Success in recent NBA drafts laid foundation for Suns’ blockbuster Kevin Durant trade

Kevin Durant, who the Suns acquired in a blockbuster trade last month, is expected to return to the lineup Wednesday for his home debut after missing 10 games due to a sprained ankle. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Suns made one of the biggest midseason trades in recent NBA history in February when they landed forward Kevin Durant in a four-team blockbuster deal.

And it was a trade that might not have been possible if not for the team’s recent success in the NBA Draft, which was possible in part because of the club’s poor play during a 10-year playoff drought that ended in 2021 with an unexpected run to the NBA Finals.

“I took this job a few years ago, determined to try to build a team built for championships,” said James Jones, the Suns president of basketball operations and general manager during Durant’s introductory press conference at Footprint Center.

“I think we’ve reached a point where we’ve been able to add one of the greatest players to ever play this sport.”

The deal didn’t come without risk.

To get Durant, the Suns gave up a big chunk of their future, sending two of their best young players, forwards Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson – affectionately known to Suns fans as “The Twins” – to the Brooklyn Nets along with four first-round draft picks in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029, and the right to swap first-round picks with Phoenix in 2028.

Disgruntled forward Jae Crowder, who had not played in a game for the Suns during 2022-23, was sent to Milwaukee in the deal, and the Suns received forward T.J. Warren from Indiana.

While the season is still ongoing and the Suns have yet to have a healthy Durant available other than a three-game stretch at the beginning of March, Phoenix is now regarded as a potential NBA championship team because of the trade.

Durant is reportedly expected back from an ankle sprain as early as Wednesday when the Suns play host to the Minnesota Timberwolves. It would give the Suns seven regular-season games with their new superstar to prepare for a playoff run.

Jones took over the basketball operations position in 2018 when his predecessor, Ryan McDonough, was fired eight games into the season. McDonough’s shining accomplishment was selecting Kentucky’s Devin Booker with the 13th pick in the 2015 draft.

Booker was just 18 years old at the time of the draft and had played just one season in Lexington – and that was as the Wildcats’ sixth man. It would prove to be an adept pick as Booker emerged as a franchise player.

But McDonough’s last draft might have played a bigger role in the team’s ability to obtain Durant. In the summer of 2018, the Suns had two first-round picks, including the No. 1 overall pick, which McDonough used to select Arizona Wildcats center Deandre Ayton.

Later that night, the Suns traded their 16th pick (Zhaire Smith) along with Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick that the Suns had acquired in a previous deal, to the Philadelphia 76ers to acquire Mikal Bridges out of Villanova.

Bridges became one of the premier defensive players in the NBA and improved as a scorer in every season. Reportedly, Jones – who was assisting McDonough at that time – pushed to draft Bridges.

The Suns had three lottery picks between 2016 and 2017 under McDonough, with two of them being the fourth overall pick. All three players selected are out of the NBA seven years later, while multiple players selected later on in the draft have become All-Star-level talents.

But 2018 would prove to be a turning point.

Ayton and Bridges grew into significant pieces of a Suns team that reached the NBA Finals in 2021 and led Milwaukee 2-0 before losing four straight games. Phoenix bounced back to record a franchise-record 64 wins in 2021-22, but bowed out in the second round of the playoffs against Dallas in a seven-game series.

Bridges never missed a game while at Villanova, and continued his ironman streak in the NBA. He has yet to sit out a game with the Suns or the Nets, 385 games going into Brooklyn’s game Wednesday against Houston.

Still, that 2018 draft class didn’t lead to immediate success.

The Suns actually saw their win total drop by two games from 2018 to 2019, even with the addition of two lottery picks, sending them back to the draft lottery for a ninth consecutive year.

In Jones’ first draft as the GM, Phoenix had the sixth pick in 2019 and selected Jarrett Culver out of Texas Tech, then traded him to Minnesota for Dario Saric and the 11th pick of the draft, which Jones used to select North Carolina sharpshooter Cameron Johnson.

Many analysts and fans criticized the move at the time, believing that Johnson would have been available to select later in the draft and the team didn’t need to make this trade. However, Johnson’s shooting ability carried over to the NBA and he proved to be a more versatile scorer than anticipated and a solid defender – good enough that he pushed Crowder out of the starting lineup.

The recent draft success, coupled with the team’s ability to hold onto its future first-round picks, positioned the team to take part in a blockbuster trade. The Suns have only traded their own first-round pick once in recent seasons, sending their 2022 pick to Oklahoma City as part of the deal to acquire point guard Chris Paul in 2020.

The final piece of the puzzle included a bit of good timing.

When Nets guard Kyrie Irving became frustrated in contract talks with Brooklyn, he requested a trade before the February trade deadline. The Nets traded Irving to Dallas and Durant then requested a trade, too.

Meanwhile, the league was finalizing the sale of the Suns to new owner Mat Ishbia.

He reportedly pushed to have the sale completed before the trade deadline, and it didn’t take long to find out why. He wanted Durant. Less than 72 hours after Irving was traded to Dallas, the Durant-to-Phoenix trade was done.

It meant parting ways with two players who had quickly become fan favorites in Phoenix – Bridges and Johnson. But few questioned the win-now trade, including Bridges.

“Obviously I’ll miss everyone there,” Bridges said during his introductory press conference with the Nets. “You’re getting Kevin Durant. I’d probably make that trade, too.”

Durant is regarded as one of the best players of this generation and one of the best scorers in the history of the game.

In three games with Durant in the lineup, all on the road, the Suns were 3-0 and he averaged more than 26 points on 69% shooting in that small sample.

The Suns appeared poised to make a late-season move up the Western Conference standings until Durant slipped on the court and rolled his ankle during pregame warmups before a Feb. 24 game against Oklahoma City that was supposed to be Durant’s home debut.

Booker could be the biggest benefactor of Durant’s return. He averaged 36 points during the three games with Durant in the lineup. His presence also takes some pressure off of Paul, who will be 38 years old in May, to be the team’s second scoring option.

The Suns are Durant’s fourth NBA franchise in a 16-year career that included one season that he missed because of a torn Achilles tendon. He won a league MVP award in 2014 with Oklahoma City and was a two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP with Golden State.

He saw similar potential in the Suns under the leadership of James and coach Monty Williams and with a young star in Booker and a veteran floor leader like Paul.

“You see the growth in this team,” Durant said during his introductory news conference in Phoenix. “When Monty took over, when James came here, I saw the culture started to change.

The way they played on the floor and energy started to change. I always loved playing here in Phoenix. I knew this would be a great place to play and a great place to continue to get better as a player.”

Brendan Sodell BREN-din soh-DELL
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brendan Sodell expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. He is planning on getting an internship this semester to gain more professional experience, and has learned all different aspect of journalism in the last three years.