For the second consecutive season, the Brooklyn Nets made a league-shaking deal at the NBA trade deadline. Almost exactly a year after shipping James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers and just a few days after unceremoniously dumping Kyrie Irving on the Dallas Mavericks, the Nets sent Kevin Durant and T.J. Warren to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder,1 first-round picks in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029, and the right to swap first-round picks in 2028.
There’s really no way to spin it for the Nets: The KD-and-Kyrie era in Brooklyn was an unmitigated disaster. Durant missed the entire first season while recovering from his torn Achilles, then played in only 129 of 208 possible games across the next two-plus years. Irving made it onto the floor for just 20 games in that first, Durant-less campaign, then did not play with the Nets in the NBA bubble, took an unsanctioned, midseason sabbatical (during which he was spotted partying with Drake), got injured during the team’s one real playoff run, refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and elected to sit out more than half the season last year, got suspended for refusing to condemn a virulently anti-Semitic film to which he posted a link on social media and finally torpedoed what was left of this season with his trade demand.
When they actually shared the floor together, the Nets were outrageously good. They blitzed opponents by more than 8 points per 100 possessions (according to PBP Stats) with an offense that would have ranked as the best in league history by a significant margin. In the short time the duo played alongside Harden, they were even more unstoppable. Alas, each spent significantly more time sidelined due to injuries (Durant) or injuries and various off-court shenanigans (Irving) than they did in the lineup. Across the (parts of) four seasons Durant and Irving spent with Brooklyn, the Nets played nearly 2.5 times as many minutes with both players off the floor (6,166) as they did with both players on it (2,587).
In all, the Nets had more superstar trade demands (four, including two by Durant) than playoff series wins (one) during the pair’s time together. That is certainly not what they envisioned when snaking in and landing the pair of superstars in the summer of 2019. Now Brooklyn and its two erstwhile stars (along with their new teams) are all plotting separate courses as they sail off into the NBA’s future.
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Brooklyn is essentially starting over as a franchise, just as it did when general manager Sean Marks was hired to rebuild the team in the wake of the disastrous trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Marks has more to work with now (Bridges, Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Nic Claxton, Ben Simmons, Cam Thomas, Royce O’Neale, Seth Curry, Joe Harris, Edmond Sumner and at least some future picks — even if not their own) than he did then, and there’s a really interesting defensive team the Nets can build around Claxton, Bridges, Johnson, Finney-Smith, O’Neale and even Simmons — if he ever recovers his pre-injury form. There is very little in the way of shot-creation among that group, though, and Johnson will be a restricted free agent this coming offseason, so it’s not even a guarantee that he’ll be around for the future.
Still, the Nets do have a surplus of wings from which they can deal and recoup some of the draft picks lost in their various acquisitions over the years, as well as multiple midtier salaries to stack together if they ever decide to pursue another star-caliber player. That’s not nothing, but it’s certainly a far cry from where the Nets were 12 months ago.
Dallas and Phoenix, meanwhile, have gone about as all-in as you possibly can to win the title within the next two years. From the Mavs’ perspective, Irving will be a free agent after this season. And for the Suns, Chris Paul’s salary is partially guaranteed ($15.8 million of $30.8 million) next season and totally non-guaranteed for the 2024-25 campaign. The window may not extend far past this year for either club, at least not in their current iterations.
The Suns have just about as good a top four as there is in the NBA, with Durant and Paul flanking Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.2 Durant is perhaps the most portable superstar in league history, able to seamlessly fit alongside any type of teammate with relative ease. He’s played — and excelled — with Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Irving and Harden. He will work just fine alongside Paul and Booker.
