As the Brooklyn Nets’ historically chaotic 2021-22 season lurched on, and one handpicked superstar teammate after another failed him, Kevin Durant began to sound surprisingly nonchalant about his legacy. Durant is one of the greatest scorers to ever live, with every imaginable accomplishment to his name. One scroll through his tweets would show that he cares what you think about that career, too. But after James Harden asked out of Brooklyn and as Kyrie Irving waged war on logic and reason, Durant preached staying present like someone in the midst of a multiweek run on the Headspace app.
“Us winning a title, that would be amazing. That would be incredible. But that’s not the only reason why I play basketball,” he told The Ringer’s Logan Murdock last March. “I want to develop every day and I truly like this activity, you know what I’m saying? I like getting up knowing that I’m going to go play, and that’s really it for me. The championship and scoring 30 and the level that I expect to be at, that’s because I work to get there, but I just simply like the activity.”
That Zen’d-out approach clearly wavered in the offseason, when he requested (and was denied) a trade. But it hit a point of no return last week, when Irving demanded (and received) his own trade out of Brooklyn. After shrugging his way through Irving’s many Amazon-search-fueled failures, Durant would need to decide what the last chapter of his highly decorated yet increasingly bizarre career would be. Would he finish what he started with the Nets and forge his own path, like many thought he might with the Knicks in the summer of 2019? Or would he turn to an old blueprint and join another ready-made Finals contender, like he did in Golden State?
We got our answer late Wednesday night: In one of the most stunning trades of this frenetically paced era of star movement, the Nets dealt Durant and T.J. Warren to the Phoenix Suns for the haul of Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder, four unprotected first-round picks (2023, 2025, 2027, 2029), and a 2028 pick swap.
Omygod lol— Mikal Bridges (@mikal_bridges) February 9, 2023
Adding Durant naturally vaults a previously stodgy Suns team to the forefront of the title race. A year and a half removed from its 2021 Finals run, Phoenix has hobbled through the first half of this season, with a rash of injuries forcing it to turn to a MASH unit stewarded by Who He Play For legends like Ish Wainright and Jock Landale. That plus the recent ratification of Mat Ishbia’s purchase of the franchise led to the Suns reportedly offering Chris Paul in a trade proposal for Irving a few days ago. Instead, Durant now joins Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton in perhaps the flashiest convergence of name-brand superstars since Durant’s move to Golden State eight years ago.
Let’s get the fine print out of the way first: With this deal, the Nets stripped the Suns of virtually all of their 3-and-D wing options, at a time when that player type is among the most valuable in the NBA. Unless it swings a follow-up trade, Phoenix will have to guard the likes of Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard with Warren or Torrey Craig. But teams load up 3-and-D wings to try to slow down the likes of Durant and Booker, who are averaging 29.7 and 26.8 points, respectively, this season. After two and a half years of running young up-and-comers like Bridges and Johnson through his (often grating) academy, Paul now is in Point God heaven, setting up two of the best pure scorers in the game, both in the midst of monster seasons before being derailed by injuries.
That last part is notable, too. Durant, 34, has been out for almost a month with an MCL sprain, and hasn’t played a full season since leaving the Warriors. Booker just recently returned from a groin injury, and is still missing games as a part of a recovery program. Paul, 37, has also been hobbled, and though he’s looked better lately, there have been times this season when he looked completely cooked—to the point where the Suns seemingly dangled him in an Irving deal as salary fodder. The fallout from that failed trade effort, plus whatever animosity still lingers from Ayton’s own recent clash with team brass (and previous ownership), only adds to the degree of difficulty. With the future picks acquired in this deal, the Nets now hold one of the most potentially lucrative short positions since the Celtics ransacked the Nets’ future picks a decade ago.
But if the Suns can stay healthy and engaged, they now have the firepower to challenge the Nuggets and Grizzlies atop a muddled Western Conference. That’s the difference between trading for Durant and some of the other stars who were acquired for similarly hefty packages during the offseason: He instantly vaults a team into the NBA’s ruling elite. There’s no fretting over fit. No one’s waiting to see how players develop. Even after Irving was suspended earlier this season for his lack of remorse over disseminating conspiratorial bullshit, the Nets managed to rip off 12 straight wins, climbing as high as second in the East, mostly through Durant’s brilliance. Despite suffering a career-threatening injury in the 2019 Finals, KD has somehow improved, becoming perhaps the greatest midrange shooter in history, and a force defensively who, alongside Nic Claxton, salvaged the Nets’ otherwise paltry defense.
Durant the basketball player is unimpeachable. Unfortunately, his career decisions haven’t been as impeccable. The Durant-Irving-Harden juggernaut that never was is now gone, two years after forming, with one first-round series victory to show for it. This Nets era will go down as one of the greatest failures in recent history, and while that’s through no fault of Durant, he, as its primary architect, will reap the most blame. After struggling to fit in to a ready-made superteam in Golden State, he set out to form his own, and unequivocally failed.
The question now is whether he can find success—real, legacy-defining success—again by joining another team’s already-in-progress contender. Whatever he accomplishes in Phoenix will likely be derided by some as illegitimate—the work of a mercenary, a joiner. But seeing one of the greatest players of his generation playing for something more than the love of the game, when he clearly still has so much to give, feels like a win, for Durant and for us.