Five Kevin Durant trades that make (some) sense

Two days ago, superstar forward Kevin Durant demanded a trade from the Brooklyn Nets.

Oh, you’ve heard?

As others have already touched upon, there is a lot to unpack here. One of Durant’s preferred destinations, Miami, seems highly unrealistic for reasons that our Sam Amick explored here. Formulating a direct trade to send him to his other target destination, Phoenix, has similar complications that we chewed over two days ago.

Additionally, there’s the perspective from Brooklyn. “What do the Nets actually want out of this?” is a question that perhaps isn’t being asked enough. With the Houston Rockets controlling Brooklyn’s next five drafts as a result of the bounty sent out in the James Harden trade, and with Nets owner Joe Tsai having sugar-plum visions of Warriors-like revenues, this doesn’t feel like a tanking scenario. Thursday’s trade of a future first-round pick for defensive stopper Royce O’Neale reinforced that point.

Yes, the Nets will demand draft picks to help rebuild their stockpile and, perhaps, use in future trades. But their biggest hope from a Durant trade would likely be real, actual basketball players who can help them win games right now. The hoped-for haul of two All-Stars probably isn’t happening, unless it comes with an extremely broad definition of “All-Star” (I can just imagine the Knicks calling up and saying “hey, we’ll give you Julius Randle and Derrick Rose!”), but one All-Star-caliber player and one good player in his 20s doesn’t sound crazy.

Or does it? One of the key problems with Brooklyn’s hope for an Anthony Davis-type trade haul is the fact that Durant is already 33 years old. Yes, he’s signed for four more years, which is a tremendous advantage for the receiving team, but it’s not realistic to expect him to be the “best player on a contender”-level good for more than two of them. Trading for Durant is a pure win-now move, whereas trading for a 26-year-old Davis offered both win-now and win-later windows. On the other hand, that didn’t stop Minnesota from effectively dropping five firsts for Rudy Gobert; that likely will set a higher bar for Durant trades.

The other, final factor here is Durant’s happiness in his final destination. For a player with four years left on his deal to submit a wish list with only two teams on it is pretty unrealistic. This isn’t a Davis-type leverage play where he’d leave for nothing a year later if the Pelicans didn’t deal him right away. Brooklyn is going to take calls from other teams (many, many other teams), and at least a couple will hope they can convince Durant to give their city a try.

Also lurking in the background is the Kyrie Irving question. Surely the Nets are trading him, too, after he spent the last three seasons laying waste to everything they had built from the ashes of the disastrous Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade. While one outcome seems massively more likely than the rest (to the Lakers for Russell Westbrook and picks, perhaps with Joe Harris and Kendrick Nunn thrown in to even salary), the Nets will have the coming return from an Irving deal in the back of their minds as they strategize Durant trades.

With all that said, I’ve pored over the league and the cap sheets, and I only see five realistic places for Durant to end up. That doesn’t mean only five teams will be calling Brooklyn. Surely every team in the league is at least asking some questions about what it would take, and it’s fun for fans of, say, the Pelicans or Grizzlies to imagine Durant in their uniform.

Not that we’re not tapping these front office’s phone lines. While I’ve guessed at what would be a realistic payout for each team, there is going to be a lot of haggling back and forth on a deal of this size, particularly over draft picks and protections.

The tricky Phoenix deal

This one is out here for as long as Deandre Ayton remains unsigned, but there are multiple complications.

For starters, an actual direct trade with Phoenix gets tripped up almost immediately by two bits of salary cap arcana: first, that the Nets are too far past the luxury tax apron to take back Ayton in a sign-and-trade; and second, that Ayton’s “base-year” status prevents Phoenix from taking back all of his first-year salary as a match.

The Nets, for what it’s worth, seemed to actively rain in on the Ayton parade with their other moves in free agency. Adding O’Neale and paying Nic Claxton starting-center level money makes it more difficult to stay below the apron in an Ayton sign-and-trade, and also removes some of their motivation to add him.

This is why another type of Ayton deal now seems the more likely end-game: One where the Suns trade Ayton to get Durant, but not to the Nets. A three-way Ayton-Durant trade is massively simpler because it takes the apron out of play. Obviously, the Utah Jazz would be the key intermediary here after just trading Rudy Gobert to Minnesota.

Phoenix would still be bound by the “base-year” rule regarding Ayton trades, but if we assume a starting salary for Ayton in the $25-27 million range, the Suns could get to a salary match on Durant by adding about $22 million in salary in addition to Ayton. They could do it with either Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, or with Jae Crowder, Cameron Payne and Cam Johnson. To do this same move and skirt the luxury tax, Phoenix could add Landry Shamet to the deal.

Here’s where it gets fun. Utah can pull off this deal by folding the Gobert trade and this one into a single megadeal, where they acquire Ayton, send some of the draft equity they received from Minnesota to the Suns, and ship out another $15-20 million in salary (Say, Bojan Bogdanovic, or Mike Conley, or one of Malik Beasley or Patrick Beverley and Rudy Gay).

The haggling of who gets what out of this would be pretty intense. The Nets would ask for first-rounders and pick swaps from Phoenix, while the Suns would ask the same of the Jazz. The delicious prospect of the first-rounder pick the Nets sent out to Utah for O’Neale boomeranging all the way back to them lurks in the distance. Regardless of how it plays out, Phoenix would likely be surrendering a similar draft pick haul to the Gobert deal (firsts in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029) to get this done. For a team this close, it’s worth it.

Meanwhile, the players in the deal still matter. The Suns would try to hang on to Bridges, but I can’t see the Nets doing this deal without him. At some point, the parties would likely try to rope in San Antonio or Orlando to take a contract or two (Shamet, Gay and Torrey Craig loom as possibilities).

