Why the Kevin Durant trade talks have stalled and where they go from here

Why the Kevin Durant trade talks have stalled and where they go from here post thumbnail image

It has been exactly four weeks since the news broke that Kevin Durant asked the Brooklyn Nets for a trade despite having four years left on his contract. Durant, who has played just 90 games in his three seasons with the Nets, could be the centerpiece of one of the biggest superstar trades in recent memory — or his trade demand could end up being a strange footnote in what ends up being a lengthy tenure in Brooklyn.

Even after Monday’s news that the Nets and the Boston Celtics have engaged in talks on a potential Durant trade, we seem no closer to a resolution that could upend the NBA championship picture heading into the 2022-23 season. So let’s discuss where the Durant situation sits, how the Celtics’ potential trade package matches up with the other teams we’ve heard connected to Durant and where things could be headed between now and the start of training camp in late September.

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Bobby: Tim, it has been close to a month since Durant asked to be traded, but he is still a Net and there is no end to this saga in sight. Durant has four years left on his contract and plays like an MVP when healthy, so why have trade talks become close to dormant?

Tim: I think there are a few factors at play here, Bobby, in trying to assess why things have played out the way they have. As you said, Durant has four years on his deal and is a top-five player in the world. That sort of player being available is unprecedented. As such, Brooklyn wants an unprecedented return. However, few teams can both provide that asking price and still be a championship contender once the trade is done — and, unless both of those conditions are met, a Durant deal doesn’t make sense.

Another factor is the trade that sent Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gobert is an outstanding player, and he will make Minnesota much better next season, but the package the Utah Jazz got for Gobert (five players, four future first-round picks and 2022 first-round pick Walker Kessler) makes it that much more difficult to get an accurate read on a proper price for Durant. And as great as Durant is, he’s going to be 34 years old next season, has averaged 45 games the past two seasons and has played at least 70 games once in the past five seasons. He has a long list of foot and hamstring injuries on his résumé, plus the torn Achilles he suffered three years ago. Add all of that up, and it makes it very difficult to get a trade package that makes sense for everyone over the finish line.

Bobby: There are three major factors putting the Nets in a holding pattern.

First, the James Harden trade with the Houston Rockets has backed Brooklyn into a corner. Because the Rockets have control of the Nets’ next five first-round picks (two unprotected firsts and three pick swaps), Brooklyn cannot bottom out and build back its roster with top-five picks.

The second is that it’s the offseason, and, as the old adage goes, “every team likes its roster in the offseason.” No one is on a five-game losing streak that would result in the kind of knee-jerk reaction from a front office for Brooklyn to take advantage of.

And the most important factor is that Brooklyn is looking for a perfect package for Durant: four first-round picks, three pick swaps and one player on a rookie-scale contract who has the upside to become an All-NBA-type player. I don’t believe that package exists, at least for now.

Toronto could assemble that kind of deal by including reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes, who would fit what the Nets are looking for because he is entering the second year of his rookie-scale contract and would be under team control through at least 2026 (via a qualifying offer once his four-year deal expires in 2025). Barnes, however, is off the table for the moment, forcing the Nets to readjust their trade demands on the type of player they are looking for.

Our own Adrian Wojnarowski reported Monday morning that the Celtics and Nets engaged in talks on a Durant package centered around Jaylen Brown. The 25-year-old is the most accomplished player of any of the players mentioned who could be obtainable for the Nets in a Durant trade. Brown has averaged at least 20 points per game in each of the past three seasons and was the Celtics’ best player in the Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors.

But here’s the catch: Brown has only two years left on his contract and it is highly unlikely he would sign an extension because he can earn more money by waiting to sign when he becomes a free agent in 2024. Knowing they could lose Brown for nothing after two seasons would likely lead the Nets to ask for more in terms of draft picks and players in addition to Brown.

Boston has three first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) available to trade and a group of solid players that includes Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Grant Williams. From Brooklyn’s perspective, Brown, Smart and two unprotected firsts is the best package a team can offer now and possibly when the regular season starts.

But here is the million-dollar question: Why would a Boston team that was two wins away from winning it all trade away two key components of its roster? Is Durant too enticing to pass up if you are the Celtics?

Tim: That is the fundamental question, Bobby, one I spent more than an hour discussing with our colleague Zach Lowe on his podcast Monday evening in the wake of Adrian’s report. And while I likely will be in the minority on this, I wouldn’t make the kind of trade you laid out if I was Brad Stevens and running Boston’s front office.

Durant is obviously an all-time-great player and clearly is better than Brown right now. But the Celtics have built the NBA’s deepest team, especially after getting Malcolm Brogdon this summer from the Indiana Pacers. Boston has constructed a roster built around a pair of young, dynamic two-way wing players in Brown and Jayson Tatum, and has as good of a defense as I’ve seen in my decade covering the NBA. Trading for Durant would mean fundamentally changing the team and how it plays. Many people would look at that and say, “Sign me up!” I completely understand why. But, to me, you make this trade only if it moves you from one tier to another when discussing a team’s championship odds. In my opinion, that would not be the case for the Celtics.

The other three teams prominently mentioned in Durant talks — Toronto, the Miami Heat and the Phoenix Suns — all are flawed enough that trading for Durant materially changes their trajectory. Boston, though, is already at worst the second favorite in the East behind the Milwaukee Bucks. Outside of Al Horford, Boston’s roster is stocked with players either smack in the middle of their prime or approaching it. The Celtics also don’t have a single bad contract on their books, making them well positioned to add a third star to play alongside Tatum and Brown if they decide to go that route. Making a Durant trade would change all of that, and still wouldn’t erase the injury and decline risks that trading for him presents, let alone the possibility he won’t be happy there.