The biggest impact of this trade is that it now guarantees that the Suns can have a premier offensive creator on the floor at all times, assuming coach Monty Williams staggers Durant and Booker in the rotation. The Paul of this season has not been the same #PointGod that we’re used to, and even over the past two seasons the Suns offense did not operate at as high a level in the minutes Paul played without Booker as it did when Booker played without Paul or the duo shared the floor.
|Paul + Booker||120.4||120.2||120.6|
Luckily, Durant is an elite offense unto himself, singularly capable of putting the ball in the net from anywhere on the floor, in any way imaginable. His proficiency as a scorer in isolation, in the pick and roll, in the post, as a spot-up shooter and coming off screens is unrivaled. The gravity he has as a shooter and scorer opens things up everywhere else on the floor; this has been consistent from season to season, and team to team. Booker and Paul are going to have the most open looks of their careers, and they’re already high-level shooters to begin with.
The Suns were the league’s top non-Nets midrange-shooting team over the past two seasons due to the combined prowess of Paul and Booker in that area,3 and adding Durant to the mix will make them even more dangerous there. During the Second Spectrum era,4 there are 73 players who have attempted at least 1,000 shots from outside the paint and inside the 3-point line; among that group, Durant ranks first in shooting percentage above expectation, while Paul ranks fifth and Booker checks in 13th. With the way defenses now orient themselves around forcing opponents to take those shots, having not one, not two, but three players capable of punishing them for doing so is an extremely valuable weapon — especially in the playoffs.
Defensively, it’s tough to lose Bridges, who was an inner-circle Defensive Player of the Year candidate last season and is one of the small handful of best perimeter defenders in basketball. Johnson and Crowder are each quality defenders in different ways, though not on the same level as Bridges. In trading all of them, though, the Suns went from having a ton of bodies to throw at, well … Kevin Durant-like scorers on opposing teams to suddenly not having very many. (Though acquiring Darius Bazley from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a separate deal could theoretically help.)
But prior to injury, Durant was playing at an All-Defense level this season, and what he lacks compared with Bridges as a perimeter stopper, he makes up for as a rim protector and help defender. (And it’s not like he’s a slouch one-on-one, either.) Among 114 players who have challenged at least 3 shots per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats, Durant has allowed the 22nd-lowest field goal percentage when within five feet of both the shooter and the basket. He should be able to help Ayton patrol the back line, and cover up for the mistakes made by the players in front of them.
As for Dallas, Irving should thrive playing alongside Luka Dončić — at least offensively. He has ample experience playing with a creator of Dončić’s caliber (of which there aren’t very many) thanks to his years teaming with LeBron James, and he showed during both that stint and his short time with Durant in Brooklyn that he is capable of consistently punishing defenses as both a primary and second-side threat. Irving’s ability to excel both on and off the ball makes him an ideal partner for Dončić in that he can work as a spot-up shooter, cutter and back-side creator when Luka is in the game, then take the controls of the offense when Dončić hits the bench. Dallas’s efficiency at that end has consistently fallen off without Dončić on the floor, and Irving at least gives them a shot of staying afloat in those minutes. It’s what the Mavs had with Jalen Brunson last year, but with everything done at an even higher level. (Of course, Dallas could have just signed Brunson to an extension at almost any point before he had clearly outplayed their potential offer and allowed his eyes to wander elsewhere, but them’s the breaks.)
Defensively, it’s going to be quite an adventure for Dallas. The Mavs were already somewhat thin on big-wing type players, and sent out Finney-Smith in the deal. By adding Irving, they guarantee that they’ll have at least three questionable defenders in their starting lineup (Irving, Dončić and Christian Wood), and it seems highly improbable that the likes of Reggie Bullock, Josh Green and Maxi Kleber will be able to cover for that trio, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dwight Powell. After jumping from 20th in defensive efficiency in their final season under former coach Rick Carlisle to sixth in their first year with Jason Kidd, the Mavs are down to 22nd already this year, and figure to get worse down the stretch.
