Even though Kevin Durant reportedly wants a trade away from the Nets, it’s hard to envision a 34-year-old NBA superstar accepting a trade to the rebuilding Rockets. Typically, elite veterans want to maximize their short-term title odds. Yet, there’s a strong case to be made that Houston has exactly what Brooklyn could use most in this difficult situation.
Because it’s effectively impossible to replace the short-term basketball value of Durant, the process for the Nets to eventually form their next title contender would ideally involve young reinforcements added from the draft. That’s why the NBA’s worst teams are positioned high in the order. It’s a means to provide hope for struggling franchises and parity.
The Nets, of course, aren’t in position to reap those usual benefits, since Houston owns control of their first-round draft assets through 2029 as part of the James Harden trade from January 2021. But what if that somehow changed, and Brooklyn could rebuild through the draft?
For the right deal, The Athletic’s Kelly Iko reports that Rockets general manager Rafael Stone is open to such an arrangement. He writes:
Should that be the case, the Rockets are open to being involved as a facilitator if that means receiving assets back, The Athletic understands.
Iko goes on to toss out a hypothetical where the Rockets trade for young big man Deandre Ayton as part of a three-way deal sending Durant to his desired destination of Phoenix. The 23-year-old averaged 17.2 points (63.4% FG) and 10.2 rebounds in 29.5 minutes per game last season.
Ayton, a restricted free agent, would have to be given a new contract as part of any transaction. In turn, that could eat into some of Houston’s potential salary cap flexibility in 2023. However, if Ayton is viewed by the Rockets as a better player than many of the realistic options for that space a year from now, it may be worth moving up the timetable a bit.
In such an arrangement, Houston would have to compensate at least Brooklyn (and perhaps Phoenix, as well) with draft capital.
There’s a Kevin Durant situation that needs solving.
There’s a Deandre Ayton situation that needs solving.
And the rebuilding, flexible Rockets might have a solution — but not in the way you might think.
— Kelly Iko (@KellyIkoNBA) July 4, 2022
From Brooklyn’s perspective, the thinking would be that unprotected future first-round draft capital — particularly their own — could offer much more upside, in terms of eventually building a contender, relative to building around the likes of Ayton and Ben Simmons. While the Nets could certainly acquire significant draft capital in a two-team Durant trade — from Phoenix, in this case — they’d also have to mull the likelihood of those picks actually turning out to be good. After all, they’d be handing the Suns a juggernaut, at least in the short-term. By contrast, the appeal of Brooklyn regaining its own picks is that they would have control.
Yet, Houston has to consider that without its involvement, the Nets have no incentive to lose big, since they wouldn’t gain the resulting high draft capital. While a foundation of Ayton, Simmons, and other assets acquired from hypothetical trades this offseason of Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets wouldn’t be championship caliber — but they would have enough talent to still be relevant and in the NBA’s middle class. In turn, that could limit the desirability of those future picks headed Houston’s way by making them near the middle of the first round, as opposed to high.
There are no guarantees, of course. Perhaps Stone and the Rockets see free agent or trade targets in 2023 that are preferable to Ayton (or any other plausible 2022 options, like Mikal Bridges). In addition, Houston may feel that acquiring a player like Ayton in the 2022 offseason could worsen the outlook for its own first-round draft pick in 2023, which features a loaded class led by super prospect Victor Wembanyama.
It’s also possible that even with a clear incentive to avoid losing big (barring a trade with Houston returning their draft capital), the Nets may still find a way to do it, anyway. After all, it’s not as if Simmons — who hasn’t played in over a year — is a lock to return to his old form and stay available. If the Rockets are skeptical on Simmons, that could prompt them to stand pat with Brooklyn’s picks and allow the chaos to play out.
In the end, it’s not going to be easy to pull off a trade of such magnitude. The Nets will want to be compensated at an extremely high level in any trade sending out a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate like Durant, and the Rockets won’t want to empty their asset cupboard unless they are getting Durant, themselves (which is quite unlikely).
So, the question is whether there’s a sweet spot that results in both the Nets and Rockets getting a desirable return. In Houston’s case, it would involve “cashing out” on some of those future Nets draft assets and the associated risk for the certainty of a proven player. In Brooklyn’s case, it requires being willing to take less immediate help in a Durant trade for the upside of being able to bottom out and build through the draft.
It’s far from a given that either side would do it, but it makes sense to explore and determine if there’s an acceptable middle ground.