The best of the best in the Eastern Conference was decided by one shot.
If Jimmy Butler had held the ball two centimeters back in his right hand for just a little more elevation, if he’d taken just a little more time to gather himself, if the slightest breeze hadn’t blown through the lower bowl of Miami’s arena at that particular moment, maybe Butler’s 3 at the end of Game 7 goes in and it’d be the Heat, instead of the Boston Celtics, moving onto the NBA Finals.
The Celtics, it should be said, went on to take a 2-1 lead in the finals over the Golden State Warriors before things fell apart. The point is, Boston’s team was pretty darned close to winning a championship. Therefore, it can be said the Heat weren’t so far away, either.
Should either of the top two teams in the East, then, be thinking of dramatically changing what they have built to acquire Kevin Durant?
Since news broke of Durant’s request that the Brooklyn Nets trade him, the sentiment in stories from around the NBA, like this one, is that there are essentially 29 teams interested. “It’s freaking Kevin Durant,” one Warriors source told The Athletic‘s Marcus Thompson, in discussing why Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green would not be opposed to a reunion with their enigmatic former co-star. The same report said Warriors decision-makers probably won’t trade for Durant, even though they could do it without tearing apart their core of future Hall of Famers.
The same cannot be said about the Celtics and Heat.
Boston has already improved since the finals without parting with a single player who made much of an impact in the last two playoff rounds. Crushed by the dual combination of poor bench play and the absence of a ballhandler who could dribble into the lane without turning the ball over in the finals, the Celtics acquired Malcolm Brogdon from the Indiana Pacers in exchange for Daniel Theis, Aaron Nesmith, Nik Stauskas , two other players and a first-round pick. Then, Boston agreed to a free-agent contract with Danilo Gallinari, giving the franchise two legitimate scoring options off the bench after it reached Game 6 of the finals with just Derrick White filling that role consistently.
To get Durant from the Nets, Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens would probably have to include Jaylen Brown as a centerpiece. Brown will turn 26 at the start of next season, was an All-Star two seasons ago and may have been one last season if not for an early-season injury. The Celtics drafted him third in 2016 and reached the Eastern Conference finals in his first two seasons, both with Stevens as the head coach. Brown has blossomed into a two-way force who averages north of 20 points and is one of the key components of the ferocious, switching defense the Celtics used to bludgeon their way up the standings last winter. He’s gone to four conference finals and now has a taste of the finals.
When healthy, Durant is widely considered to be one of the best – maybe the best – player in the entire league. Which, with all due respect to Brown, means Durant is the better player. As recently as last summer, he put Team USA on his back and carried it to a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. (Celtics star Jayson Tatum, it should be noted, was on that team). But Durant is nearing his 34th birthday, has played in just 90 of 226 games over the last three seasons, and the Celtics are not on his list of preferred destinations – or, at minimum, behind the leaders. Durant has also shown he likes to move around.
Acquiring Durant comes with some risk, but also, it demands Stevens part with a player in Brown who he helped raise in the NBA, one who helped the Celtics get this far already, and one who is All-Star caliber while just entering his prime .
The Heat are in a different place, and not just because they are reportedly one of Durant’s preferred destinations.
The lore of “Heat culture” has endured under president Pat Riley. If anything, it’s grown since Miami’s big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh broke up in 2014. The Heat remained competitive and never went into tank mode, while players spent a day at practice while being required to buy into a defense -first, toughness-matters philosophy. When Miami finally acquired its first in-his-prime star since LeBron in Butler, the story of Heat culture held because Butler is kind of a hard-ass. He’ll fight at practice if he must, and he loves to defend.
“We’re not for everyone,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has said over and over, to the point where he is sick of saying it.
What gets glossed over by that mantra is the franchise’s insatiable desire for stars. The idea of Durant, or even Kyrie Irving, joining the Heat no doubt interests Miami’s brain trust. Get them to South Beach and figure out the rest later.
Take PJ Tucker, who is not a star, but is a versatile, tough, defense-first bulldog whom the Heat fell in love with during his one season there. Spoelstra raved about him as the playoffs progressed, marveling at Tucker’s stubbornness to not even allow his coach to talk to team trainers about Tucker’s health (he had an ailing knee). Tucker, Spoelstra said, was the epitome of what the entire franchise had stood for, for decades.
“He is a Miami Heat guy,” Spoelstra said the night the Celtics eliminated Miami from the playoffs.
When it came time to keep Tucker this summer, though, the Heat didn’t go the extra mile. They reportedly offered him a free-agent contract worth more than $8 million per year, over three seasons but would not go up to the 76ers’ three-year, $33 million figure. Doing so would have triggered the hard cap, which would have limited the Heat’s ability to conduct a big trade now or at the February deadline. Culture at that cost wasn’t worth it.
Because of a separate league rule, the Heat cannot trade Bam Adebayo for Durant as long as Ben Simmons is on Brooklyn’s roster. Both players are being paid on a “Designated Rookie Max” extension, and you can’t have more than one on the team.
So unless the Nets trade Simmons, the Heat’s path to getting Durant may mean a trade package with Butler at its center. Relations between the franchise and Butler improved dramatically from March, when an ugly blow-up on the bench between Butler and Spoelstra included challenges issued for fights and Spoelstra slamming his clipboard as Butler walked back onto the court. Those relations improved because Butler carried Miami to the brink of the finals. He scored 47 points in Game 6 in Boston and was brilliant again in Game 7, coming so close to winning that game on his last shot.
The Heat have treated their stars well over the years, from Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, to Alonzo Mourning, to LeBron, to Bosh. They will reward you for loyalty. They also showed this season they would loosen some of the rules of “Heat culture” to accommodate players like Butler, or Kyle Lowry, or even Tucker, as I documented while covering them on their playoff run.
If getting Durant means moving Butler, a star for a star, will the Heat be willing to make that move, to say nothing of the ancillary pieces Miami would have to include?
This is also the tricky part of NBA player empowerment. Durant is forcing his way out of Brooklyn with a whopping four years and $198 million left on his contract, and he has preferred options for his next destination. Miami is one, and so is Phoenix. But with such a massive contract, and NBA rules for trading such contracts being what they are, most potential suitors would have to give up so much to acquire him. It leaves one to wonder how attractive these teams will be for Durant without some of the players that made those teams good to begin with?
Should they trade him, the Nets will be the worst team Durant has ever left. When he departed from Oklahoma City as a free agent, the Thunder had just blown a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. When he moved on from Golden State to Brooklyn, he’d won two out of three finals with the Warriors, and it might have been three-for-three had he not torn his Achilles in Game 5 in 2019. The Nets barely made the playoffs this year and were swept out of the first round.
The two best teams in the East last season have the assets to make a run at Durant. What both teams would look like after such a trade, and how much closer they would be to winning a finals, is the discussion they’re having behind closed doors about “freaking Kevin Durant.”
(Top photo of Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant: Paul Rutherford/USA Today)