This is now the Mavericks’ second attempt at securing Dončić a suitable co-star, after the failed experiment with Kristaps Porziņģis. There is not as much future-asset risk this time around, given that the Mavs sent only one first-round pick to Brooklyn (as opposed to the two they traded to the Knicks),5 but with Irving’s contract expiring at the end of the season and the fact that he generally cannot be relied upon, it’s no surprise that plugged-in ESPN reporter Tim MacMahon has repeatedly used the phrase “test drive” when referring to what the Mavs are doing with Kyrie. If things don’t work out the rest of this season, they can either let him walk or try to work a sign-and-trade this summer. Sending out Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith and a first-round pick will have been a heck of a price to have paid for that privilege, but the Mavericks obviously felt the risk was worth it.
Even if that’s true, though, it’s likely only true in the near term, just as is the case for Phoenix. Durant is 34 years old. Paul is 37 and, as mentioned, on the decline. Both players have missed significant time due to injuries in recent years, including this season. Paul hasn’t made it through a playoff run without some sort of injury in seemingly forever. Irving is younger, at 30, but that’s still starting to be on the wrong side of when NBA players traditionally peak. (And that’s before accounting for all the various off-court reasons his prime and/or career and/or tenure in Dallas could be on the shorter side.) The timeline on the picks the Suns traded to get KD far outlasts Paul’s contract, and goes four years beyond Durant’s as well. The last of the four picks even outlasts Booker’s extension. There is significant long-term risk attached to both trades; but the Suns and Mavs obviously felt the potential for maximum payoff in the immediate future was worth it. Now, in a wide-open Western Conference, we get to see if either team is right.
Turning to the realm of somewhat less earth-shattering trades, the lead-up to Thursday’s deadline was still plenty eventful. So in the tradition of what we did last year, let’s break each buyer into a few categories based on how much they used this week to improve ahead of the stretch run and the playoffs.
Shaking Things Up
Both Los Angeles teams made big moves at the deadline.
Days after trading for Rui Hachimura, the Lakers made a series of deals to reshape what felt like their entire roster, ultimately sending out Russell Westbrook, Thomas Bryant, Patrick Beverley, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones, a top-four protected 2027 first-round pick and a second-round pick and receiving D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba, Davon Reed and three second-round picks. The moves should at least transform the geography of the court for the Lakers. They entered the deadline averaging just 31.1 3-point attempts per game as a team, and in Russell (7.0) and Beasley (8.6) alone they added a pair of players who have combined to take more than half that many per game by themselves. Vanderbilt and Bamba give them more athleticism in the frontcourt, and Reed has at times shown himself capable of filling a 3-and-D role. Sending out Westbrook may be a case of addition by subtraction, and in dealing only one of their future first-round picks instead of two, the Lakers did retain the ability to make some more moves this summer.
Our RAPTOR-based projection system loved these moves, bumping the Lakers’ playoff chances all the way up to 39 percent. But that still leaves them short of being a strong bet to make the postseason, let alone embark on a deep run. (Side note: Russell was traded away from Los Angeles in 2017, in a deal that netted the Lakers the draft rights to Kyle Kuzma. In 2021, Kuzma was part of the trade that landed Westbrook with the Lakers. And this week, Westbrook was traded in a deal that landed Russell back in L.A. You can’t make this stuff up.)
Their Crypto.com Arena brethren, meanwhile, shipped Luke Kennard to Memphis, John Wall to Houston and Reggie Jackson (plus a second-round pick) to Charlotte and two second-round picks to Denver, receiving Mason Plumlee, Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland and three second-round picks in exchange. The Clippers will reportedly be a contender for Westbrook’s services once he’s bought out by the Utah Jazz, so he could be added to the mix as well. Plumlee allows the Clippers to have 48 minutes of quality center play, whether he serves as the starter or the backup to Ivica Zubac. Gordon provides a bit more in the way of off-the-dribble creativity than Kennard (along with better positional size and strength), and Hyland is absolutely worth a flier given his ability to shoot threes off the dribble. The Clippers are still a phenomenally weird team, but if Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy, they’re also a dangerous one, and they added a trio of pieces that can help them in different ways.
