When news broke on NBA draft night that Kevin Durant was “monitoring the Brooklyn Nets’ situation and considering options with his future,” the team’s former assistant general manager turned ESPN front-office insider Bobby Marks suggested a trade “return package on Durant would be the largest in league history.”
It better be, because the Nets are already on the wrong end of one of the biggest trades in NBA history and living in fear of it happening again as we speak. Durant officially requested a trade from Brooklyn on Thursday.
The Nets traded three unprotected first-round picks and a pick swap for one middling season with past-their-prime Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. They bottomed out and gifted the Boston Celtics the foundation of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown that reached the NBA Finals inside of a decade.
If they do not maximize the return for Durant, the Nets could find themselves at the bottom of the standings again, owing every one of their first-round picks through 2027 to the Houston Rockets as a result of their failed James Harden experiment. They still have Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons to show for their dalliances with Durant and Harden (for now), but you try predicting what will become of them in the months to come.
The biggest trades in NBA history
So, what is the biggest return package in NBA history, and is Durant really worth a bigger one?
You can pick your flavor between the All-NBA blockbuster 2019 deals that paired Anthony Davis with LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers and Paul George with Kawhi Leonard on the L.A. Clippers. This is not recency bias, but the willingness to trade every available first-round pick at once is a developing trend.
The Lakers parted with what amounted to nearly a decade’s worth of top-10 draft picks to land Davis: Brandon Ingram (the No. 2 overall pick in 2016), Lonzo Ball (No. 2 overall in 2017), the No. 4 overall pick in 2019 (De’Andre Hunter), the No. 8 overall pick this year (Dyson Daniels), a 2023 first-round pick swap and an unprotected first-round pick in 2024 (that can be deferred to 2025). It was arguably all worth it for the Lakers, who won a title in the 2020 bubble, but the New Orleans Pelicans were better within three years.
The Oklahoma City Thunder fetched Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks and a pair of pick swaps, all between 2022 and 2026, for George. Jalen Williams, the No. 12 overall pick in this year’s draft, was the first of those selections. The Clippers, at least, can cling to the hope that George and Leonard could lead them back into contention, if the two veterans return healthy this coming season.
So, that is the bar — at least one All-Star-caliber player on his rookie contract, as many as five first-round picks, some swaps in between, and quality salary filler. If the Nets can land a similar deal, they might make the best of a bad situation, especially with Irving, Simmons and a handful of other assets still on the roster.
Valid concerns about Kevin Durant
Davis was 26 years old and a year from free agency when he requested a trade. The Lakers essentially bid against themselves, because everyone knew he was going there in a year anyway, and the Pelicans still got the motherlode. George was 29 and had two years left on his deal when he asked out, but the Clippers were over a barrel, since landing George also meant getting Leonard, so the Thunder asked for the moon.
Durant’s four-year, $194 million extension begins this summer. The length of that contract, plus the reported absence of a no-trade clause, means Brooklyn holds more cards than either the Pelicans or Thunder did. Durant is also one of the 15 greatest players in the history of the league, whereas Davis and George are not.
That increased leverage is mitigated by the fact that Durant will be 34 years old at the start of next season. He is two years removed from missing an entire season to a ruptured right Achilles’ tendon and has missed significant time over the past two seasons with a hamstring strain and MCL sprain in his left leg. He began this past season as a serious MVP candidate and ended it with a concerning effort in a first-round sweep.
Lest we forget Durant has also skipped town on three teams in six years at the first sign of trouble.
Which teams can make the best offer?
Those facts mean rising stars like Tatum, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Trae Young, Anthony Edwards, Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley are all off the table. Their teams are not trading a decade of promise for a few years of Durant. The biggest exception to that rule could be Zion Williamson, whose own injury history and tepid relationship with the Pelicans could make offering him and a cache of picks more palatable.
You trade for Durant if you are one piece away from a title, you honestly believe you could win it next year, and you do not see another path to get there in the near future. That should rule out a number of lottery teams. Oklahoma City, Orlando, Houston, Sacramento, Detroit, Indiana and San Antonio make little sense.
The Lakers, Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers are surely thirsty for Durant, but none have the necessary draft capital (although the Lakers could inquire about any interest in Davis). It is hard to imagine the Nets dealing Durant in New York to the Knicks for a trade centered around RJ Barrett and picks. The Charlotte Hornets are not so close to a championship that they should offer LaMelo Ball. Are the Cleveland Cavaliers prepared to package Darius Garland and picks to let another legend rent their franchise for a few years?
You can trim the list awfully quick. The Golden State Warriors have been there with Durant and just won the title without him. The further development of Tatum and Brown was all that stood between Boston and a championship. Tatum is untouchable, and Brown should be. The Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks do not have the ready-made rebuild package to offer Brooklyn much of real substance.
The Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat are reportedly on Durant’s list of preferred destinations. They could respectively build pick-heavy offers around Deandre Ayton and Tyler Herro, if either interests Brooklyn as the headliner in a Durant deal. Neither qualifies as the biggest return in NBA history, although the Suns could put together the more attractive offer, adding either Mikal Bridges or Cameron Johnson to Ayton.
The Minnesota Timberwolves could not cobble together an offer, excluding Edwards or Karl-Anthony Towns, that would sell the Sixers on trading Ben Simmons, so good luck finding one for Durant. The Chicago Bulls would need Zach LaVine to approve a sign-and-trade deal to even inquire about Durant.
The Atlanta Hawks just spent three draft picks to get Dejounte Murray. Durant for Donovan Mitchell and picks might not be enough to push the Jazz over the top, even if Durant were happy in Utah. The Denver Nuggets do not have the draft picks, but they do have Jamal Murray as a potential trade centerpiece.
That leaves the Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies, both of whom are deep with talent and picks. Toronto could offer any combination of Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, along with their picks, and feel pretty good about recreating the title run they made with Leonard. Memphis has Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke, plus picks, as trade options.
None of those transactions would make Brooklyn feel any better than it did the day they signed Durant and Irving. If the Nets can get the Suns, Heat, Pelicans, Raptors and Grizzlies, among others, to start bidding against each other, then they might find themselves closer to the biggest return package in NBA history.
Whether Durant will make good on his end is a matter left to his health and willingness to stay in one place.
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