So... that didn't take long. It's been less than six months since Kevin Durant tabled his trade request and agreed to rejoin the Brooklyn Nets. In that time, the Nets have fired Steve Nash, tried to hire Ime Udoka, actually hired Jacque Vaughn, suspended Kyrie Irving and ultimately traded Kyrie Irving. Now the vultures are circling. The Nets are telling teams that they don't plan to trade Durant, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, but those same teams are getting their ducks in a row for an eventual Durant pursuit.
It might come before Thursday's deadline. It might come over the summer. But with the two superstars he recruited to join him with the Nets now gone and Brooklyn's championship hopes on life support, it's seemingly only a matter of time until Durant seeks his own exit. But when he does, he won't be entering quite the same trade market he left last summer.
A few things have changed over the past six months, so let's reset the stage for what will surely become the league's next great trade soap opera.
How do Durant's preferred destinations look?
In a macro sense, Miami and Phoenix are exactly where Durant left them in August: one major piece short of a championship roster. The Heat are 29-25 as of this writing. The Suns are 30-26. Both are probably slightly better than their records suggest due to injury. Neither has the best possible trade package to land Durant. Both have reason to act slightly more aggressively this time around.
The Suns have a new owner in Mat Ishbia. Typically, new owners try to make a splash when they take over, and based on the reporting leading up to the deadline, Ishbia is no exception. In all likelihood, everything but Devin Booker is going to be on the table for Phoenix. The Suns still have all of their first-round picks available for trades.
Cap minutia made DeAndre Ayton much harder to trade over the summer, but at this stage, any interest Brooklyn may have had in him is likely gone thanks to the emergence of Nic Claxton. Mikal Bridges is malleable enough to fit anywhere, but the Nets are suddenly flush with 3-and-D wings as well. Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O'Neale and even Yuta Watanabe all fill similar roles. If the Suns are going to pull this off, it might have to be with a three-team trade.
Miami's package might've made a bit more sense for Brooklyn a week ago, but at the rate Cam Thomas is scoring nowadays, Tyler Herro might not be all that valuable to Brooklyn. The Heat are somewhat hamstrung from a pick perspective as well. Thanks to a first-rounder they owe Oklahoma City, they'll only be able to offer two future picks this summer. Technically, they could add their 2023 selection after they use it, though, and rookie Nikola Jovic has impressed in a small sample this season. Still, the Heat are operating from a difficult position here, especially if this drags into the offseason and role players like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent reach free agency.
The biggest change here might be on Durant's end. When he identified the Suns and Heat as his preferred teams, he did so after a season in which they both earned No. 1 seeds. This season, they're both in danger of falling to the play-in round. Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler are a year older. Both teams remain desirable. Neither, at this stage, are clear-cut championship favorites even with Durant. It's too early to say what he'd be looking for out of his next team, but don't be surprised if Miami and Phoenix are suddenly a bit lower on his wishlist.
Are there any new teams in the mix?
The Philadelphia 76ers generated some buzz over the summer when Durant seemingly reignited his friendship with James Harden. The problem was, Philadelphia simply didn't have the assets to reunite Durant and Harden. But there's one team that does. Enter, Houston.
Earlier this season, Wojnarowski reported that Harden is interested in returning to Houston if he does not remain in Philadelphia as a free agent this summer. The Rockets have so many trade assets that they could not only land Durant if he becomes available, but add more pieces around that duo as well.
The Rockets have picked in the top three in back-to-back drafts. They have the NBA's worst record now. They control Brooklyn's first-round picks until 2027. Houston can trade for literally any available player. They'd likely keep their first-rounder this offseason if it falls at No. 1. Victor Wembanyama is too valuable to pass up. But anything after No. 1 and a Durant-Harden reunion, one that would ironically pair them on the team that originally sent Harden to Brooklyn in 2021, is on the table.
It's not going to happen at the deadline. Durant isn't going to Houston without Harden, and Harden isn't going anywhere unless he flames out in the postseason again. But if the Nets and Sixers both get knocked out early, expect the rumors to start flying early.
