Kevin Durant is the one who got away for Boston. When KD and Greg Oden headlined the 2007 draft, the Celtics tanked their way to the second-best lottery odds, but the ping-pong balls bounced the wrong way and they ended up with the fifth pick. Durant went to Seattle to begin his Hall of Fame career, and things worked out just fine when Boston won the 2008 title after constructing a new Big Three with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce. Then, in 2016, the Celtics had another brush with Durant after they (and Tom Brady) met with KD in the Hamptons. But Durant chose to join the Warriors, and things worked out just fine for him; he won two championships and two Finals MVPs, while the Celtics have since advanced to three East finals and one NBA Finals themselves. Maybe the third time’s the charm, because Boston is reportedly in pursuit of Durant again.
Early Monday morning, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Celtics offered a package that included Jaylen Brown to the Nets for Durant. Woj says Boston has enough pieces to potentially entice Brooklyn to accept a deal. Later, The Athletic’s Shams Charania said Boston offered Brown, Derrick White, and a draft pick, which Brooklyn rejected and countered with Marcus Smart plus multiple picks and possibly one more rotation player. Shams says the Celtics are “less inclined” to give up the Defensive Player of the Year, but are “mulling over next steps.”
Any time Woj and Shams publicly report the names of players involved in trade negotiations, it means things are serious. I’d expect most of this leaking has come from either Durant’s camp or from Brooklyn, since Boston would have no reason to agitate Brown, who folks around the NBA have long suspected will test free agency in 2024. On Monday morning, Brown tweeted his displeasure in response to the reports. Years ago, he was reportedly involved in trade discussions for Kawhi Leonard, then for Anthony Davis, and now it’s Durant less than two months after he helped lead his team to the Finals. Any player in his shoes would be frustrated.
If I were the Celtics, I would give up Brown in a heartbeat for Durant. Durant is still far and away the superior player, although Brown turns just 26 in October, making him eight years younger than Durant and still offering plenty of upside. For now, KD is a more efficient scorer, a savvier playmaker, and a more impactful defender. It isn’t even close. KD turns 34 later this year but still plays like he was formulated in a basketball lab. The Celtics have an opportunity to win a championship after coming within two wins last year—and pairing Durant with Jayson Tatum brings them closer.
But to what lengths should the Celtics go? Durant’s age and injury history is undoubtedly concerning. Brown is a rising star. Smart is the heartbeat of the team and its longest-tenured player. The Celtics would obviously prefer to give up White over Smart, though the more picks they give, the more limited they’ll be in making future changes to the roster. Boston can offer unprotected first-round draft picks in 2025, 2027, and 2029, plus two first-round pick swaps in 2024 and 2026. The picks in ’27 and ’29 have the most value because the distant future is so uncertain; Brooklyn should demand them all.
It’s understandable why the Nets would want as many picks as possible plus Smart and possibly another player in addition to Brown. The latter isn’t signed long term, which somewhat diminishes his value. Just as the Celtics can’t say with any confidence that Brown would stay, neither can the Nets. But of all the players realistically on the market, Brown is probably the best the Nets could receive in return for Durant. Though Tatum is the best player on the Celtics, Brown was their highest scorer during the Finals. Letting Brown be a no. 1 option could push him to new heights and appease him enough to sign an extension.
What we’ve learned so far about Brad Stevens as the Celtics president is that he’s willing to be aggressive. Last summer, he sent a 2021 first to reacquire Al Horford. Then, during the season, he gave up a 2022 first and a 2028 first-round swap to get White. Last month, he got Malcolm Brogdon for a 2023 first. But flipping Brown and Smart for Durant would be the first time he’s made a move that dramatically changed the face and culture of the team.
Smart is the player who holds teammates accountable, the person who returns to the huddle screaming as a means to motivate everyone and himself. He’s the guy who practices what he preaches by going full throttle on the floor, setting a tone every night. Can the Celtics afford to lose him when no one else is equipped to take on that type of role?
