I’m tempted to start off this column in which I argue that the Raptors should in fact leverage their future for Kevin Durant with: because he’s Kevin freaking Durant. And then say: thank you for reading. And then show you an advertisement of some betting odds to indicate that the column is indeed finished.
But the reality of trading away your franchise's future for a 33-year-old win-now player is always more complicated than that, even if he is arguably the best basketball player on earth.
Over the last few days, since Durant reportedly requested a trade out of Brooklyn three years after his experiment to team up with Kyrie Irving and create a superteam with James Harden failed, the Toronto Raptors have come up as a natural landing spot for the Slim Reaper. After all, the Raptors are one of a handful of teams that possess enough future first-round picks and good young players to dangle in a trade while still holding onto enough core pieces to complement Durant and contend for championships over the next four years, which is the length of Durant’s contract.
Plus, while the two situations are very different, the Raptors did set a precedent by trading for Kawhi Leonard in 2018 and winning the championship, showcasing that they not only know how to build around star players, but also that they prefer to build their teams through the draft and the trade market rather than free agency. They have remained flexible by prioritizing young players on reasonable, short-term contracts and by keeping all of their future picks to put themselves in a position to trade for the final piece of the puzzle when the right situation arises. No matter how much they talk about the draft and development — and those are core tenets of their philosophy — their endgame has always been more complicated than that, and part of the reason for drafting and developing so many young players is to add to the asset chest and eventually consolidate them in a trade. Holding onto all of these guys is unsustainable.
However, it feels like the sentiment coming from most Raptors fans right now is that the Raptors should hold onto their chips and wait for a better move — that they should continue building slowly around their youth and give themselves seemingly infinite chances to compete for championships in the future, rather than shortening their championship window to the two to four years that Durant will likely remain in his prime in Toronto. There is no shame in wanting to build something sustainable, especially after losing Leonard and franchise icon Kyle Lowry in recent years and finally landing a franchise player to build around in Scottie Barnes, who by all accounts loves Toronto and provides a floor to build off of for many years to come.
But I’m here as the bearer of bad news. I’m here to say that the Raptors, their front office, their coaching staff, and their core players, all of them — all they care about is winning. Nothing more, nothing less. They don’t care about playing ethical basketball, they don’t care about the vibes (unless the vibes help them win), and they don’t care about what they might look like eight years from now — They care about winning. And if there is one player that can immediately take the Raptors from being a fun, chippy, middle-of-the-pack team to championship contenders — and maybe favourites — it’s Kevin Durant.
The Raptors should leverage their future for Durant because he immediately makes them championship contenders and, with four years left on his contract, gives them a fairly long window to contend. Yes, Durant will be 34 years old by the time next season starts, but he is one of the greatest scorers of all time because he is a 7-footer with the handle and stroke of a guard, and that is not going away with age. Yes, Durant tore his achilles tendon during the 2019 finals in Toronto versus the Raptors, but he already made a full recovery and has historically been very stable throughout his career, playing fewer than 55-games only three times in 14 years. Yes, Durant has lost a step defensively and probably doesn’t have the same first-step burst that he did before the injury, but he was still literally the best player in the world last season and was the MVP favourite before injuring his knee in a fluky play in mid-January, forcing him to miss 20-straight games. The idea that he isn’t in his prime is bananas.
Durant averaged 30 points per game on 57/38/91 shooting splits along with 7.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists last season, including a career-best assist percentage. He is the 2014 regular season MVP, two-time finals MVP, and a four-time scoring champ who will likely end his career as a top-10 player of all time. As Durant once put it: “I’m Kevin Durant. You know who I am.”
"I'm Kevin Durant, you know who I am, y'all know who I am" pic.twitter.com/VdCInYtdLD
— find a reaction (@findareaction) May 18, 2022
The Boston Celtics did make Durant look human by sweeping his Nets in the first-round of the playoffs and holding Durant to just 26 points per game on 39/33/86 shooting. But Durant is not human. The Celtics had the best defence in the league and possibly in modern NBA history, and their entire gameplan was to take away Durant at all costs. It wasn’t his fault that the rest of the Nets couldn’t do anything around him — likely a big part of the reason he wants a trade.
