Kevin Durant trade winners and losers: Why Rockets, Ben Simmons benefit from Suns’ splash; bad news for Lakers
Kevin Durant changed teams twice in his career. The first time he did it, he created the greatest professional basketball team ever created and won two championships with the Warriors. The second time he did it, it took (among other things) a few injuries, a pandemic, and oversized shoes to stop him from winning more. Now he has moved for the third time. After four disappointing seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, Durant moves to the Phoenix Suns.
If Durant’s first two moves were any indication, then move #3 would be seismic. The ripple effect will be felt far beyond the Nets and Suns, so let’s drop two principles here. Who else will feel the consequences of this deal the most? Below are the biggest winners and losers of the Durant deal, excluding the players and teams that were directly involved in it.
Winner: Houston Rockets
When the Rockets initially traded for control of every Nets first-round pick between 2021 and 2027, they likely assumed that most of those picks would be relatively low. The advantage of such an exchange with the old roster is that perhaps if all goes well, this group will get out of hand and give you one or two very valuable picks at the end of the deal. Even in Houston’s wildest fantasies, the Rockets couldn’t imagine Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving leaving Brooklyn with five options left.
To be fair, Brooklyn’s 2023 first-round pick went to Houston in a trade. The Nets are currently 19.5 games ahead of the Rockets in the standings, so nothing will likely come of this trade. However, in 2024, the Rockets get an immediate pick from Brooklyn. They will do it again in 2026 and have trade rights in 2025 and 2027. This effectively gives the Rockets four chances to cash in on the Brooklyn explosion.
The Nets probably won’t go to the landfill right away. They’ve amassed quite a bit of talent in their three-star deals, and they’ve accumulated so many picks from those deals that they could turn around and grab another star of their own relatively quickly. At this point, Brooklyn’s floor is still somewhat high. The ceilings, however, depend almost entirely on the stars. The Nets used to have three of them. Now they are gone. Until the Nets start making serious moves, these picks will look pretty valuable. The conditions required for the Rockets to get a better pick are now much more likely. One season with injuries. Damage to one dressing room. One pandemic-like black swan event that ultimately wrecked the Durant-Harden-Irving team.
The Rockets are one step away from holding the most valuable set of draft picks in basketball. In just two years, the Harden trade turned into one of the greatest disasters in NBA history.
Lost: Atlanta Hawks
Blockbuster deals are notoriously difficult to negotiate, and at some point, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPNThe Suns seemed to be ready for a deal that would bring this big Atlanta Hawks player John Collins. Such a move would be significant for the Hawks, in large part because they’ve been trying to find a new home for Collins for years, and he’s having the worst year of his career.
His scoring declined to 13.2 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season. He shoots only 25.7 percent from deep, and at this stage it’s worth asking if a lingering finger injury has affected his shooting in a way that will last for a while. He has never been a particularly good quarterback, and over the next three seasons after that, he owes more than $78 million.
Collins will not be an easy trader, and he certainly will not be an easy trader for real value. Exactly what the Suns would give for him is unclear, but almost all of their valuable trading assets are now owned by the Nets. Phoenix could just take over Collins’ expiring contract in exchange for some of their remaining filler (Darijo Sharik, Landry Shamet and Cameron Payne are about the amount of his cap), but the Suns are so skinny right now that they’re trading three players for one very expensive, probably not their preference. The Hawks may yet find a new home for Collins, but they lost one potential trading partner Wednesday night.
Winner: Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are the most likely big sellers by 2023, and the financial realities forcing them to do so only intensified when they acquired Jacob Poeltl on Wednesday night. The problem for Toronto was that the league’s richest buyers were setting aside their capital for someone better than anything the Raptors had to offer. Why should a team give up three first-round picks to OG Anunoby when four could get Durant in the summer? By making that deal on Wednesday, the Nets and Suns inadvertently gave Toronto the opportunity to spend all of Thursday keeping the league’s uptight rivals over the barrel. Buyers have nowhere else to go.
This is especially true of the Western Conference. All of a sudden, every contender in the West has to go to great lengths to prepare for a possible playoff matchup against Durant. There are half a dozen players in the NBA who can adequately defend him. The Raptors may have the single best Durant defenseman in basketball right now. This season they met three times. Durant scored 27 points on 8 of 18 shots in the first game but then held on to 12 points in the second and 17 points in the third.
Giving up three picks in the first round for Anunobi may not have made sense when Durant had an alternative. Giving up three picks in the first round could now be a must for any team hoping to beat Durant. Toronto will charge desperate rivals accordingly.
Loser: Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have been weighing the pros and cons of a big deal all season. Yes, they have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but should they give up their few remaining draft picks to bolster a desperately lean supporting roster? Lakers made it clear that they only planned to take a major step if they felt it could take them to the championship.
They finally took the plunge on Wednesday, sending the Jazz a first-round pick in a deal that turned Russell Westbrook into D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt. It may not have been the move some fans were hoping for, but it was a meaningful investment this season. The Lakers would not have taken this step if they didn’t believe it would give them a shot at winning the wide-open Western Conference.
Except that the Western Conference is no longer wide open. Just hours after they closed the deal, the Suns were the favorites to bring Durant on. The Lakers still have time to push ahead of the deadline. Their 2029 first round pick is still available for trade. But the information they used to make the Westbrook deal was out of date less than a day after it was made. With James and Davis, the Lakers can still compete with the Suns. They will simply do it as serious underdogs, regardless of any other moves they may make.
Winner: Ben Simmons
I know I said I would avoid the teams involved in the deal, but that doesn’t mean that Simmons himself was involved in the deal. In fact, he stands out as one of its main beneficiaries. During that season, Simmons dealt with physical injuries and his play was erratic as a result. However, we can’t ignore the mental health issues that led to his request for a trade as a member of the 76ers. Not that Brooklyn was a low-pressure environment for him.
Simmons went from one contender in the Atlantic Division to another. Every time he donned the Net, he was under a microscope, and the noise surrounding his smooth, uneven play grew louder and louder. Christian Winfield of New York Daily News even reported that Durant himself was “less than thrilled” with Simmons as a teammate.
Now the Nets will disappear from view. Simmons can take his time getting his body in order. When he returns, he will join a team that desperately needs his playing ability, but will not play high-stakes games where his other offensive shortcomings would become problematic. The old Simmons may not be there anymore, but if he is, the Nets have a much better chance of finding him now.
Lost: Ja Morant
On December 21, Ja Morant delivered the five most infamous words of the 2022–23 NBA season: “I feel good in the West.” Well, let’s see what has happened since then:
- The Suns traded Durant.
- The Mavericks were traded for Irving.
- The Lakers sold Westbrook.
- The Grizzlies went 14-10.
Morant’s Grizzlies were in trouble even before the Durant trade. Now the gap between Memphis and the best teams in the conference has become even wider. If Memphis faces Durant and the Suns in the postseason, there’s a good chance that Morant won’t actually be fine in the West.