Boston also needs to consider its depth chart. On one hand, Brogdon’s arrival diminishes the need for Smart on offense. Brogdon is a more talented playmaker and scorer who has shined as both a lead facilitator with the Pacers and more of a sixth man with the Bucks. But on the other hand, he has suffered a number of foot injuries in his career. If Brogdon were to miss time, the Celtics would be better off having Smart over White to help run point. White is a good role player but often looks like a deer in headlights when shooting the ball. For better or worse, Smart is never scared. More importantly on defense, Smart can also defend wings and even some bigs, which is an important piece of the puzzle for Boston with so many aging or injury-prone frontcourt players. The Celtics will need to determine whether Smart’s intangibles are worth sacrificing for a talent like Durant.
I’d give up more draft picks and an additional player (such as Grant Williams?) if it meant keeping Smart instead of White. The Nets may not budge, though, and could you really blame them? As mentioned, Brown isn’t signed long term. The picks don’t have a ton of value. And Smart is way better than White. In the end, I’d be willing to lose both Brown and Smart to acquire Durant.
How much of an appetite do the Celtics have to trade their future for a boosted present? That has been the question for every team in the Durant sweepstakes so far. It’s been almost one month since Durant requested a trade from the Nets. The Suns and Heat, the two teams he reportedly had atop his list, have limited avenues to acquire him. The Suns matched an offer sheet for Deandre Ayton, which takes away a primary player involved in KD trade talks. Mikal Bridges would be a great theoretical centerpiece of a deal, but Phoenix has only its own future picks to tack on in a deal. Matching salaries also gets complicated. Meanwhile, the Heat have Tyler Herro, who is a good but not elite young player. Herro won Sixth Man of the Year but struggled for a second consecutive postseason. Miami could offer Bam Adebayo if it wanted to, but Brooklyn couldn’t even acquire Bam unless Ben Simmons was moved due to rookie max extensions rules. (Teams can only acquire one player through a trade that signed one of those deals.)
If Phoenix and Miami are less likely to acquire Durant, then other teams have to be in consideration—which is why the most intriguing part of the Woj and Shams reports on Monday are these two little notes. From Woj: “[Durant] asked for a trade June 30 and hasn’t backed off that request.” And from Shams: “Durant has shown no change in his stance.”
Before the Celtics, it was the Raptors that were hyped as a possible landing spot for Durant. Some sportsbooks still have the Raptors listed as the favorite to land him. But so far they’ve reportedly been unwilling to give up Scottie Barnes, and the rest of their group of talented young guys may not be great enough to entice the Nets. Toronto could instead offer Pascal Siakam, a two-time All-NBA player, but he’s already 28 years old. They also have OG Anunoby, but he’s a good two-way player and not a star yet. Both of them can become free agents in 2024. The Raptors also have only their own future picks on the books, which means they could offer up to four unprotected first-round draft picks and three swaps.
Teams could try to wait out Brooklyn. What if this drags into the season and the drama gets even uglier? Could the Nets lose leverage? What if sleeper candidates emerge for Durant and the Nets end up gaining leverage? For example, the Pelicans have 13 future first-round picks, Brandon Ingram, and a whole bunch of talented young players to trump any other offer. Or what if Durant decides to return and the Nets actually become serious contenders? The range of outcomes is still incredibly wide.
Returning to the Nets and running it back with Kyrie Irving and new teammate Ben Simmons might end up being Durant’s best option. Brooklyn’s front office has been busy this offseason, adding Royce O’Neale, a solid wing defender who can hit 3s, plus a spark-plug scoring forward in T.J. Warren. Patty Mills, Nic Claxton, and Kessler Edwards are also back on new contracts. The Nets could use one more big but have the pieces to shred teams on offense if Simmons buys into the role Steve Nash details for him. On paper, that version of the Nets is built to win.
The Athletic’s Joe Vardon reported earlier this month that Nets owner Joseph Tsai had “already reached his limit” following all the injuries, losses, leaked threats during contract negotiations, and off-court embarrassments. The Nets have no incentive to lose games without owning any of their own first-round draft picks until 2028. They’re equipped to win games with Durant or with a solid return for him, but without him they’ll no longer have serious championship hopes.
Meanwhile, the Donovan Mitchell situation still looms, and the Pacers and Spurs continue to sit on cap space to absorb contracts as a third, fourth, or fifth team in any type of megadeal. Monday’s report about Boston and Durant is a signal that things are moving forward. Now, we wait.