Free agency was going to be compelling enough before Kevin Durant demanded a trade from the Nets, affecting the market as at least half the league is gauging Brooklyn’s interest in a possible Durant package.
That may include the Celtics, who have players and draft picks to pique the Nets’ interest. Durant reportedly has listed the Suns and Heat as preferred destinations, but there are no guarantees that the Nets will even trade Durant — he’s under contract for four more years — and will send him to either of those teams.
But his status does freeze the market to a certain extent with a top-five player surprisingly available. Durant shook up the market three years ago when he agreed to sign with the Nets without even a free agent visit, trusting close friend Kyrie Irving, who reneged on a promise to re-sign with the Celtics to also sign with Brooklyn.
Irving wanted out of Brooklyn earlier this week, until he found out his worth around the league is limited and no club wanted to facilitate a sign-and-trade agreement. A few days after Irving opted into the final year of his deal, Durant asked for a trade, leaving the Nets in limbo.
The Nets were considered one of the major competitors to the Celtics in next season’s bid to the NBA Finals, but that would no longer be the case if they trade Durant, barring getting an All-Star-caliber player in return. Irving still wants to work his way to the Lakers, while Ben Simmons has not played in more than a year and it’s uncertain how long he will take — if ever does — to return to form.
For an early free agency winner, look Bucks, who re-signed key contributor Bobby Portis, guard Jevon Carter, and then added sharpshooter Joe Ingles in the first hour of free agency.
The Bucks could have been a healthy Khris Middleton away from beating the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. With Giannis Antetokoumpo remaining the game’s most impactful player, the Bucks are likely the favorites to make a return to the NBA Finals with their moves Thursday.
The 76ers ramped up by acquiring D’Anthony Melton from the Grizzlies on draft night, and then agreeing to a three-year deal with defender P.J. Tucker to add to their toughness. The hope is James Harden works himself into premium shape — that’s hasn’t happened in years — and he can regain his All-Star form to boost the 76ers back to elite status.
Being on Durant’s list, the Heat may be preparing a package to pair Durant with Jimmy Butler. Because Simmons is on a rookie max extension, the Nets can’t acquire Bam Adebayo — also on a rookie max extension — because teams cannot acquire two max rookie extension players through trade.
But with Pat Riley and Micky Arison leading the franchise, the Heat will make it a mission to upgrade their roster, which showed flaws during the postseason. The Heat would love to include Kyle Lowry’s $30-plus-million contract in a deal, but the Nets want young assets and draft picks in return in hopes of competing without Durant.
The Nets re-signed Nic Claxton, acquired Royce O’Neale (from the Jazz), and also brought back sharpshooter Patty Mills, meaning they have no plans for a rebuild.
The Lakers have changed their philosophy and decided to go young, adding former Spurs first-round pick Lonnie Walker, former Wizards first-rounder Troy Brown, and ex-Warriors forward Juan Toscano-Anderson to fill their roster. A year ago, they added a slew of 30-something-year-old players and it failed miserably. The Lakers plan to move forward with Russell Westbrook, who is in the final year of his contract at $47 million, until they can find a suitable trade, which is unlikely.
The Lakers would love to swap Westbrook for Irving, but that expiring contract isn’t appealing to the Nets.
After a flurry of early moves, free agency slowed down as Thursday night progressed, with Durant’s status being the primary story line for the next few days. Is Durant steadfast about being traded? Can the Nets work out a deal with either of his preferred teams?
Durant’s trade demand stunned a league that assumed the Nets would run it back with their two cornerstones. Instead, Durant becomes a premium free agent as teams — including the Celtics — assess their assets for a potential trade. Durant will be 34 in September but just signed a long-term extension and appeared to be completely recovered from his torn Achilles’ sustained three years ago.
The Celtics were inactive in the early hours but still have plenty of time to sign impactful players with their trade exception and mid-level exception. But they’ll have plenty of competition. Their Eastern Conference competitors are loading up.