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ESPN: how the trade of Kevin Durant went down

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers

It’s that time, a couple of days after a big trade goes down, and the what-ifs get aired.

What if the Nets had agreed to give Irving his full four-year, $198 million extension rather than holding firm at three years with incentives? what if after the KD trade went down, the Nets had accepted the four first round picks the Grizzlies were offering for Mikal Bridges; what if the Nets knew Durant wanted out, would they have taken the Lakers offer of two firsts and Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving instead a first, two seconds, Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith? What, what, what.

On one hand, it’s done and what-ifs don’t really matter. In the future when the winners and losers will ultimately be known, it might join other what-ifs in Nets lore, like what if the Nets ownership could have found the cash needed to keep Julius Erving; what if John Calipari hadn’t lost his courage and decided to pick Kerry Kittles over Kobe Bryant? More recently, what if the Nets didn’t panic and give up all those picks for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry? Every franchise has what-ifs in their history. The Nets just seem to have more of them.

Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst in their big breakdown of the Kevin Durant trade (with a little about Kyrie Irving’s departure too) don’t dwell on the what-ifs but rather the what happened.

There are a lot of takeaways about how things went down. Here are a few...

  • Kevin Durant wanted out of Brooklyn as early as last Monday afternoon, the day after the Irving trade. He and Rich Kleiman, his agent and business manager, met with Sean Marks and specifically asked for a trade to the Suns. Despite reporting that the Nets were trying to find another player to replace Irving and ameliorate Durant, the deal was essentially done when Irving got dealt. Durant didn’t think that the Nets had enough to win a championship. Durant wanted his entreaty kept quiet and told Marks that if he couldn’t work a deal with Phoenix, he’d be willing to stay and play hard until the summer. But in reality would that work, particularly when everyone knew it would eventually leak?
  • Key to the whole deal was the personal relationship between Joe Tsai and Mat Ishbia, the brand new owner of the Suns. Before Ishbia bought the team, Tsai had been the mortgage broker’s mentor, bringing him to Brooklyn to observe how the business of NBA basketball worked, helping him plot his course toward ownership. Indeed, it was a Tsai-to-Ishbia phone call Monday afternoon that got the whole ball rolling.
  • The Nets wanted more than the Suns front office wanted to give up. Marks initial demand of his counterpart, James Jones, was non-negotiable and ultimately was the core of what the Nets got back: four firsts, unprotected; a swap of first rounders; Cam Johnson and the big sticking point: Mikal Bridges. It’s what Marks had demanded of the Suns back in the summer after KD’s first trade request but one that then-owner Robert Sarver had balked at. Now, things were different. The new owner wanted to make a big splash and there was no better way to create that by having Kevin Durant do cannonball into the deep end. The Nets knew that Ishbia wanted to get it done.
  • When Jones asked if the Nets would take a player or players other than Bridges or whether protections might be added to some of the picks, Marks said no. Non-negotiable. So, Ishbia signed off on the deal but then the Nets added another demand: Jae Crowder. The Suns had hoped to use Crowder’s rights to gain other assets. Still, Ishbia signed off again.
  • The Nets felt that Irving was trying to take advantage of them. It is a business after all. Shelburne and Windhorst report that Irving had bided his time after his suspension for promoting an antisemitic video, playing phenomenal basketball but hoping for an opportunity to push his own agenda: “the perfect moment to leverage the Nets into a contract extension.” or if that failed, getting out of Brooklyn. The ESPN writers also lay out what Tsai and Marks were offering Irving: “extensions for up to three seasons, but only if Irving would agree to some conditions that would protect the team if he didn’t play enough games.” Irving said no — he’s said he felt disrespected ... again — and demanded a trade a week ago Friday. The trade call was short, five minutes, another indicator of how bad things had gotten between Irving and Marks.
  • In the talks leading up to Irving’s trade, the Lakers did indeed offer their two firsts in 2027 and 2029 with Russell Westbrooks’ $47 million expiring deal. But Marks liked the clean look of the Dallas package. There would be no need to find a third team (which would have to be compensated) and the Nets liked the two players they eventually got, Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith, who had value around the league. And at that point, re-building a team around KD was the priority. And this was another case where the owner, Mark Cuban, played the lead role in the negotiations.

There’s a lot more (behind a paywall) in the ESPN coverage which relied a great deal on Nets sources. For the Nets who had already traded away another All-Star a year earlier there was a fatigue they hoped would finally end with their remake. But there was also a sadness, a feeling of course shared with their fans.

“Nobody wants to give up Kevin Durant,” Nets general manager Sean Marks told ESPN. “There’s so many things that make him special. They don’t come around very often, and our franchise is better off because we had him here. There’s no question of that.”

Of course, there was also the reality, as laid out by Irving at his introductory press conference in Dallas.

“I think I would like to say something about the superteam of me, James [Harden] and KD that everyone thinks should have worked,” Irving said. “We played very limited time together (only 16 games together for the Big Three, only 74 for KD and Kyrie, in three years), and there were a lot of injuries that took place. I would have liked to see that work for the long term, but there are no mistakes and no coincidences and you gotta move forward.”

What if indeed.