So for those who don’t know: I’m a lifelong Phoenix Suns fan. My uncle lives in Phoenix and had season tickets so when our family would visit, I’d get to go to the Suns games. Those were the Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, and Kevin Johnson years so the team was good and had an iconic star who made the games feel even that little bit more special. (The last game I went to in person was during the Marbury years, which I try not to remember.)
Anyway, having stated those extremely tenuous qualifications, three quick thoughts on the Durant deal which I likely would have put on Twitter but decided to put here instead:
a) The bad: Cam Johnson and Mikel Bridges are both 26 and have a ton of high-level basketball in front of them. Combine their loss with all the lost draft picks and it puts the long-term future of the team into question. And we won’t be able to retool the roster by trading draft picks.
b) The good, part 1: Devin Booker is, somehow, still only 26. DeAndre Ayton is 24. In theory, we could get another 10 good seasons from both of them. Good for Booker being “all-star level, borderline MVP candidate,” and good for Ayton being “18 and 8 with the potential to occasionally go off for a 30-20 performance.” My Ayton take is that he hasn’t really lived up to what you want from a number one overall pick, but if you forget that he was the top overall selection and just compare him to other bigs around the league, there’s a ton to like about his game. Most of the hate for Ayton comes down to fans being mad we picked him instead of Luka plus Ayton treating the game like a job and not an all-consuming life passion.
Anyway: As long as Booker and Ayton are around and performing at a good level, the team is always going to be 1-2 pieces away from chasing a title, depending on exactly how good Booker and Ayton are. And as we’ve seen in the NBA really since the formation of the Heat super team, if you have 2-3 genuinely elite, all-star level players in your team, one of whom is an MVP-candidate type player, you can usually find 6-7 guys that can be rotation-level contributors to play around them via low-level vet exceptions, late round draft picks that work out, etc. The Warriors have been contending for titles this way for ten years now because as long as they have Curry, Green, and (to a lesser degree these days) Thompson, everyone in the league knows they have a decent shot at the title and so good rotation players have a way of showing up. Booker and Ayton on their own aren’t at that level, but I’m also not convinced that Bridges or Johnson would have grown into that elite third banana type player either, so maybe trading them isn’t as much of a disaster long term?
The best-case scenario for the team long term is something like “get 1.5 more seasons out of CP3, then use the money that his leaving frees up to retool the team, get 4.5 more seasons out of Durant, and see where things stand then.” The loss of the draft picks hurts, but if Paul leaves after next season, it isn’t that hard to imagine scenarios where James Jones is able to reload the team with the money saved from Paul retiring or leaving for another team.
c) The good, part 2: I mean, we got Kevin Durant. And, sure, he’s 34 and probably past his prime. But also his game has never necessarily been about elite athleticism. He’s a pure scorer with the kind of body and physical frame that should allow him to continue to play at a high level into his late 30s, provided his knees hold up. So what we have with this deal is for this year and next year, we have a team where Booker and Durant are the guys, CP3 doesn’t have to be who he was even two years ago, and Ayton doesn’t have to be the second or third best player on the team.
All of which is great because CP3 probably can’t be who he was two years ago and Ayton probably can’t be the second best player on a title team, though he might grow into being the third best on a title team as he matures. We’ll see. I have major questions about the rest of the team—we’re gonna need some big time playoff minutes out of Torrey Craig, Cam Payne, Bismack Biyombo, and Landry Shamet and I don’t really trust any of those guys to deliver consistently in the playoffs. So I do worry about a lack of depth. But that’s always the worry when you stack the top of your squad like this and don’t have anyone on low-level rookie deals. That problem is just intractable. And elite GMs usually have a way of finding those one or two late additions that help push the team over the line.
That being said, if the big four can stay healthy and even just two of the rest of the squad turn in halfway cromulent performances in the playoffs, then this is absolutely a title-contending team, which is much more than could be said about the squad prior to yesterday, which was basically the same as the finals team of two years ago, save with a diminished Paul.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).