The Raptors are likely one-year away from truly being ready to contend around Durant, with players like Barnes (if he were to stay) and Precious Achiuwa still needing more playoff reps before we can confidently say that they are ready to play for a championship. But these things don’t always happen on a perfect timeline, and the risk of holding onto your chips for the perfect moment is that moment might never present itself. Players of Durant’s caliber don’t hit the market often — in fact, they don’t hit the market ever — so when you have a chance to land a player this good, you explore it. And when said player has four years remaining on his deal — giving you the flexibility to build with him for several seasons rather than treating him as a one-year, championship-or-bust mercenary (hi Kawhi) — you leverage your future to get him.
Now, I don’t want to get into the exact packages that I would or would not trade for Durant, but we all know what they are: Barnes, Gary Trent Jr. and salary filler or OG Anunoby and Trent Jr. and a boatload of picks or Pascal Siakam and a boatload of picks. Of course, some of those are more favourable than others, and some people will fairly draw the line at Barnes. But no matter which package you choose, the Raptors would be leveraging a ton of their future for the present, and there is always risk involved with that. But it makes sense to do because the present would be so good, with Durant perfectly complimenting the team that remains in place.
After all, Durant is exactly the type of scorer that the Raptors need to save their offence, while a remaining group of Fred VanVleet, Precious Achiuwa, and two of Anunoby, Siakam, and Barnes would provide the requisite shooting, playmaking and defence to compliment him. Plus, the Raptors project to have Otto Porter Jr., Thad Young, and Chris Boucher coming off the bench next season, which is a pretty deep team all things considered. In future years, the Raptors would be able to supplement their bench by choosing from a deep pool of ring-chasing veterans that would be willing to take a pay-cut in order to play with Durant. Oh, and something getting lost in all of this is that the league is as open as it’s been in years, with real parity demonstrated in seven different teams making the NBA Finals over the past four years.
The other part of this concerns Durant’s willingness to play in Toronto, but Durant has reportedly not ruled out the possibility of moving North of the border, and the Raptors have good reason to be confident that once he gets here, he will see everything they have to offer and put his best foot forward. If anything, Durant is the perfect superstar for Toronto because he already has all the money and shoe deals and advertisement dollars — all he really needs going forward is to cement his basketball legacy. Toronto would offer him the best opportunity to win over the next four years while enabling him to establish a new fan base the size of an entire country. If it does go well and Durant opens up to the Raptors, It would be the ultimate affirmation of everything Masai Ujiri has built in Toronto over the last nine years. Plus, the basketball spotlight would be on Toronto and Canada in a way it never has before, with Durant’s celebrity status and entertaining play creating tons of new Canadian basketball fans while bringing a global fanbase of his own to the Raptors as well.
Worst case scenario, the Durant trade doesn’t work out and he requests a trade after a couple of years. The Raptors could still likely recuperate 70 percent of the assets they give out. Say he gets injured and they can’t trade him, the Raptors front office has proved that they can find hidden gems outside of the lottery and low in the draft, and that they can rebuild in a short period of time. There is always going to be risk in trading your future for a star player, but the Raptors are such a competent organization that they would figure out a way to build it from the ground up again, perhaps by signing a Canadian free agent to speed things along.
I remember being unconsolable the day the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan for Leonard. DeRozan was my favourite Raptor and the reason I fell in love with the sport in the first place. But I've grown less sentimental in my old age because the more I've been around the league, the more I've realized that winning is really, really hard. And that if you don’t have a superstar top-five player, it’s almost impossible. Building around youth and watching them grow together is undoubtedly fun, but when you have a chance to win, you take it, because those chances are rare in the NBA, especially for a non-glamour market like Toronto.
Kevin Durant is that superstar player. And if the Raptors want to put their money where their mouth is and truly try to win, they should do everything possible to bring him to Toronto.
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