TORONTO — At least for a few minutes, it looked like it was going to be a relatively quiet summer in the NBA, much like league standards dictate.
It was the day before the free agent market opened. Kyrie Irving had just surprised everyone by opting for his option year with the Nets instead of leaving $30 million on the table.
This year’s class in the free agent market didn’t seem to be one of the best. The trade between the Hawks and Spurs was interesting when Atlanta star acquired Dejounte Murray to reunite him with Trae Young. One of the outstanding questions was whether the Knicks could create enough leeway to overpay Jalen Brunson.
And suddenly the NBA went crazy again.
On Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the free agent negotiation window opened, we learned that Kevin Durant had requested a trade from the Nets.
If suddenly a star and one of the top five players in the NBA becomes available, it’s an NBA event. If you look at their history, you can expect the Raptors, led by Masai Uriji and Bobby Webster, to show interest, but they won’t be the only ones.
If you’re one of the other 29 teams in the NBA and you’re not preparing to make your best offer to Nets general manager Sean Marks, what are you doing?
Toronto is as well positioned as any team to get into the Durant derby. The question now is how seriously the team is interested in entering the race for the former MVP, two-time champion and future Hall of Famer.
The long-term plan has always been to gather prospects, develop them and maintain some flexibility while patiently waiting for the right opportunity to solidify some parts of your roster. It has worked before and they are able to do it again if and when they want. They have good young players with good contracts and they kept all their draft picks. But is this the right opportunity? They will have to decide that.
It’s not the same situation as Kawhi Leonard. You won’t get Kevin Durant for the equivalent of DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick. Yes, KD is turning 34 and has a history of injuries, but unlike Leonard, there are fewer questions about his current health, mindset and contract status – he has four seasons left.
This is what makes the situation so fascinating from a Nets perspective. Unlike Anthony Davis, Paul George, or any other star who demanded a trade from his organization just before his contract expired, Durant has several years left on his contract. Brooklyn, therefore, retains some control in this unenviable situation.
It’s still a real nightmare for the Nets. They sacrificed the equivalent of half a decade of first-round picks for James Harden, who barely unpacked before being traded to the 76ers for Ben Simmons. Durant, Irving and Harden are considered one of the best lines to form, having played a total of 16 games together. There’s a reasonable chance all three players played their last game with the organization.
The networks have little reason to rush the process or send Durant to a destination he prefers — Phoenix or Miami, depending on who’s reported — if those offers don’t represent the best possible return. The only way this trade won’t cripple Brooklyn for years to come is if the Nets can post record returns. And we bet they’ll ask Durant for that in return. When you consider what’s at stake – generational talent still as effective and signed for the future – it’s hard to believe no one will be willing to pay the price.
As for what it would cost the Raptors, the simple answer would be to say it depends on Brooklyn’s goals. We think Irving wants to follow Durant and leave the Nets, but without knowing for sure it’s hard to tell how competitive the Nets will be anytime soon. If they want to build a successful team around Irving and Simmons, a comeback with Pascal Siakam as one of the core elements would make sense for both sides.
But if they decide to rebuild, and even if they don’t, the conversation will likely start with rookie of the year Scottie Barnes. Its inclusion in every trade should be a requirement for the networks if they are to receive a quality prospect in return. If the Raptors’ openness to trading in a future 20-year-old star is weak, then the discussion will likely end here. It then goes for draft picks alongside Barnes or Siakam or OG Anunoby and any other players included in the deal. Where is the limit of choices to be included in the transaction?
Looking at the field, the Nets sent three first-round picks and traded four more picks to Houston for James Harden, and they’ll definitely want the majority of those picks back in the Durant trade.
On the Raptors’ side, you can argue both ways. There are certainly advantages to getting into the Durant derby, considering there will still be enough pieces left after the trade to win championships. Durant alone brings the team into the discussions: He’s that good. But is it worth the price?
As good as Barnes can become, we hope he becomes what Durant is today in the brave new world. Trading it, however difficult, is a situation that can be acceptable in this case. Where it becomes difficult to include the other parts in a way that fits Durant’s salary – who will make $44 million next season while Barnes will only make $8 million.
And all the draft picks they have to send to the Nets? We’ve seen what can happen when a team sends multiple unprotected first-round picks. The networks have seen it twice in the last decade. The trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce cost them the picks that became Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston, and apart from their 2013-14 playoff win over the Raptors, the trade earned them next to nothing.
Now it’s the Rockets enjoying their recent bad luck. Given how hesitant Uriji and Webster were to sacrifice the future and trade future first-round picks, that sort of trade doesn’t seem to fit the Raptors’ vision.
Obviously any team that acquires Durant will want to avoid trading picks after Durant’s contract ends. But giving up even three or four choices is a big risk. Hopefully Durant stays healthy, which is not a certainty for a 34-year-old with a history of serious injuries. And we have to hope he respects the last few years of his contract, which is not a certainty for any player in this league these days.
If that deal fails, the team will have to watch Brooklyn rake in good players for years to come.
It’s not an easy decision, but the Raptors are in a good position to make it. You can put all your chips in one basket. You can also follow their plan and keep developing their young core and wait for a better or at least less risky opportunity.