“But this is Kevin Durant.”
That line from Shams Charania’s report for The Athletic, which suggested the Boston Celtics offered Jaylen Brown as the centerpiece of a trade for the Brooklyn Nets superstar, is a common refrain in analysis of the one-time league MVP’s value. In a vacuum, Durant is better than Brown and may have meant the difference between a six-game NBA Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors and the Celtics’ 18th championship.
Of course Boston should gauge Brooklyn’s interest in Brown, because this is Durant, the thinking goes.
The point of the game is to win championships, after all. Only, basketball isn’t played in a vacuum, and not all titles carry the same weight. Tossing Brown aside for Durant is far from the no-brainer that line suggests, and the offer itself may have just cost the Celtics the best kind of title — one homegrown through adversity.
Brown did not appear pleased Monday, when he awoke to find his name linked to Durant in reports from Charania and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The former reported a Celtics offer of Brown, Derrick White and a draft pick for Durant. The Nets reportedly rejected that proposal, countering with an audacious request of Brown, Marcus Smart, multiple picks “and potentially one more rotation player.” And Brown shook his head.
The offer might be weeks old, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst posited, and all signs point to the Celtics being no closer than the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and others in Durant discussions that have gone dormant, but the chemistry mess it leaves behind could take awhile to reconcile, if it’s able to be cleaned up at all.
The Celtics held Brown out of proposals for Jimmy Butler and Paul George in 2017, and Kawhi Leonard in 2019. He was the subject of rumors this past February, for which he told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, “That trade talk was loud, and most of it came from Boston fans.” Brown understands the business. He is a vice president in the National Basketball Players Association. He may not hold this offer against the Celtics, if they never meet Brooklyn’s exorbitant asking price, but he might take it personally.
This is the same player who said in 2017, when fresh off the Eastern Conference finals Boston traded Isaiah Thomas, “It changes the whole dynamic, the whole culture. We’ll see if it’s for good or bad, time will tell. But it’s still a little weird to me, to be honest, because when I came in everything they stressed was culture, environment, Celtic basketball. Now it’s like what is the environment, the culture, what is Celtic basketball?”
He overcame that realization to reach three more conference finals alongside Jayson Tatum, but in between each were reminders of how delicate team dynamics can be. The returns from injury of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward disrupted the chemistry Boston’s young core built without them on a run to the 2018 conference finals. Irving and Al Horford fled following a second-round exit a year later. The Celtics returned to the 2020 conference finals, before “a heated confrontation” between Brown and Smart splintered the locker room.
Chemistry concerns followed them throughout the 2020-21 campaign, when veteran point guard Kemba Walker was still at the helm of the offense. It wasn’t until this past season, when the Celtics entrusted their young core to contend, that Brown, Smart and Tatum found common ground, and even then it took months of summits between them to forge an identity. Some teams never discover theirs, and some have a lower ceiling, but this one came within five minutes of taking a 3-1 lead in the Finals and likely winning the title.
Composure stood between them and glory. They are here now, as favorites to win the 2023 championship without Durant, the hard way. Brown and Tatum arrived in Boston as draft picks received in a trade of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Smart was the result of the franchise’s lone lottery season since dealing the stars of their last title team. Fans have invested a decade into their growth. Every dumbfounding defeat, every last-second victory, every heartbreaking loss, every comeback win, it made them Celtics, pure and simple.
These are not the 24-win 2006-07 Celtics, who were Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen away from contention. Boston can win as currently constituted, and that would be far more satisfying than winning with Durant.
“I feel really good about what this group can accomplish,” Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens told NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg last week, before the reports about Durant surfaced.
You cannot tell me the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2020 championship in the bubble meant as much to their fans, who spent years slandering LeBron James before he delivered Anthony Davis and their 17th ring in a span of two years, as the 2021 and 2022 titles meant to fans of the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors.
Days before the Bucks won for the first time in 50 years, Giannis Antetokounmpo told Khris Middleton, “The day you retire is going to be the toughest day in my career, because I’ve been with you the whole time, and it’s been an unbelievable journey.” That’s the stuff right there. That’s everything you want from being a fan.
It’s everything a player should want, too, ideally.
“You get goosebumps just thinking about all those snapshots and episodes that we went through to get back here, individually, collectively,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said after winning again alongside Klay Thompson and Draymond Green — and without Durant. “That’s why I said I think this championship hits different. That’s why I have so many emotions, and still will, just because of what it took to get back here.”
And the Celtics appear willing to exchange that for what will amount to slightly better odds at winning a championship in the next two years. There is still no guarantee Durant delivers a title. He will be 34 years old at the start of next season. He has missed 64 games to left leg injuries in the two years he has played since rupturing his right Achilles tendon. And the Celtics just watched his worst playoff outing since 2010.
Durant is a mercenary. At best, a championship with the Celtics cheapens the achievement for both him and Tatum. At worst, Durant’s arrival as an alpha disrupts Tatum’s development, relationships fracture and Durant seeks his next move before his four-year deal is through, all leading into Tatum’s 2025 free agency.
The flip side could be true, too. The Celtics may be convinced Brown will not re-sign when he becomes a free agent in 2024, and a deal for Durant could be a preemptive measure to ensure they seize this window before an inevitable breakup. That’s not what any fan wants to believe. They like to think that players care as much about the collective climb to a championship as they do, but that’s not always a player’s priority.
It might also be difficult for Brown to turn down a supermax contract extension from the Celtics if he becomes eligible for one next year, which is possible should they be a 60-win contender. They have to get there first, and that may take some mending fences in the aftermath of the recent trade discussions.
Brown and Durant should both understand: All it takes is one unhappy star (*cough* Kyrie Irving *cough*) to derail a title favorite, and everything can fracture from there. Where is the fan when it all falls apart? Their team is winless, possibly pick-less, desperate to draft two more stars for the long road back to contention.
The future is uncertain. The improved odds that come with Durant are a safeguard against that uncertainty, if winning is truly all that matters, but at what cost to everyone’s appreciation of their accomplishment?
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