(Relatively) Low-Cost Improvements
Much like the Lakers reunited with an old friend in Russell, so too did the Toronto Raptors with Jakob Poeltl and Golden State Warriors with Gary Payton II. The Raps sent Khem Birch, a protected 2024 first-round pick and two second-rounders to San Antonio for Poeltl, whom they had traded to the Spurs as part of the Kawhi Leonard deal a few years back. Despite being sent to the Raptors, Poeltl is not a 6-foot-8 combo forward. He’s a center, which is something that the team has clearly needed this year. His rim protection and passing (he’s averaging a career-high 3.1 assists per game) should help the team on both ends.
Golden State first sent former No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman to the Detroit Pistons for Kevin Knox and five second-round picks, then spun Knox and the picks over to the Portland Trail Blazers and received GPII in return. The Dubs have been looking for reliable bench pieces throughout the season, and they already know Steve Kerr can trust Payton, much as he did last season. He should be a valuable contributor once again, particularly on defense.
Elsewhere, the New York Knicks, New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks all went out to shop at the 3-and-D market.
New York sent Cam Reddish, Svi Mykhailiuk, Ryan Arcidiacono and a protected first-round pick to the Blazers for Josh Hart, reuniting him with former college teammate Jalen Brunson. New York acquired the Thibs-iest available player last offseason in Brunson, and did it again at the deadline by landing Hart. The league’s best small-man rebounder, Hart should help immediately off the bench. His contract is a strange one, with a player option for next season that is totally non-guaranteed if he picks it up. You have to figure the Knicks plan on re-signing Hart if he declines it.
New Orleans shipped Devonte’ Graham and four second-round picks to the Spurs for Josh Richardson, a nice rotation piece who can play anywhere on the perimeter — which should help him fit right in among the Pellies’ cadre of wing players. He’s on an expiring contract, so this is probably a rental for New Orleans, but it’s a good one. The Bucks finally consummated their long-rumored trade for Jae Crowder by sending five second-rounders to the Nets after he was sent to Brooklyn in the Durant deal. Remember how the Bucks won the title a couple of years ago with P.J. Tucker hounding opposing scorers? They’ll probably ask Crowder to do a whole lot of that, and hopefully hit some threes along the way as well.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are seemingly hoping that their part of the trade that landed Russell in L.A. will work as addition by subtraction, and that having an adult in the room will help Anthony Edwards along in his development. The Wolves acquired Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker in that swap. Conley’s lower usage rate allows Edwards to handle the ball more often, and his calmer playing style should help the Wolves in half-court settings. It doesn’t hurt that Conley had terrific chemistry in Utah with Rudy Gobert, and could potentially help salvage what right now does not look like the best trade in NBA history.
The Boston Celtics targeted big-man depth, and came away with Mike Muscala after sending Justin Jackson and two second-round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Muscala brings something a bit different than both Robert Williams III and Al Horford, in that he is basically just a center-sized shooting guard. (He’s launching 8.2 3-pointers per 36 minutes this season, and that’s actually on the low side for him.) He’s connected on 38 percent of his treys during his career, giving one of the NBA’s best offenses yet another sniper.
The Philadelphia 76ers flipped Matisse Thybulle to the Portland Trail Blazers in a three-team deal that netted them Jalen McDaniels from the Charlotte Hornets. McDaniels is not quite the steals-and-deflections maven that Thybulle is, but at 6-foot-9 he has better size and strength — and, crucially, he is much more willing to let it fly from beyond the arc. McDaniels has made only 34 percent of his threes in his career, but he’s also had two seasons at or around 38 percent. That makes him a much more playable piece for the Sixers than his predecessor.
Finally, the Denver Nuggets, sitting in first place in the Western Conference, targeted a backup big man. They sent Davon Reed and three second-rounders to the Lakers in exchange for the aforementioned Thomas Bryant, who has pretty much always been productive when given an opportunity. That opportunity was set to decline in L.A., and while it won’t actually get much larger in Denver, he’s an upgrade on the DeAndre Jordan/Zeke Nnaji platoon the Nuggets had been using behind two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
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