A Kevin Durant trade to the Phoenix Suns just became much more difficult, if not impossible.
Suns restricted free agent center Deandre Ayton is expected to sign the largest offer sheet in NBA history — a four-year, $133 million deal with the Indiana Pacers — that the Suns will have 48 hours to decide whether or not to match.
Ayton, who has been on the outs in Phoenix ever since they opted against extending his contract last summer, has been an integral piece to any hypothetical Durant deal between the Nets and the Suns.
And as soon as he puts pen to paper with an offer sheet, Ayton is officially off the board.
That’s because the collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from trading a player who has signed an offer sheet with another team. The Suns, if they decide to match the offer sheet Ayton signed, are prohibited from trading their standout center to a team he does not consent to. The Suns would also be prohibited from trading Ayton to the Pacers until the 2023-24 NBA season.
More importantly, if the Suns match Ayton’s offer sheet, he becomes ineligible for a sign-and-trade, which means Phoenix would be unable to trade their big man until Jan. 15.
If the Nets are going to honor Durant’s trade request, they would be best suited doing so ahead of late September training camp.
Which brings us back to the dwindling options at the negotiating table. Without Ayton’s involvement in a trade — either acquired by the Nets or re-routed elsewhere for draft compensation — it is hard to conceive a deal with the Suns that Brooklyn would deem worthy of parting ways with one of the best players in NBA history. Assuming Devin Booker and Chris Paul are off the table, Phoenix’s best remaining assets aside from their first-round draft picks are Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mikal Bridges, 3-and-D wing Jae Crowder, third-year forward Cameron Johnson and reserve point guard Cameron Payne. That haul is unacceptable. Even the haul that included Ayton was questionable.
That leaves the Toronto Raptors (reigning Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes), New Orleans Pelicans (Brandon Ingram) and Miami Heat (Bam Adebayo) the best remaining potential Durant trade destinations, with Donovan Mitchell’s evolving availability in Utah as a wild card in all discussions.
The Nets, of course, cannot acquire Adebayo or Mitchell in any trade without also dealing Ben Simmons because the CBA prevents teams from trading for more than one player who has signed a rookie max extension. Simmons signed one with the 76ers before the Nets acquired him in the James Harden deal.
The best option, however, is still on the table: running things back with Durant, Simmons, Kyrie Irving and a roster that general manager Sean Marks has rounded out by acquiring T.J. Warren, Royce O’Neale and Edmond Sumner this offseason. Marks still has the taxpayer mid-level exception worth a maximum $20 million over three years that he can use to sign one or more free agents. The Nets still need a starting or backup center with Nic Claxton being the only big with legitimate NBA experience on the roster.
Ayton’s decision, and his timing, made all the sense in the world. Durant’s trade request froze basketball business for about a week, but in the end, Ayton had to secure his bag, especially if it wasn’t coming from Phoenix.
Durant has already secured his to the tune of $198 million over four years, giving the Nets slight leverage as they maneuver the most important offseason in franchise history. The longer they wait, however, the more they risk losing that leverage, because the last thing the franchise wants is a dark cloud following the team into training camp and staining the regular season.