EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Will Phoenix Suns abandon team-building principles to land Kevin Durant?
We are a day away from hitting the one-month mark on Kevin Durant’s trade request from the Brooklyn Nets. Let’s reset where we’re at.
That initial shockwave sent across the NBA was quickly followed by a tidal wave of momentum for the Phoenix Suns. Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes reported Phoenix was one of Durant’s preferred destinations. Later in the news cycle, The Athletic’s Shams Charania and ESPN’s Zach Lowe both cited Phoenix as not only one of the preferred destinations but the preferred destination.
To swan-dive head first into hypothetical trade packages from the Suns, there was a snag, with Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro noting the Nets were not interested in receiving center Deandre Ayton in a potential deal. Still, a sign-and-trade to a third team could have aided Phoenix’s ability to send Brooklyn enough to fetch Durant. That, plus Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and the requisite draft picks/swaps felt like it had enough weight on it.
Then, Ayton signed an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers and Phoenix wisely matched, halting that tidal wave.
And now, the seas are rather calm.
Monday gave us a shock to the system of the Boston Celtics joining the Durant sweepstakes with their inclusion of All-Star wing Jaylen Brown in discussions with Brooklyn, per Charania. This, quite obviously, turned into public knowledge that Brooklyn was OK turning down what looked like the best trade package available, as well as Charania’s note that “there is a deal to be had” with Boston. Ooh! Watch out! They could be on to something!
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst told Arizona Sports’ Bickley & Marotta on Monday that he did not believe those were active talks and Lowe on his podcast referenced a date about 10 days prior to the report for when those talks heated up.
Semantics aside, the fact that a player of Brown’s stature — a 25-year-old that is one of the league’s 25 best players — is being discussed speaks to what it will take for a team to acquire Durant this summer (or fall).
Which is where we circle back to the start and the Suns.
Ayton’s return to the Valley was quite the complication. His absence in a Durant deal now, from both a salary and value perspective, means the Suns’ lack of wiggle room is enough to induce a fit of claustrophobia.
Bridges and Johnson have to be the headliners at the top of a return. There’s no one like Bridges, nobody who plays his role. But initiators of offense and skilled scorers like Brown who also defend are the most valuable archetypes in basketball today. There’s no debating which player is more heralded from Brooklyn’s side of things.
The Twins cannot be separated in such a trade. For Suns fans, that could bring chest-tightening anxiety. Without Ayton’s involvement in a theoretical Durant trade, including Bridges and Johnson is the required squeezing of every last ounce of juice out for what Phoenix can provide.
From there, at least one of Jae Crowder, Dario Saric or Landry Shamet need to be involved to make the salaries work. It would not surprise me, based on Charania’s reporting of how much Brooklyn desires capable players back, that the Nets would want to make it two.
Then there are the draft picks and swaps. The Suns can thank the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves for putting this part of any negotiations in an unrealistic ballpark because of what those two teams surrendered for Dejounte Murray and Rudy Gobert, respectively.
The maximum allotment is four unprotected first-round picks and three swaps, and there’s a reason why I referred to it as a “requisite.” Based on where the standard has been set in the Murray and Gobert returns, it feels like all those picks and swaps is a must for Brooklyn to ask for. How much more valuable is Durant than Gobert? Four times? Five times?
If Suns general manager James Jones hits the big, shiny red button on a deal roughly around those parameters, it would handcuff his flexibility and gut his roster in a way that would directly contradict how he went about winning NBA Executive of the Year and rapidly ascending into one of the best GMs around. More on that in a minute.
Phoenix would have more to get done in our alternate timeline where the 17 total diehards who have a Dragan Bender jersey can celebrate by writing in “keBENDERant” on the back.
The Suns must add another guard this offseason to shore up their second unit and make regular-season relief for Chris Paul more realistic. But how would they get that guy? No more first-round picks to trade. As far as a tradeable salary, most of those would be gonzo.
Wait a minute … who is guarding Ja Morant? Luka Doncic? Paul George? Bridges would have departed, and that’s a tough ask of Torrey Craig or Josh Okogie to be the fifth guy next to Ayton, Durant, Paul and Devin Booker. But, again, how would Phoenix get that guy?
It would just have to figure it out. Let’s say the trade is Crowder and Saric as the two expiring contracts attached to Bridges and Johnson. The nine-man rotation would be Paul, Booker, Craig, Durant, Ayton, Cam Payne, Landry Shamet, Bismack Biyombo and Okogie or Damion Lee. I’ll throw in a returning Ish Wainright (sign him!) as the 10th man to make you feel slightly better.
That would be it. The free agent market has all but dried up. Is that enough depth? Balance?
No. But that’s not the point of trading for someone like Durant anyway, and not what would make that Suns team the favorites for a championship.
Jones and the key decision-makers alongside him understand that point. I just wonder if they could accept it. I’m genuinely not sure. It’s not how we got here, so the Suns are justifiably trying to keep themselves from entirely ruining the aforementioned depth and flexibility.
That’s why we don’t have a deal yet, and why Gambadoro reported on Burns & Gambo Monday that the Suns are still in this and checking in with Brooklyn just like the other parties involved.
But at a certain point, the Suns are going to have to move on. Based on the above reporting, we can interpret that Phoenix has not offered a package similar to what I suggested. Otherwise, it would just bow out of the contest, because the Suns are in a unique position where we all know the best possible return that Brooklyn can get from them.
This current Suns squad is still an excellent basketball team. It would win at least 55 games in an absolute gauntlet of a Western Conference. But it would also run into the same problems from its last two postseason eliminations, unless they are properly addressed.
To repeat myself, the waiting game is the right move for the Suns at the moment. Even a month in. It’s Kevin freaking Durant.
But how long are they willing to play it for?