Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns is the biggest blockbuster of all-time
The Phoenix Suns and Brooklyn Nets completed a blockbuster trade, swapping Kevin Durant for a bevy of assets 12 hours before the NBA’s trade deadline. In the 70-year history of the league, there has never been a more significant transaction completed midseason.
Three days since the Brooklyn Nets sent Kyrie Irving to the Dallas Mavericks and just over 24 hours since LeBron James broke the NBA’s all-time scoring record, the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns stole headlines Wednesday night by completing a trade sending Kevin Durant to the Arizona desert.
Though the transaction has the potential to be the single most defining move of the entire 2022-2023 season, reorientating the pecking order amongst the league’s contenders, it also doubles as the single most impactful trade completed in-season in the history of the NBA.
While teams in the past have pulled off heists that have netted them all-stars, or the draft rights to future superstars, no franchise has been so lucky as to acquire a generational talent at the height of their powers 50 games into the season.
Just as groundbreaking, no organization has parted with as much talent in-season as the Nets now have over the last 72 hours. Just a month removed from an 18-2 stretch that placed them near the top of the conference standings, Brooklyn has now opted for a massive rebuild that gives new meaning to the phrase “blowing it up.”
As the rest of the league struggles to recalibrate expectations in the wake of the newest super team forming, let’s look back to find the closest approximation of the Suns and Nets’ jaw-dropping deadline deal.
A trade deadline like no other
Since the advent of the modern trade deadline in 1986 (technically, in-season trades occurred going back to 1946 but were not tracked), only a single player traded midseason has gone on to make an All-NBA squad that same year. In that instance, the Philadelphia 76ers acquired future Hall of Famer – and solid Geico commercial star – Dikembe Mutombo from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Theo Ratliff.
While Mutombo wasn’t on the same level Durant currently occupies as a star-level player, the then 34-year-old center was still a force to be reckoned with on the defensive side of the ball and turned out to be a driving force behind the Sixers’ eventual run to the Finals.
Still, even if Durant becomes the second player to qualify for an All-NBA team that was traded during the year, Mutombo’s reputation and on-court production don’t quite measure up to KD’s to provide an accurate enough approximation of the talent exchange that just went down between the Suns and Nets.
Objective accomplishments aside, the only other two transactions that approach the seismic impact of the Durant deal would be the trades that sent Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol to the Knicks and Lakers, respectively.
Based on the number of assets New York sent Denver for the rights to the star forward and the prominence Anthony held as one of the faces of the NBA, the Knicks-Nuggets swap does bear some similarities. Although Carmelo failed to earn a place amongst the league’s top-15 players in the end-of-the-year awards in 2010-11, he returned to All-NBA form the following season and still had a reputation as one of the five most talented offensive players in the game.
The difference, of course, is that Anthony’s desire to trek eastward was well-documented by the time the actual trade went down, a far cry from the shock that accompanied the news of the Durant deal (but really, it was so surprising that there were actual tears). If anything, the most significant talking point surrounding the transaction was not that New York had acquired an in-their-prime All-Star but that they overpaid for a player they likely could have gotten in free agency four months later.
The KD trade is also unlikely to be defined by the kind of losing that ultimately ended Carmelo’s time in the Big Apple. Even if the Suns don’t end up bringing home a Larry O’Brien trophy – though they REALLY, REALLY need one – Phoenix and Durant shouldn’t find it too challenging to top the one-round the Knicks and Anthony won during their time together.
The Pau Gasol trade may be the closest historical comparison to the Suns-Nets deal. Even setting aside the remarkable postseason success that Gasol and the Lakers had together – three straight Finals appearances and back-to-back championships – the swiftness with which Memphis and Los Angeles completed the pact was no less shocking than that of the Durant trade. As notable, the deals catapulted both teams from the second tier of contenders in a crowded Western Conference to legitimate title favorites.
And yet, even the Gasol trade doesn’t quite match what we’ve just witnessed with KD.
Though he was an undeniably talented player and a bonafide All-Star, much of the legacy of the Grizzlies-Lakers deal was defined by Los Angeles’ subsequent success.
The Durant trade is historic not because of what the Suns could do in June but because of who KD already is: a former league MVP, two-time Finals MVP, 13-time All-Star, 10-time All-NBA selection, one of the ten most talented offensive players ever to take the court, and a guy who probably ends his career ranked among the top-15 players of all time. That he is still at the height of his powers hammers home the fact that we have never had a player like this traded during the season in the history of the league.
A fact that, in many ways, makes sense. Reorienting an entire squad’s playbook and chemistry around a singular talent is best left to the offseason, when an organization has months to prepare. Yet, even if the integration of Durant takes time, the decision to acquire him still ranks as a no-brainer. Similarly, every other franchise in the league would gladly accept the issues that accompany obtaining a superstar more than halfway through the year if it allowed them to become contenders.
The reason a trade like this has never occurred in this manner before hasn’t been the result of too much caution on the side of teams looking to buy but rather because there has never been a team that has so quickly changed course in the middle of the season the way the Brooklyn Nets have.
When examing the scale on which the Nets have stripped their roster of its star talent, it’s not enough to merely reference their 18-2 stretch just weeks ago as if that run were divorced from what the team was capable of over an entire 82-game season.
You also have to realize that Brooklyn was +6.0 per 100 possessions this year when Durant and Irving shared the floor and ranked in the 87th percentile of all lineups in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. Even if you take into account Durant’s spotty availability and Kryrie’s….questionable behavior, the Nets were a franchise with legitimate title aspirations this season (!!) and still chose to tear it all down.
While the thinking that undergirded the sell-off may have been perfectly reasonable, if not entirely correct, the reality is that Brooklyn has completed, arguably, the single biggest “blowup” of a team in NBA history. That they pulled it all off midseason in just over 72 hours is even more mind-boggling.
Regardless, it is a deal that is one of its kind and one that will be impossible to replicate. Though there will undoubtedly be star-laden teams that choose to rebuild and aggressive trade deadline buyers that acquire stars, we are unlikely the see anything on the scale that the Nets have done.
This was a franchise with two historically great players still in their prime that were tied together and forced apart entirely because of off-court issues. Rarely has a team been forced to make such drastic basketball moves as a result of non-basketball-related happenings, and never have they been this extreme.
Time will tell the exact rewards the Suns and Nets will receive due to the Kevin Durant trade. At the very least, they have earned the moniker of completing the biggest in-season trade in the history of the NBA.