LOS ANGELES — History takes a backseat to the present when the night before the NBA’s trade deadline produces the biggest earthquake in years.
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant is being traded to the Phoenix Suns, sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports; ESPN was first to report. The Nets will receive Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and significant draft capital, thus shaking up a Western Conference that seemed wide open for the taking.
And the Suns, new owner Mat Ishbia could barely go 48 hours before swinging big, going and throwing Durant a life raft after the Brooklyn Nets’ experiment predictably capsized. Even though the Suns were rebounding from a slow start to the season, going 9-2 in their last 11 games and getting All-Star Devin Booker back from injury, last spring’s meltdown in the conference semifinals still smarted with the franchise.
Depending on an aging Chris Paul didn’t seem like a wise decision for the future, and acquiring a still-in-prime Durant eases that burden along with sliding Booker into a more advantageous position to attack defenses.
Durant was close with Suns coach Monty Williams when Williams was an assistant on the Oklahoma City Thunder staff, along with their time on Team USA — Durant played with both Paul and Booker during separate gold-medal runs — and returns West, where he was a two-time Finals MVP with the Golden State Warriors.
There’s still plenty to be accomplished between now and Thursday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline, but clearly the floodgates were opened when the Dallas Mavericks acquired Kyrie Irving from the Nets following Irving’s trade request.
It signaled plenty around the league and forced teams to push their chips to the center of the table. The Mavericks are certainly more dynamic, if not more combustible, with Irving, who’s playing for a new contract this summer.
But it didn’t scare anyone, at least not the teams with true championship aspirations like the Suns. The Sacramento Kings are third in the West, but aren’t expected to even win a round. The Memphis Grizzlies are dealing with their own issues of immaturity and could self-destruct if they don’t get it together before too long. Yes, the Denver Nuggets employ the two-time MVP but will be playing with significant expectations for the first time since the Orlando bubble, when they took advantage of the Los Angeles Clippers’ willingness to go home prematurely.
The Clippers are a point guard and maybe a big away from truly being complete, and that’s making the big assumption Kawhi Leonard will be healthy in the spring. The champion Warriors aren’t who they were last season, especially when all the breaks went their way without them having to rely on their young players significantly.
Dallas, even after picking up Irving, is still looking for a wing defender after losing Dorian Finney-Smith in the deal, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Philadelphia swingman Matisse Thybulle — who seems in and out of favor with the 76ers — could be a target, sources said.
Nobody’s done, and this late-night move could very well open a true arms race for the run to June.
Before, the Suns’ championship window opened and closed with Paul — whose acquisition from Oklahoma City rescued them from a decade-long lethargy and elevated them to contender status.
Now, with Durant taking center stage once he gets back from his recent MCL injury, it’s not a stretch to see them making the NBA Finals like they did in 2021 — losing a 2-0 lead to the Milwaukee Bucks — it’ll be the expectation.
Not just from the NBA world, but from Ishbia, the brash Michigan State walk-on who just held his introductory news conference earlier in the afternoon. Submitting the draft capital to Nets general manager Sean Marks signaled the Suns’ willingness to make a move immediately and showed the Nets were all along done with everything they hoped to be true: building a substantial winner behind Durant, Irving and once upon a time, James Harden.
It was drama from the beginning to the end, an ambitious gambit from the Nets knowing the flighty reputations of all three. Giving the players equity felt like too much influence and it exploded in everyone’s faces for a number of reasons.
“I wasn’t sure about whether or not I wanted to be in Brooklyn long term again because of things that was happening behind the scenes,” Irving said, moments after news of the Durant trade broke and after his first game with the Mavericks. “I just did my best to put my head down, worked as hard as I could, there were some unfortunate circumstances that came up there that were out of my control whether that be the mandate with the vaccine or missing games, being suspended. Just little things that I think just put wrenches in our journey.”
Perhaps it was a slip of the tongue, but Irving said he felt these moves were in the works since his first year in Brooklyn, in 2019-20, when Durant missed the season recovering from Achilles surgery — not these moves specifically, but the breakup before things really got a chance to lift off.
Both Durant and Irving went through bouts of unhappiness in Brooklyn — Irving being more volatile than Durant for the aforementioned reasons — and Phoenix was mentioned over the summer as a realistic trade target for Durant when he initially asked out.
“We had a lot of conversations throughout the year of what our futures were going to look like,” Irving said of Durant. “There was still a level of uncertainty, but we just cared about seeing each other be places where we can thrive. And whether that be together or that be apart, there’s never been one moment where I felt like he’s been angry at me for decisions I made or I’ve been angry at him.”
That chance to thrive in the Western Conference seemingly wasn’t available to the duo as teammates.
“Get to see him a little bit more, probably playing against Phoenix a lot more. That’s what I’m looking forward to,” Irving said. “Everything else in between, I just am glad he got out of there.”
Phoenix gave up significant but fair players in exchange for Durant, and one would think Suns president of basketball operations James Jones still has some holes to fill. While Crowder didn’t play this season, sitting out until a trade partner was found, he, Johnson and Bridges were pretty formidable defensively last season when the Suns ran away with the league’s best record.
A huge part of the Suns’ identity changes with bringing Durant in — but one wonders if it was much of a risk because of the way they infamously flamed out against Dallas in Game 7 of the West semis last season, with rumors of locker room discord following shortly behind.
Something seismic was necessary and something even more drastic was done. If Durant needed stability on the sidelines and at the point guard spot, he’s found a form of it in Williams and Paul.
If the Suns needed a player in the top tier to go against Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Jayson Tatum, Durant is more than willing to go toe-to-toe.
The NBA world genuflected at the feet of LeBron James on Tuesday night, but it was rocked when Durant’s once one-size-too-big Nikes were sent back West once again.