Trade for Kevin Durant? Raptors’ ethos of player development makes it a tough decision

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 Trade for Kevin Durant?  Raptors' ethos of player development makes it a tough decision

This would be more difficult than last time. And let’s not distort the past – last time was pretty rough.

There was a lot of excitement when the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard in 2018, but there was a lot of hurt feelings, both from DeMar DeRozan and on DeMar DeRozan’s behalf. As we already suspected, the basketball side of things was pretty obvious. The same things that kept Leonard’s trade value relatively low were the same things that allowed the Raptors to take a chance on him while other teams didn’t: He had an odd medical history, he made an odd breakup with one of them through the league’s modeling franchises and he had just one year left on his contract, while thereafter he was widely viewed as tied to Los Angeles. The Raptors bet they could make the most of this one year and maybe convince Leonard that California wasn’t great in the meantime. Going one for two has never been so sweet.

There’s somehow less concern with Kevin Durant, which should be more reassuring. There are questions: why did Durant find reason to be unhappy in all three of his NBA stops? He will be 34 when next season starts and he has a long injury history. The very basic – what does he even want?

Still, Durant is one of the all-time greatest players, perhaps the all-time greatest all-scorer, and is just a year away from nearly beating the eventual NBA champion despite an injured Kyrie Irving and an injured James Harden. He has also signed for another four years. If you buy him, you really have him, at least until he decides it’s not for him.

The Raptors now have the second-best chance of acquiring Durant, according to DraftKings, a development seemingly tied to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski They said they would “lurk” in trade talks. The roller-coaster ride of Vegas odds would be easy to ignore were it not for a surge in the Raptors’ “odds” prior to the acquisition of Leonard four July. Sportsnet’s Michael Grange also reported that the Raptors felt they could offer the Nets the best package for the future Hall of Famer should they choose to do so.

Most importantly, they can offer the networks several different types of packages, and most teams can’t tell. Below are two lists of players. The group on the left has made an All-NBA team in at least one of the last two seasons. The group on the right has yet to turn 24 and have either shown enough potential in the NBA or have enough potential based on where they were drafted to maybe someday end up on an All-NBA team.

All-NBA and the league’s best young players

All-NBA (last 2 years) 23 and under foundations

Devin Booker

Paolo Banchero

Luke Doncic

Chet Holmgren

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Jabari Smith

Jayson Tatum

Cade Cunningham

Nikola Jokić

Jalen Green

Joel Embid

Evan Mobley

DeMar DeRozan

Scottie Barnes

Stephen Curry

Anthony Edwards

Yes Morant

LaMelo ball

Karl-Anthony-Cities

Tyrese Hallburton

Lebron James

Zion Williamson

Pascal Siakam

Yes Morant

ChrisPaul

Deandre Ayton

Trae Young

Luke Doncic

Kawhi Leonard

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Damien Lillard

Trae Young

Julius Randle

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Bradley Beal

Jimmy Butler

Rudy Gobert

Without counting the teams represented by the same player in both columns, there are only four teams that have a player on both lists: Phoenix, the current favorites to get Durant, and Durant’s preferred destination; Minnesota, who just went all-in by taking on Rudy Gobert; Memphis, whose Jaren Jackson Jr. will miss a good chunk of the season with a stress fracture in his foot; and the raptors.

Now that they’ve dumped a boatload of their own picks to acquire Harden, do the Nets want to win? A trade that sends Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., or OG Anunoby and the well-known selection of picks in these types of trades to Brooklyn for Durant and Seth Curry would make at least some sense. (I’d be really hesitant to move both Siakam and Anunoby in the same trade just because so many big two-way wings are necessary in the playoffs.) Durant would join a team that still has Fred VanVleet, Anunoby, or Trent, Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher, Thaddeus Young, Otto Porter Jr and more. In theory, this team would be a contender for the championship.

