Why Kevin Durant has his sights set on Phoenix; latest on Damian Lillard, Kings and Warriors

A few thoughts here as Day 2 of NBA free agency unfolds…

Kevin Durant sweepstakes, Day II

All eyes are on Phoenix when it comes to Durant, the Nets star who is believed to be targeting the Suns as his preferred next destination. Yet while I wrote at length on Thursday about how a deal centered on restricted free agent center Deandre Ayton and small forward Mikal Bridges might work for both sides, the early sense is that it would take more than that. Or, to be clearer, something different.

As the New York Daily News’ Kristian Winfield pointed out in the wake of the Rudy Gobert-to-Minnesota blockbuster that went down on Fridaythe Nets’ asking price for Durant — two All-Stars, as we’d been told — may have just gone up. There’s no way the Suns are trading Devin Bookerwho just agreed to a four-year, $224 million extension.

Cam Johnson is worth watching as a possible player who might move the needle for the Nets. But truth be told, it’s too soon to know whether Durant will get his Valley-of-the-Sun wish here.

While we wait, let’s explore the more macro question: Why Does Durant appear focused on Phoenix as the best place to continue his legendary career? There are likely a lot of factors in play here — the chance to contend again, the LA-adjacent locale, his relationship with Booker and respect for Chris Paul. But in terms of the personal dynamics, his close relationship with Suns coach Monty Williams may top the list.

The two of them were together for one season in Oklahoma City, that 2015-16 campaign when Williams was an associate head coach under Scott Brooks and Durant was in his final Thunder days before heading for Golden State in free agency. The two men had already grown close during that season, but the bond grew even deeper after the tragic passing of Williams’ wife and mother to their five children, Ingrid, in a Feb. 9, 2016, car crash. A quick story that I’ll never forget from that time…

During All-Star weekend in Toronto That year, I had planned to stop in Oklahoma City for a Durant interview on my way back west (I’m based near Sacramento). But before the news of Ingrid’s passing had been reported, Durant’s longtime business manager, Rich Kleiman, called to let me know the interview was off. Naturally, I asked why.

He shared the awful news of what had happened and described Durant — like so many others close to Williams — as devastated. All these years later, people who lived through that situation with Williams say Durant’s respect for him grew immensely as he saw the graceful way he handled all that pain. (If you have never watched the incredible speech Williams gave at Ingrid’s funeral, please do.)

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Not long after Durant made his controversial choice to join the Warriors, he was back with Williams again on the Team USA squad that won Olympic gold in Rio with Durant as its leading scorer. They have remained close ever since. Does that mean he’s Phoenix-bound? Not at all. But it might help people understand some of his motivations at the moment.

As for the Miami possibility that also seems to be in play, I’m told there’s a significant obstacle on that front. Durant, it seems, would only want to play on a Heat team that includes Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry. So even if the Heat were willing to move Butler in a deal as a way of satisfying the Nets’ (understandably pricey) request, doing so would leave Durant dissatisfied from the start.

As others have pointed out, Adebayo comes with a complication of his own even beyond the fact that Durant likely wants him to stay. Since teams aren’t allowed to have two players on designated rookie-max extensions who came their way via trade, Brooklyn would have to trade Ben Simmons to bring in Adebayo. If the Heat’s best offer is centered on Tyler Herro, I just don’t see how that ever gains any traction. And in terms of Durant’s preferred destinations, this is why it seems as if the Suns may have a shot at making some magic happen here.

On Gary Payton II to Portland and the Damian Lillard ripple effect

The Payton deal with Portland — three years, $28 million, per our Shams Charania — has all kinds of layers to it. First up, the Golden State side.

While the Warriors’ luxury-tax concerns are understandable considering every dollar spent was being multiplied by seven, the optics of this loss are going to be tough on owner Joe Lacob and his group. Not only was Payton an important part of their elite defense, a great fit in their offense and an absolute game-changer in the NBA Finals after rushing back from his elbow fracture, but he was a fan favorite too.

These are first-world problems for a fanbase that has seen its team dominate for most of the past decade, but it’s a problem nonetheless. A source with knowledge of the Payton-Warriors talks said Golden State offered the taxpayer midlevel exception for two years (starting at $6.4 million annually).

According to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, Payton’s deal with Portland includes a player option. As an aside, sources say Steph Curry and Draymond Green were part of the process with Payton but were clearly unsuccessful in persuading him to stay.

