Friday, December 2, 2022

Trade for Kevin Durant? Raptors’ player development ethos make it a difficult decision

This would be harder than last time. And let’s not distort the past — last time was plenty hard.

There was plenty of excitement when the Raptors trade for Kawhi Leonard in 2018, but there were plenty of hurt feelings, both from DeMar DeRozan and on behalf of DeMar DeRozan. As we have already surmised, the basketball side of things was fairly obvious. The same things that kept Leonard’s trade value relatively low were the same things that made it possible for the Raptors to take a risk on him while other teams would not: He had a strange medical history, he was going through a strange breakup with one of the league’s model franchises and he had just one year left on his contract while widely seen as being Los Angeles-bound after that. The Raptors made a bet that they could make the most of that one year and maybe convince Leonard that California wasn’t so great in the interim. Going one for two has never been so sweet.

With Kevin Durant, somehow there are fewer concerns, which should be more assuring. There are questions: Why has Durant found a reason to be unhappy in all three of his NBA stops? He will be 34 when next season starts, and he has a lengthy injury history. The very basic one — what does he even want?

Yet, Durant is one of the best players ever, maybe the best pure scorer ever, and is only a year removed from almost beating the eventual NBA champions despite an injured Kyrie Irving and an injury-limited James Harden. He’s also signed for four more years. When you acquire him, you’ve really got him, at least until he decides this isn’t for him.

The Raptors now have the second-best odds to acquire Durant according to DraftKings, a development that seems like it is tied to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski saying they were “lurking” in trade talks. The roller coaster of Vegas odds would be easy to ignore if a bump in the Raptors’ “chances” didn’t precede the acquisition of Leonard four Julys ago. Sportsnet’s Michael Grange also reported the Raptors felt they could offer the Nets the best package for the future Hall of Famer, should they opt to do so.

Most crucially, they can offer the Nets multiple different types of packages, and that’s not something most teams can say. 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 has either shown enough promise in the NBA, or has enough potential based on where they were drafted, to maybe one day end up on an All-NBA team.

All-NBA and best young players in league

All NBA (Last 2 years) 23 and under foundations

Devin Booker

Paolo Banchero

Luka Doncic

Chet Holmgren

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Jabari Smith

Jayson Tatum

Cade Cunningham

Nikola Jokic

Jalen Green

Joel Embiid

Evan Mobley

DeMar DeRozan

Scottie Barnes

Steph Curry

Anthony Edwards

Ja Morant

LaMelo Ball

Karl Anthony Towns

Tyrese Hallburton

LeBron James

Zion Williamson

Pascal Siakam

Ja Morant

Chris Paul

Deandre Ayton

Trae Young

Luka Doncic

Kawhi Leonard

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Damian Lillard

Trae Young

Julius Randle

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Bradley Beal

Jimmy Butler

Rudy Gobert

Not counting the teams that are represented in both columns by the same player, there are just four teams that have a player on both lists: Phoenix, the current favorites to get Durant and Durant’s reported preferred destination; Minnesota, who just went all-in by acquiring Rudy Gobert; Memphis, whose Jaren Jackson Jr. will miss a good chunk of the season because of a stress fracture in his foot; and the Raptors.

Do the Nets want to win now, given they surrendered a boatload of their own picks to acquire Harden? A trade that sends Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr. or OG Anunoby, and the familiar haul of picks in these sorts 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. That team would be a championship contender, in theory.

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

Are the Nets a little more interested in fortifying the future? How about Barnes, Anunoby and Trent, plus a little less draft compensation because of Barnes’ potential, for Durant? Surely, this trade would be a little less appealing to the Raptors because it would cost three starters, including Barnes. But the ensuing team still has a core of Durant, VanVleet and Siakam with Achiuwa, Boucher, Young and Porter on the bench. Plus, they would become more appealing as a veteran minimum/destination target. (Take that, Goran Dragic.)

There aren’t many teams that can offer the Nets both the volume and variety of value as the Raptors. Reasonable minds can disagree on whether the Raptors should move on either of those frameworks, but they have the means to make those offers while retaining some championship equity with their roster. That’s impressive team-building.

That they are able to do so is almost entirely due to their success in the draft and with internal development. And that is the rub here.

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

Not only do the Raptors not have the repeated failure that they had back in 2018, but they don’t have the Lakers’ history as a destination for top players nor the Bucks’ urgency from 2020. What they have is one of the best track records in the draft.

  • Norman Powell was picked 46th in 2015, developed into a starting-quality player, and moved to Portland at the height of his trade value for the younger Trent. (Powell was selected between Marcus Thornton and Arturis Gudaitis.)
  • Siakam, a two-time All-NBA member, was picked 27th in 2016. (Siakam was selected between Furkan Korkmaz and Skal Labrissière.) VanVleet, an All-Star and 2019 Finals MVP vote-getter, was undrafted that same year, and was signed by the Raptors.
  • Anunoby was picked 23rd in 2017. (Anunoby was selected between Jarrett Allen — good pick! — and Tyler Lydon.)
  • Barnes was picked fourth in a draft touted for having a clear top four that did not include him. After winning rookie of the year, he is as reasonable of a bet as Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley to be the best player of what should wind up being remembered as a loaded draft class.

Yet, the Raptors have had some misses deeper in the draft. Since picking Anunoby, they have taken 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). Acknowledging that Koloko’s future is unwritten, Barnes is the only home run there. He should be — the other picks, by definition, are hard ones to nail. However, the Raptors’ recent history should underscore that they’re merely good at this drafting-and-developing business, not unimpeachable. (That several of the club’s most notable development-focused coaches, from Jama Mahlalela to Brittni Donaldson to Patrick Mutombo, have left the Raptors in recent years is worth acknowledging, too.) Those higher-leverage picks are still hugely important, and even more so to the Raptors in particular.

First-round draft picks went from being massively coveted in the middle and back half of the 2010’s to being thrown into trades for superstars and even regular, top-40 players in the past few seasons. Their true value probably lies somewhere between the two poles. But under this Raptors front office, they will always carry a little more weight.

Ultimately, I would rather do a trade centered on Siakam than Barnes, partly because Barnes could extend the Raptors’ future past Durant’s hypothetical time in Toronto in a way Siakam could not, and also because Barnes’ rookie contract is so low it essentially necessitates throwing in both Anunoby and Trent with him to make the math work. Perhaps it is a touch cute to think so long-term when a player of Durant’s ability is available.

Perhaps it is that ability to not come at it with the same urgency as other teams because of the plausibility of a longer title window in the future that ultimately keeps the Raptors from pulling off a second trade for a transformational player in four years.

Not only have the Raptors won a title recently, but their future in both the medium and long terms are uncertain enough that they could very well conclude Durant, and the cost to acquire him, are not worth the risk.

Do the Raptors want to maximize and guarantee some championship equity now, or do they want to play the long game and bank on incremental growth not only opening a window, but keeping it open for longer? Pretending that decision is easy is pure fallacy.

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

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