Has anyone dropped out of the running?
One of the persistent questions of last summer's trade request was whether or not Toronto would offer Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes straight up for Durant. The answer was seemingly no. If there was a trade to be made, it was going to revolve around Toronto's veterans. All of those veterans appear to be on the trade block in the midst of a disastrous season for the Raptors. If Toronto trades some combination of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. and Pascal Siakam, its motivation for a Durant trade likely vanishes. The Raptors seem headed for a rebuild.
And then there's the Celtics. It's not clear how serious Boston ever was about trading Jaylen Brown in a package for Durant. Such a deal seems a bit pricey now. Brown, eight years Durant's junior, is having the best year of his career for the team with the NBA's best record. He's averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, field goal percentage and free throw attempts.
Perhaps more importantly, Brown is making a serious case for an All-NBA berth. This is critical for Boston, as part of the motivation of trading Brown would have been the two extra years of team control Durant has on his contract. Brown's contract, based on current NBA rules, is virtually unextendable. Under almost any other circumstances, he'd be destined for 2024 free agency. He still could have re-signed with Boston once there, but that's a risk the Celtics may not have wanted to take.
If Brown earns All-NBA honors, though, they won't have to. An All-NBA selection would allow the Celtics to offer Brown a supermax extension regardless of the current restrictions his contract presents. In all likelihood, he'd accept that contract. If Brown keeps up his current performance, Boston might just avert that crisis entirely, and if they do, one of their primary justifications for making this trade would be gone. All in all, that makes the Celtics a less likely trade partner than they were last summer.
Are there any sleepers to keep an eye on?
The Warriors were in the running last summer. For a variety of reasons, they make far more sense as a Durant destination now. The 28-26 Warriors have been flirting with the play-in for most of the season, and given Stephen Curry's injury, will probably fall below .500 in the coming weeks. Jonathan Kuminga has shined at points this season, but the rest of Golden State's youngsters have underwhelmed. But most importantly, trading for Durant could organically solve Golden State's luxury tax problem.
No, trading for Durant won't get them out of the luxury tax. They'll still pay a hefty repeater bill next season regardless of what moves they make. But as it stands right now, the Warriors are set to have five players making at least $24 million next season if Draymond Green picks up his player option. Their projected pre-tax payroll for next season is over $215 million, which, based on the current $162 million projected luxury tax line, would cost them around $484 million in total once taxes are taken into account. That's too expensive even for the Warriors. In all likelihood, that means at least one of Green, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole or Klay Thompson needs to go in order to bring the tax bill down to a more manageable figure.
This is where Durant comes in. He's going to make over $47 million next season. That's enormously expensive... and yet, the combination of Poole, Wiggins and Kuminga makes around $59 million. If Golden State were to trade those three players along with draft picks for Durant, they would save roughly $96 million in salary and luxury taxes based on current projections. Include James Wiseman and Moses Moody, either as part of a bigger deal with Brooklyn or a multi-team trade, and those savings increase even more.
From that perspective, the Warriors could kill two birds with one stone: push themselves back to the forefront of the championship picture while Curry is still in his prime and save a bundle of cash in the process. Doing so would mean sacrificing the two-timeline approach Golden State has built in recent years, but given the financial implications and the likelihood that reuniting their old championship quartet would lead to at least one more championship ring, the Warriors would likely be far more eager to chase Durant this summer than they were last.
So Sam... what's going to happen to Kevin Durant?
A trade of this magnitude is probably too big to come before Thursday's deadline. The offseason allows for unbalanced rosters, often a necessity in trades this big. It gives teams time to retrofit their roster around their new star, which is functionally impossible on deadline day. So don't count on a Durant trade in the next day or so.
But come this summer, if the Nets don't go on a very surprising playoff run, don't be surprised when Durant starts agitating for another move. At that point, his preferred destinations will have the inside track. Last time, those teams were the Suns and Heat. Next time? To be determined.