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Add in the fact that the Warriors lost Otto Porter Jr. to Toronto on Friday and Nemanja Bjelica decided to play for the Turkish champion, Fenerbahce, and it was a tough 12 hours in the Bay. As rebound moves go — in more ways than one — re-signing free-agent center/fellow fan-favorite Kevon Looney to a Three-year, $25.5 million deal on Friday was an absolute must.

Now for the Portland angle.

While it has been widely assumed that Lillard will accept the two-year extension offer worth more than $100 million that is expected to come his way, sources say the Trail Blazers still needed to have a strong offseason to persuade Lillard to sign on through the 2026-27 campaign (when he’ll be 36). The deadline here isn’t until the start of the regular season, and I’m being told this is not a sure thing just yet.

The Jeremy Grant addition (via trade with Detroit) this offseason was a major step in the right direction on this front, as Lillard’s desire to play with the 28-year-old forward was no secret. They’ve thrived as teammates before, of course, having won the gold in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with Team USA. Grant’s defense is sorely needed too, as Portland finished 27th, 29th and 29th in defensive rating for the past three seasons, respectively.

The draft was much more of a question mark, as Blazers general manager Joe Cronin’s choice to take mystery man Shaedon Sharpe out of Kentucky with the seventh pick was a long-term play. The Anfernee Simons deal is yet another positive, although the price tag was curiously high (four years, $100 million) for the fourth-year guard who had a breakout year when there wasn’t much meaningful basketball being played in Portland (Lillard, of course, only played 29 games because of his abdominal surgery, and Portland went 27-55). Big man Jusuf Nurkic is returning as well, agreeing to a four-year, $70 million deal that keeps the Lillard favorite in town.

Yet when it comes to Payton, this is the kind of move that will surely make Lillard smile. Not only does he desperately need elite wing defenders at his side, but Lillard is close with Payton’s father, Gary Payton, the Hall of Fame point guard and fellow Oakland, Calif., native who has helped mentor him for years now.

What’s more, Payton II, his father and Lillard have all been repped by the same agent, Aaron Goodwin of Goodwin Sports Management. There’s the Northwest tie-in for Payton II too, as he was beloved in his two years at Oregon State (2014-16).

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The Warriors’ loss, in other words, is the Trail Blazers’ gain as they attempt to keep the Lillard era alive.

(Playoff) progress for the Kings?

I like the Kings’ offseason so far — imperfect though it might be. First-year coach Mike Brown will certainly struggle to get this group to defend at a high level, and that might mean their ceiling is low enough to continue the league’s longest playoff drought. Especially considering the number of quality teams in the West (like, say, the The Timberwolves!).
But the additions of Malik Monk, Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray are substantive solutions to their shooting woes, and they come on very reasonable contracts (two years, $19 million for Monk via free agency; four years, $50.5 million for Huerter via trade with Atlanta). Franchise centerpiece De’Aaron Fox has everything to do with these moves as the Kings simply had to find a way to give him the kind of supporting cast that helps take his game to a new level while helping Domantas Sabonis thrive too (remember, the 26-year-old, All-Star forward is a free agent in the summer of 2024).

Fox’s Kentucky history with Monk makes that move all the more meaningful and, potentially, impactful. Monk (career-high 13.8 points; 39.1 percent from deep on 5.1 attempts per game) was a rare bright spot in the Lakers‘ otherwise-dreadful 2021-22 campaign. What’s more, the Monk move unofficially justifies the Kings’ choice to let Donte DiVincenzo walk in restricted free agency.

Their choice to draft Murray over Jaden Ivey with the fourth pick will be debated and analyzed for years, but the Iowa product is widely seen as a special young player who should be able to help right away.

There could certainly be more to come too, with the Kings having had on-again-off-again talks with Atlanta about John Collins (in a deal centered around Harrison Barnes) for months now. There could be opportunities surrounding the Durant situation as well, with teams like the Kings potentially capable of benefiting in a third-team role.

You don’t have to agree with the approach, but this is a team in win-now mode. Again. And considering the pressure this front office is under, with general manager Monte McNair and assistant general manager Wes Wilcox working in the final years of their respective contracts, there has been significant progress here.

(Photo of Mikal Bridges, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul: Brad Penner / USA Today)

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