament.