September 25, 2022

TORONTO — For at least a few minutes, it didn’t seem too outrageous to think that this summer might be relatively quiet around the NBA, by NBA standards anyway.

It was the eve of free will. Kyrie Irving had just shocked the world by doing the sensible thing and opting for the final season of his contract instead of leaving $30 million on the table. Good for him, although the alternative would certainly have been fun.

This year’s class of free agents wasn’t supposed to be the best. Hawks-Spurs trade was interesting, with Atlanta adding all-star guard Delete Murray associate with Trae young and Spurs finally embracing the tank. But one of the league’s most pressing questions was whether the Knicks could clear enough salary to overpay. Jalen Brunson. Ho-hum.

So much for that. All of a sudden, the league went deliciously mad again.

On Thursday afternoon, just hours before the free agency trading window opened, it was reported that Kevin Durant asked for an exchange in Brooklyn.

When a superstar and one of the game’s top five players suddenly becomes available, it’s considered an actionable event in the NBA. Given their track record, you can absolutely expect the Raptors led by Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster to at least kick the tires, but they won’t be alone.

If you’re one of the other 29 teams in the league and you’re not currently preparing your best offer and calling Nets general manager Sean Marks — assuming you haven’t already — that do you even do?

Toronto is as well positioned as any basketball team to make the Durant draw. The question is, how serious are they about making a run at the former MVP, two-time champion and future Hall of Famer?

Their long-term plan has been to gather assets, grow them, and maintain flexibility while remaining patient and waiting for the right opportunity to consolidate some of their coins. It worked once before and they are ready to do it again, if and when they want. They have some very good young players with team-friendly contracts, and they kept all of their draft picks. But is this the right opportunity? That’s what they’ll have to find out.

It is not the Kawhi Leonard situation. They won’t get Durant for the equivalent of DeMar DeRozan, Jacob Poeltl and a first-round pick. Yes, KD is 34 and has an injury history, but unlike Leonard there are fewer questions about his current health, mindset and contract status – he has four years left on his contract.

That’s what makes this so fascinating from a Nets perspective. Contrary to Anthony Davis, Paul George or other disgruntled stars who were forced out of their respective organizations just before their contracts expired, Durant still has an important tenure, allowing Brooklyn to retain some leverage in an unenviable position.

There is no sugar coating it; it’s a nightmare scenario for them. They’ve already handed out a half-decade of first-round picks to Houston for James Hardenwho barely unpacked before designing a trade to Philly for Ben Simmons, who hasn’t played basketball in a year. Considered one of the best lines to ever join forces, Durant, Irving and Harden ended up playing 16 games together. There’s a reasonable chance that all three played their last game for the franchise.

They have little incentive to rush that process or send Durant to his favorite destinations — apparently Phoenix or Miami — if those deals don’t yield the best returns. The only way not to cripple the franchise for years to come is to score a historic price, and you can bet that’s what they’ll be asking for. Considering what’s up for sale — a generational talent still at the peak of his powers and under contract for the foreseeable future — one would imagine someone is going to pay for it.

As for what it would cost the Raptors, the easy answer is that it depends on Brooklyn’s goals. The assumption is that Irving will follow Durant out the door, but without knowing for sure, it’s hard to say how competitive the Nets might be in the short term. If they still want to build a winner around Irving and Simmons – and given they don’t have their own picks, that’s a possibility – a package focused on Pascal Siakam would make sense to both parties.

But if they choose to rebuild, and probably even if they don’t, the conversation likely starts with reigning rookie of the year Scottie Barnes. His inclusion in any deal could very well be a prerequisite for the Nets if they are determined to win back a top-notch prospect. If Toronto’s appetite to move its 20-year-old rising star is low, that could be the end of the discussion. Then above Barnes or Siakam or OG Anunoby and whoever is included in the agreement, there is the issue of project compensation. How many choices are too many choices?

By a rough estimate, the Nets sent three first-round picks and four pick trades to Houston for Harden, and they’ll likely look to recoup most of that cost in a Durant trade.

For the Raptors, you can argue it both ways. There’s certainly merit in going all-in with a player like Durant, assuming you still have enough left after the deal to fight for the championships. Durant alone would bring them into the conversation; he is so good. But is it worth what a deductible-altering price would be?

As great as Barnes can become, you hope he becomes who Durant is today. Parting with him, however difficult, is tenable in this case. Where it gets tricky is with all the other pieces they would have to include to match Durant’s salary — he’ll make over $44 million next season while Barnes will make less than $8 million.

And all those draft picks they should send the other way? We’ve seen what can happen when a team sends a bunch of future first-round picks unprotected. He’s come back to bite the Nets twice in the past decade. Their business for Kevin Garnett and Paul Piece in 2013 ultimately cost them the picks that landed Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston, and outside of a playoff win over the Raptors in 2013-14, they have nothing to show for it. Now the Rockets are enjoying their latest misfortune. Considering how reluctant Ujiri and Webster have been to mortgage futures and trade futures firsts, that kind of deal seems out of place for Toronto.

Obviously, for any team that acquires Durant, you want to avoid giving up picks beyond the length of his current contract. But even giving up three or four is a huge risk. You bet he will remain healthy, which is no lock for a 34-year-old man who suffered serious injuries. And you bet he’ll honor the remaining years of his contract, which isn’t a lock for any player in the league these days. If you take the swing and miss, you could be watching Brooklyn make lottery picks on your behalf for years to come. Just a few weeks ago, the Celtics clinched the title by two wins on a similar gamble that didn’t pay off.

In a pair of expected moves, the Raptors moved quickly in Thursday’s free agency opener, retaining chris butcher and Young Thaddeus within the first 30 minutes. They were both fair deals — bringing Boucher back for $35.25 million over three years and signing veteran Young for two years at $16 million — and not exactly an indicator of whether they plan something bigger. Either way, they could use the depth.

It’s not an easy decision, but it’s one the Raptors are well positioned to make. They could choose to push their chips. They could also stay the course, continue to develop their young core, and wait for a better – or at least less risky – opportunity to make some money.