(via fanspo.com; Raptors would also likely need to include pick swaps for 2024 and 2026)

Are the networks a bit more interested in powering the future? How about Barnes, Anunoby and Trent, plus a little less draft compensation for Barnes’ potential for Durant? Certainly, that trade would be a little less attractive for the Raptors since it would cost three starters, including Barnes. But the trailing team still has a core of Durant, VanVleet and Siakam with Achiuwa, Boucher, Young and Porter on the bench. Also, they would become more attractive as a veteran minimum/goal. (Take that, Goran Dragic.)

There aren’t many teams that can offer the Nets both the volume and variety of value the Raptors can. Reasonable minds can agree on whether the Raptors should continue in either of these frameworks, but they have the resources to make these offers while maintaining some Championship equity with their roster. This is impressive team building.

Their ability to do so is almost entirely due to their success in design and internal development. And that’s the catch here.

It’s one thing for the Lakers to offer every last piece they have for Anthony Davis. They have a long history of attracting players. Milwaukee had to go all-in for Jrue Holiday, with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the then 25-year-old two-time reigning MVP, just a season away from free agency. (Antetokoumpo signed his extension about three weeks after the holiday deal.)

Not only do the Raptors not have the repeat failure they had in 2018, they don’t have the Lakers’ history as a target for top players or the Bucks’ urgency of 2020. What they have is one of the best streak records in the Draft.

  • Norman Powell was ranked 46th in 2015, developing into a starting quality player and moving to Portland for the younger Trent at the peak of his trade worth. (Powell was chosen between Marcus Thornton and Arturis Gudaitis.)
  • Siakam, a two-time All-NBA member, was ranked 27th in 2016. (Siakam was picked between Furkan Korkmaz and Skal Labrissière.) VanVleet, a 2019 Finals All-Star and MVP voter, went undrafted that same year and was signed by the Raptors.
  • Anunoby was ranked 23rd in 2017. (Anunoby was chosen between Jarrett Allen—good choice!—and Tyler Lydon.)
  • Barnes finished fourth in a draft touted for having a clear top four in which he was not included. After being named Rookie of the Year, he’s as reasonable a bet as Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley to be the top player in what should end up being remembered as a loaded draft class.

Still, the Raptors had some misses deeper in the draft. Since choosing Anunoby, they have Dewan Hernandez (59th in 2019), Malachi Flynn (29th in 2020), Jalen Harris (59th in 2020), Barnes, Dalano Banton (46th in 2021 ), David Johnson (47th in 2021) and Christian Koloko (33rd in 2022). Barnes acknowledges that Koloko’s future is unwritten and is the only home run there. He should be – the other picks are hard to nail by definition. However, the Raptors’ recent history should underline that they are only good, not unassailable, in this business of design and development. (It’s also worth noting that several of the club’s most notable development-oriented coaches, from Jama Mahlalela to Brittni Donaldson to Patrick Mutombo, have left the Raptors in recent years.) Those higher-leverage picks are still hugely important, and even more so too the Raptors in particular.

First-round draft picks were massively coveted in the mid and late 2010s, trading for Superstars and even regular top-40 players in recent seasons. Your true worth probably lies somewhere between the two poles. But under that Raptors front office, they’ll always carry a little more weight.

Ultimately, I’d rather make a trade that focuses on Siakam than Barnes, in part because Barnes could extend the future of the Raptors beyond Durant’s hypothetical time in Toronto in a way Siakam couldn’t, and also because Barnes ‘Rookie contract is so low he essentially has to pitch in both Anunoby and Trent with him for the math to work. Maybe it’s a little sweet to think that long term when a player with Durant’s skills is available.

Perhaps it’s this ability to not approach the issue with the same urgency as other teams due to the plausibility of a longer title window in the future that ultimately keeps the Raptors from making a second trade for a transformation player four years from now.

Not only have the Raptors recently won a title, but their mid- and long-term future is uncertain enough that they may very well decide that Durant and the cost of acquiring him aren’t worth the risk.

Do the Raptors want to maximize now and guarantee some championship equity, or do they want to play the long game and go for incremental growth that doesn’t just open a window, but keeps it open longer? Pretending that the decision is easy is sheer fallacy.

(Top photo by Kevin Durant and Scottie Barnes: Kevin Sousa/USA TODAY)

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