Bobby: You hit it right on the head. The Celtics are positioned to chase a third star and not have to risk an All-NBA type player like Brown to do so. Despite trading a first to acquire Derrick White last February and another first for Malcolm Brogdon, the Celtics still have their complement of first-round picks (along with two pick swaps) and tradable contracts (Smart, White, Williams, Horford, Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams III) to make a roster upgrade if needed. Milwaukee did it when they traded role players and draft picks to acquire Jrue Holiday. The Celtics are the favorites along with Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference without Durant on their roster.

Don’t get me wrong, a Durant and Tatum duo would be the most dangerous tandem in the NBA. My concern is that the Celtics’ depth would be decimated with two additional players (either Smart or White plus another, like Grant Williams) on their way out. Those two players would be replaced with two signed to the veterans minimum exception.

I understand the thinking of swapping out Brown and the two years left on his contract for Durant, who has four years left. But Boston has a big advantage financially because they can offer Brown the most money (and years) when he becomes a free agent in 2024. Brown can also earn a five-year supermax extension worth at least $280 million if he is named All-NBA this season, which would further incentivize him to re-up with Boston long term.

Obviously there is some damage control Boston has to manage with Brown if no trade materializes. I understand the frustration from his perspective that his name has materialized in trade rumors in recent years with Kawhi Leonard (in 2018), Anthony Davis (in 2019) and now Durant. Instead of looking at it as an insult, Brown should take it as a compliment that teams regard him as a top-15 player.

If the Celtics feel that the relationship is not salvageable and they expect that Brown will leave in free agency two years from now — despite Boston’s ability to outspend the competition — then I would think about making a Durant move. But an offer would not include Smart, nor should Boston include all three available first-round picks it has. Brown is a top-15 player in this league, and Boston should not have to put together a Gobert-like haul if he’s the centerpiece of the package going back to Brooklyn.

Looking at it from the Nets’ side of things, if Boston decides the cost to add Durant is too high, or if Brooklyn decides Boston’s package isn’t the treasure chest the team expected, then Brooklyn would be back to square one and faced with a ticking clock as training camp approaches.

Should the Nets continue to play the waiting game, hoping that a better trade materializes during the regular season, or are they at a point of no return where they should take the best available Durant package before training camp?

Tim: The answer to your question, Bobby, goes back to the general perception around the NBA that Brooklyn doesn’t have as much leverage as it thinks it does.

While the two of us were at Las Vegas Summer League earlier this month, the consistent theme I heard in speaking to other teams was that while the Nets have Durant on a four-year contract, he doesn’t want to be there. We have seen time and again that, when players want to get out of town, they find a way to do so. Brooklyn knows this first-hand from what happened with Harden six months ago. Right now, the Nets find themselves in a standoff with their various trade partners, none of whom believe they need to get their offers anywhere close to the “perfect package” that you pointed out Brooklyn is looking for.

That leaves the Nets with two possible paths forward. One is to take the best deal they can get now and cut their losses. If I was Nets GM Sean Marks, however, I absolutely would not do that — as we have said several times over, players like these simply don’t come along often enough to make that decision. The other path is to take this thing into training camp and then into the season, and see if either Durant can be convinced to change his mind, or as you smartly pointed out, some team struggles and decides to pull the trigger on the kind of deal the Nets are looking for.

Ever since Adrian reported Durant’s initial trade request back on June 30, the situation I’ve repeatedly thought about was the Kobe Bryant trade demand in 2007. Ultimately, the Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t find a deal that worked for both them and Bryant, and they ended up improving the roster and reaching three consecutive NBA Finals, winning the last two. The Nets should do everything in their power to try to find a similar resolution here, especially because there isn’t the kind of overwhelming trade package on the table right now as a better alternative.

Bobby: The easiest — and also the laziest — thing to do would be for Marks to put an artificial timeline on when Durant should be moved. That certainly is not going to happen, nor should it. The trade packages that Brooklyn has available now will be there in November, December and at the February trade deadline.

The Suns come back into the picture after Jan. 15 when Deandre Ayton is available to be traded. But does a package of Ayton, Mikal Bridges and four first-round picks satisfy what the Nets are looking for? And what happens if Phoenix is sitting in first place come mid-January?

The Heat right now do not have enough salary to send out in a trade unless they reroute Bam Adebayo to a third team or Brooklyn trades Ben Simmons. To further complicate things, Tyler Herro comes off the board if he signs a rookie extension before Oct. 17.

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The Raptors have the draft picks, an All-NBA player in Pascal Siakam and solid starters in Gary Trent Jr. and OG Anunoby. But Brooklyn has shown no inclination that a combination of those players and draft picks is enough to get a deal done at this time.

Trading Durant is the biggest decision this front office has faced, and the Nets are smart enough to wait this process out.

However, what will happen when players have to report to training camp in late September? Can you picture a media day with Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons all in their Nets uniforms getting ready for the first practice. The front office, coaching staff and players would almost have to hold an intervention before they step on the court.

I am not concerned that Durant will replicate what Simmons did last year in Philadelphia and hold out. Not only would it destroy his trade value but also tarnish his legacy. Durant is smart enough to realize that his only way out of Brooklyn is to be on the basketball court.

Maybe, as you mentioned, Durant has a change of heart between now and then and realizes the best version of this current Nets roster is one that can compete for a championship. We can all agree that on paper Brooklyn is a top-five team in the Eastern Conference and can be one of those teams fighting for a spot in the NBA Finals if things align properly.

For now, we are nearly at the same spot we were a month ago — waiting to see if a trade materializes or if Durant is in a Brooklyn uniform at the start of the season.

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