The Boston Celtics have reached their offseason garden of forking paths. After falling short in the NBA Finals, they now seem willing to break up their young tandem, and potentially a fulcrum of their asphyxiating defense.
According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Boston offered Jaylen Brown, Derrick White, and a first-round pick for Kevin Durant. Later ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Celtics are prepared to flip three unprotected firsts in 2025, 2027, 2029, plus first-round swaps in 2024 and 2026, and Brown in exchange for Durant. That’s a significantly higher payload than Charania’s initial tweet, which sounds more like a conversation starter than a serious offer. However, the Nets who are perpetually unsatisfied, reportedly countered with a demand to include Marcus Smart.
The question Boston must ask themselves is this one. Should they go all in on a tectonic trade for an aging Kevin Garnett Durant that would shift the balance of power in the short term? Or stay the course and trust that their additions along the margins, including a healthy Malcolm Brogdon, and the continued development of Brown and Jayson Tatum vaults them over the top?
There are conflicting reports about how serious these talks are, but when the Nets and Celtics talk trade, ears automatically perk up. Durant being traded to a team he lost to in the postseason feels familiar. So does a proposed trade between the Celtics and Nets. This time around, the roles are reversed. Acquiring Durant would be a dramatic shift in direction for the Celtics who have been the ones accumulating draft capital over the years and walking away from trades for A-List talents. We know what Ainge would do, but that regime ended when he stepped away last summer.
In 2017, the Celtics compiled a trade package for Paul George, consisting of first-round picks, but refused to include Brown or Tatum. Four years ago, they declined to unload Brown, Smart, and more for Kawhi Leonard. Leonard and Kyrie Irving may have been enough to lift Boston over the Durant-Steph-Klay Warriors. But it also would have left their roster barren as Irving and Leonard had their sights set on Los Angeles and Brooklyn.
George and Leonard were on the verge of free agency. They’re now teammates in L.A. where they’ve struggled to synchronize their health and take the court together. In 2019, Danny Ainge contemplated throwing a king’s ransom at the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for a year of Anthony Davis. Davis would have served a dual purpose of also luring Irving to re-sign due to their friendship. However, Davis’ father may have inadvertently saved Boston from making a mistake after watching Irving how quickly he wore out his welcome in Brooklyn.
Unlike Davis, Leonard, and George, Brown is still under team control for two more seasons until he can test free agency. Durant has three more years remaining on his deal, but he also carries the Kyrie contagion that Boston vaccinated themselves against three summers ago. Their team chemistry is at an all-time high. They just brought in “The President,” Brogdon to man the point. Brown is the ultimate diplomat even though his name has been mentioned in more trade rumors than POWs. It wouldn’t be surprising if there was some animosity brewing internally and Brown’s tweet in response to the rumors expressed his dissatisfaction, however, that’s nothing a max contract and a title down the line can’t assuage.
On paper, Durant makes sense. He’s coming off a season in which he would have been runner-up for the scoring title if he’d played enough games to be eligible. The minimum was 58. Durant played in 55 after injuring the MCL in his left knee.
Durant prefers to play in isolation and he’s pretty damn effective too. He had the fifth-highest points per possession of any player to score at least 100 points out of iso sets and the fifth highest effective field goal percentage. His ability to conjure up instant offense when his teammates are in a drought could be just what the Celtics ordered. Their bouts with offensive famines have been a recurring problem.
The argument against punting on Brown’s present and future for Durant would be Golden State backing out of a deal that would have sent Kevin Love to the Warriors for Klay Thompson in 2014. Brown offers sentimental value, but midway through his 20s, he’s only been named to a single All-Star Game.
However, he can’t stay put. Durant has made himself a superstar without a home. He should keep a search firm on retainer to seek out opportunities when he inevitably hits adversity. What happens when Ime Udoka tries to lay some of that tough coaching on a 34-year-old Olympian, who grew to dislike Steve Kerr’s player’s coach brand?
Leonard, Davis, and George were a trust fall exercise. This is much less of a crapshoot despite Durant’s quirks. Durant is leaps and bounds better, but just as injury prone.
Will Boston regret it in the long term? Possibly. However, the window for championships in the modern era has shrunk. You can no longer forecast which young stars will be in their prime five years down the road. Jayson Tatum may complete the turncoat arc he’s been teasing by donning the Lakers purple and gold when he becomes a free agent. Durant’s extension takes him right up to 2025 when Tatum can exercise his player option. That’s three chances at titles before Tatum reviews his options as Durant turns 37. In the short-term, Boston becomes the favorite in 2023, and given how proudly New Englanders still celebrate that 2008 NBA title, just one will be worth it.