Some of you might wonder here about Donovan Mitchell being in the deal as the piece going back to Brooklyn. Don’t hold your breath. Mitchell can’t go to Brooklyn as long as Ben Simmons is a Net, as a result of an obscure CBA provision that prevents a single team from having two “designated rookie” contracts that both were acquired by trade.

The Miami megadeal

Trading Durant to his other preferred choice, Miami, is equally complicated. For starters, Durant wants to go there to play with Jimmy Butler, not to be traded for him. Second, Bam Adebayo can’t be part of a trade as long as Ben Simmons is a Net, as a result of that same CBA provision on “designated rookie” deals that scuppered our Mitchell scenarios above.

There is one way around this, however: Put Simmons in the trade. I doubt Miami wants him, but tough noogies. If you want Durant, this is what you have to take with him. Simmons would be Miami’s DeAndre Jordan.

If that’s the case, then suddenly we can get to Miami trades that actually work. How about one where Miami sends out Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, two unprotected firsts (2023 and 2028) and three picks pick swaps (2024, 2027, and 2029) for Durant, Simmons and Seth Curry?

It still seems tricky. The Heat might argue they don’t need to include this much draft equity, and would surely look for scenarios to avoid including Adebayo at all. Since those scenarios basically don’t exist, it might be a conservation-ender. Even if it wasn’t, Simmons would become a guy the Heat had to count on — yikes — and they wouldn’t have a center.

But they would have Kevin Durant.

The Laker double feature

Durant never put the Lakers on his destination list, and you can see why when we talk about “legacy” concerns. Post-Golden State, I’m not sure he’s interested in going to another place where he’d be perceived as riding somebody else’s coattails.

On the other hand, if he’s riding with Kyrie, this is the one place where they can keep riding. And one can argue that with LeBron James getting on in years, it’s still a chance for Durant to stamp it as “his” team.

How would it work? There’s really only one way: by sending Anthony Davis to the Nets. This is the single best player Brooklyn could get in any realistic Durant trade scenario, and he’s signed for two more years. Brooklyn has to at least think about it, right? The entire package would be Davis, Russell Westbrook, unprotected firsts in 2027 and 2029, pick swaps in 2026 and 2028, four second-round picks and Max Christie, for Irving and Durant.

You can poke holes in this one pretty easily, starting with the resulting team in L.A. having nobody to play center except James (and, um, Damien Jones), and the return perhaps still being underwhelming for the Nets compared to some other deals on the table. It seems a lot less likely than the Phoenix scenarios above, in particular, and one scenario below that we’re about to get to. But we can’t rule it out.

The Kawhi combo

Let us recall that on Kawhi Leonard’s free-agent tour in 2019, his first call to team up with a wingman wasn’t to Paul George … it was to Kevin Durant.

Could Durant stomach joining “Kawhi’s team” with the Clippers, knowing that he’d join a top-notch organization with an elite wingman and have a realistic chance at burnishing his legacy with a few more rings? That he could say he’d led the once-mocked Paper Clips to their first ring?

Unlike some of the above scenarios, the terms of a trade here are hammer-to-the-head obvious: Paul George goes back to the Nets, allowing them to live another day. Like Davis above, he has two years left on his deal. Brooklyn could likely get a few more considerations from the Clippers, adding Terance Mann, Brandon Boston, a 2028 unprotected first, and swaps in 2027 and 2029. Maybe they could stuff a Norm Powell-for-Joe Harris swap into the deal as well.

Whatever the final cost, the Clippers should absolutely be blowing up the Nets’ phones about George-Durant deals (and then vociferously denying it publicly, of course). George is really good; Durant is an all-timer. Come June, that difference matters. For a team that’s as all-in as it gets, this trade is the ultimate all-in cherry on top.

Would Pascal Siakam or Scottie Barnes be included in a deal for Durant? (Brad Penner / USA Today)

The Northern Exposure

Of all the non-Phoenix destinations, however, the one that seems the most realistic is Toronto. The Raptors have a lot of interesting pieces, plentiful options for salary matching, own all their future picks, and are unafraid to spend into the tax for a winner.

The question: Where is the line for the Raptors? Is it worth surrendering Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes? I’ll go with “hell no” on that one, actually, as the Raptors would be trading a decade-plus window with Barnes for a short-term supernova with Durant. Keeping Barnes, on the other hand, is the thing that would make surrendering a ton of future draft equity for Durant palatable.

Toronto can still build a really strong package, even without Barnes or a zillion firsts, if they’re willing to include two of Pascal Siakam, Fred Van Vleet and OG Anunoby. But I’m guessing if they’re going all-in around Durant, they’d rather only include one of them.

If that’s the case, the options narrow. A swap of Siakam – an All-NBA player signed for two more years — and Gary Trent, Jr. for Durant and Joe Harris would still likely require significant draft equity (say, three firsts and two picks swaps), but we’d be in the right ballpark.

Anunoby is the other option that could make sense; he’s not as good as Siakam but is younger and has a more favorable contract. His salary is low enough that the match becomes more problematic; Toronto would likely need to add both Trent and Khem Birch in that case and not take back Harris. Which players would the Nets value more between Siakam and Anunoby? For that matter, which one do the Raptors value more playing next to Durant? I think Siakam is the Nets’ answer and Anunoby is the Raptors’ answer, which is why I think the Siakam formulation is a bit more likely.

Again, all this will require some haggling between the Nets and Raptors. But the sheer fact that there are so many potential Toronto trade outcomes that could be palatable to the Nets has to make this option somewhat interesting. Durant didn’t have Toronto on his original list, but being The Man for an entire country certainly is a legacy move, and he’ll have a rising wingman next to him in Barnes. He should be persuadable.

(Photo of Bam Adebayo and Kevin Durant: Eric Espada / Getty Images)


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