Why Kevin Durant to Boston is a Possibility

Kevin Durant joining the Celtics is a long shot, but not so long that we should ignore it. There are a few reasons why a Horford for Durant swap might actually work.

Every now and then a wisp of smoke comes off the NBA hot stove that suggests Kevin Durant could become a member of the Boston Celtics next season. Brian Windhorst has suggested on ESPN's The Jump and his own podcast that we shouldn't count out Boston as Durant's next stop. This isn't to say Durant is planning his move already, but that Boston could enter the conversation as an opt-in-and-trade partner for the Golden State Warriors should they look to be compensated for Durant's departure.

Once again Kevin Durant's body language has ignited conversation as to whether he'd want to stay in Golden State another year. I'd be hypocritical to read too much into rumors, knowing that the Warriors' struggles aren't much different than Boston's -- namely, two rosters struggling to optimally use their talent while navigating a barrage of media-driven scrutiny. Assuming Kevin Durant has one foot out the door because of some grumpy interviews is a vast overreaction. Chris Haynes summarizes:

"There are members of the organization concerned that Durant’s behavior is a sign that he’s already got one foot out the door," Haynes wrote Wednesday morning.
There also are some people with the Warriors who aren't ready to go that far, according to Haynes.
"But there are others who aren’t reading too much into what they consider to be the standard rigors and annoyances of an 82-game season," Haynes wrote.

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People will hear what they want to hear. Anybody tired of Durant's antics will offer to drive him to the airport and those who know these stories get blown out of proportion will wait for the dust to settle. No matter how you read it, the Warriors need to consider the possibility of Durant opting out of his contract and leaving this summer. If he opts in, then they still have to revisit the idea next summer. This is the NBA now: constant re-evaluations of a franchise's standing as star players express their discontent and -- in the case of Durant -- only commit to short-term contracts. Year-to-year has become day-to-day, and that's why the Warriors feel pressure from Durant, just like the Celtics might feel uneasy about Kyrie Irving. Could Boston handle both of them at the same time? Let's look at the reasons why it could happen.

The pieces fit

In more ways than one, the potential trade pieces would fit in their new destinations. The only way I can see a deal working is if Al Horford opts into the last year on his contract, knowing that he could be soon traded to Golden State. One could argue that Horford would rather opt out in search of a long-term deal worth more than the $30 million he's owed next year, but that's wishful thinking if you ask me. What motivation does Horford have to turn down a huge paycheck? He can play out the next year and look for a three or four-year deal afterward. Even if opting in means going to Golden State, he'd still have the opportunity to contend with the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson tandem in a system already designed for him to succeed (see: Draymond Green, another center who likes to pass).

Durant for Horford seems extremely lopsided in Boston's favor, so why would the Warriors do it?

  1. A one-year rental of a player entering his 30s means that higher value long-term assets are probably off the table for any potential trade partner.
  2. Taking on a playoff-tested veteran in Horford means the Warriors could continue to contend, instead of trying to develop the talent of a younger player. Horford's talent is a sure thing. A younger player's ceiling is uncertain.

And how would Durant fit in Boston? Most likely pretty well, because everything would revolve around him (which is what he wants) and he'd presumably have Kyrie Irving as his superstar running mate. Horford getting moved in the deal and Marcus Morris likely walking in free agency opens up a lot of minutes for him to take as well. Remember, the Celtics don't usually play guys more than 32 minutes per game, and players usually don't take more than 18 shots*. It's still a big role to carve out for a guy like Durant as the Celtics try to develop Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, while still rehabbing Gordon Hayward, but it's not as big as you think.

(*Isaiah Thomas averaged 29 points in his last season with the Celtics on about 19 shots. A herculean effort for the little guy, but a normal season for Durant, who averages 27 per game on about 19 shots for his career.)

The money works

If Durant opts in, he's owed $31.5 million. That's a lot of money to move if you're not expecting to get a lot of pieces back. If Horford opts in, he's owed about $30.1 million. Normally a 15% salary kicker can throw a wrench into matching salaries, but both players having a kicker in their deal should offset that.

(Trade kickers have weird rules. You might think you want to know about them now. You don't.)

Draft picks don't count towards salary, so the Celtics could toss in a first-round pick if needed. A lot of the Celtics' future picks hold some value, but not on the level of the Brooklyn picks that were once coveted not long ago, which makes them fairly easy to move as sweeteners in trades. And the Warriors would be doing the Celtics a huge favor, so they'd probably ask for a little in return.

If Golden State was to seek other opt-and-trade opportunities with Durant, they'd have a hard time finding another salary that fits the bill as well as Horford's. Blake Griffin, for example, has three more years on his deal that'll be worth $38 million in 2021-22. Griffin will be 32 then. He's adapted his game to the modern NBA, but are the Warriors desperate enough to take on that much salary? Turning Durant into an enormous financial commitment doesn't seem ideal.

The Godfather offer

I'm not sure it will come to this, but the Celtics have supposedly communicated to the New Orleans Pelicans that everybody is on the table for a potential Anthony Davis trade. If Durant is open to an extension, I would think the same pieces are on the table for that deal as well. The Celtics still have the best potential trade offer in the league with their crop of young players and draft picks. (Although one could argue that whoever wins the lottery might have the most valuable draft pick in the last 20 years and therefore have a better trade offer.)

Odds & Ends

There are some details that are not worth extensive explanations but are nonetheless relevant for the purpose of context.

  1. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are good friends. This isn't the sort of thing that would initiate or finalize any trades, but people will talk about it anyway.
  2. Boston was Durant's second or third choice in 2016. Windhorst said it was Boston on The Jump; Durant himself said Oklahoma City ranked higher on Bill Simmons' podcast. A lot has changed since 2016, so I'm not sure we should use his list from back then to predict what's coming now.
  3. Naming cities as possible destinations is often used as leverage. The cap space available with the New York Knicks has been a talking point with every potential free agent to leverage their worth. So long as a team exists that can pay players max money, every other team courting them will be pressured to do the same. Durant already took a pay cut with Golden State, so future employers will want him to do it again. For every upcoming free agent, take their list of possible suitors with a grain of salt, especially if New York is on there.
  4. Hayward's contract could be moved in place of Horford's. I'm not diving into this because the season he's had thus far makes it almost impossible to trade him. (I'm not giving up on Hayward, but that contract is impossible to move right now.)

In summary, Durant to Boston is a pipe dream with financial feasibility. Trading him for Horford and sweetener is almost incomprehensible, but I don't think people are recognizing how hard it would be for Golden State to find a semi-reasonable deal for Durant if they don't want him to walk away for nothing. The stars (or lack thereof) have aligned for Durant to sign in New York, but I'm not closing the door on other destinations until a pen hits paper.

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