NBA

Kevin Durant and the Suns’ cruel summer: What a successful trade for Phoenix would mean (or not)

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PHOENIX – Let’s start with Jerry Colangelo because that’s always the best move in these situations. During his career, Colangelo has managed both the Phoenix Suns and USA Basketball. He has seen it all.

Ever since Kevin Durant first asked for a trade from the Brooklyn Nets in late June, apparently listing the Suns as his preferred destination, the conversation has hijacked the Arizona summer. First, hope. Then doubt. Now everything seems stuck, the tires slip, the engine misfires, in a maddening state of… maybe?

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Ugh.

Colangelo first met Durant in the winter of 2006. Durant’s Texas team was in downtown Phoenix to face Gonzaga in a key non-conference contest. Durant, a freshman on his way to winning nearly every major individual award in college basketball, had 29 points and nine rebounds, but Gonzaga beat the Longhorns 87-77.

Four months later, Colangelo, then general manager of the men’s national team, met Durant in a hotel lobby during the Final Four in Atlanta. He told the Texas forward he wanted to invite him to USA Basketball training camp. Colangelo was struck by Durant’s excitement. He noticed how Durant looked him in the eye, something others his age didn’t.

“He was just overflowing with enthusiasm,” Colangelo recalled earlier this summer.

Durant didn’t make the Olympic team in 2008, but he became an NBA star, one of the purest scorers the league has ever seen, and a mainstay in USA Basketball. He helped produce gold medals in 2012, 2016 and 2021, the most prolific goalscorer in US Olympics basketball history. From his position, Colangelo saw a changed person but the same basketball talent.

“He’s not the same effervescent, bright kid he was when I met him in freshman year of college, but nobody is,” Colangelo said. Athleticism. ” Everyone changes. I will say this: I have a lot of respect for him. What he’s done with his talents and input…he’s a hooper, that’s for sure. He loves the game. But he’s not a really outspoken guy, so when you talk about splatter levels, he splatters on the field. It’s who he is.

Last season, the Suns posted the best record in the NBA, but fell short in the playoffs, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Semifinals. In July, they matched an Indiana Pacers maximum offer sheet to keep center Deandre Ayton in place alongside guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Since Ayton can’t be traded until Jan. 15 — and not for a full year without his consent — the Suns face tough cap constraints in any trade for Durant.

But nothing is impossible in the NBA. Disgruntled stars are used to being successful. Durant, 33, under contract until the 2025-26 season, would not be the first to be forced out.

“Obviously if there’s a way for him to get to Phoenix and play with Booker and Paul,” Colangelo said, not needing to finish his sentence. “Chris is near the end, I’m not saying he’s near the end. But if (Durant) can get a few years with those two guys, it could be great years for the Suns. I’d like to see that.


Devin Booker and Kevin Durant congratulate each other after an Olympic victory. (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

In fact, Colangelo saw it.

Thirty years ago this summer, the Suns made the biggest trade in state history, acquiring Charles Barkley from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for leading scorer Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang.

There are similarities here. Like Phoenix’s team last season, the 1992 Suns were considered a rising team. They finished 53-29 the previous season, losing to Portland in the Western Conference Semifinals. They had a new coach in Paul Westphal, a new home in America West Arena, and growing demand for season tickets. They just needed one more piece.

Barkley, 29, a future Hall of Famer, provided that and more.

From the moment he stepped off USAir Flight 353 from Philadelphia, dressed in jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and a Nike hat, he raised an entire franchise and a state. As Barkley walked through Sky Harbor International Airport, fans seated in restaurants reportedly shouted at him.

“Go ahead, Charles!

“NBA champions next year!”

“Move to Chicago” – a reference to Michael Jordan and the Bulls world champion – “here comes Phoenix!

Barkley joined point guard Kevin Johnson, rambling Dan Majerle and veterans Tom Chambers and Danny Ainge. The group needed three weeks to gel. On November 28, the Suns lost in overtime at Golden State to fall to 7-4. They went 36 days without losing, winning 14 in a row. Local enthusiasm exploded. Everything Barkley did became news.

“One day Charles said something (newsworthy) and we weren’t there,” said retired TV sportscaster Bruce Cooper. “Our news director says, ‘Why don’t we have this?’ Well, we weren’t at practice that day. He summons the whole sports team after the 6 p.m. show and attacks us. He told us we would never do it, already miss another practice. “If the Suns are doing a car wash, you’re there.” It’s because with Charles Barkley, you never knew what he was going to say.

Phoenix finished with the NBA’s best record, two games better than Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks and five better than Jordan’s Bulls. In the playoffs, the Suns beat the Lakers, Spurs and Sonics, advancing to the NBA Finals to face Chicago. They rallied from a 0-2 series hole but lost in six. A week later, the city featured the Suns in a downtown parade, an unusual step for a losing team. About 300,000 people attended. In 100 degree heat.

“There were a lot of positive things that happened because of (Barkley’s) presence in Phoenix,” Colangelo said. “We just haven’t finished it.”

Without a doubt, Durant and Barkley are different minds. Durant wouldn’t have his own weekly TV show like Barkley did, but his basketball skills would still lift the franchise. His arrival would set the Valley of the Sun ablaze, producing the same vibe as Barkley’s trade 30 years earlier. An atmosphere that this city has not known much.

Championship or bust.


Last Thursday’s radio segment on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM announced it was time for “KEVIN DURANT WATCH,” and for the next 10 minutes, hosts Dave Burns and John Gambadoro discussed the latest reports.

How Durant had, like Athleticism reported, told Brooklyn owner Joe Tsai that he didn’t trust the team’s management and that it was either him or the pair of general manager Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash. How Philadelphia and a reunion with James Harden could be in play. How Brooklyn originally asked Boston’s Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.

No local topic in recent years has topped Larry Fitzgerald on the radio airwaves. For a while, it was almost impossible to go a day without discussing the future of the former Cardinals receiver. Would he retire? Would he come back? It was an off-season tradition. (Fitzgerald last played in 2020.)

Durant, however, made up amazing ground in just a few months. On Thursday, Burns and Gambadoro moved on to the Cardinals and challenged to keep star players cool. But even that didn’t last. After returning from a commercial break, Gambadoro said, “take it for what it’s worth,” but he had just learned that Durant was due to arrive in the Valley that night. Not on official business, of course. It would be against NBA rules. But maybe the 12-time All-Star was coming to play pickup or just hang out.

Alas, no photos surfaced over the weekend. A walk through popular gyms revealed nothing. Calls to basketball sources went nowhere. Someone tweeted that Durant canceled. Another posted that the former MVP was in Los Angeles. Either way, speculation had once again been sparked. Hope has been rekindled. A cruel summer in the desert continued.


Related Reading

Hollinger: Kevin Durant wants out, but lacks leverage
Schiffer: Trade ultimatum raises more questions than answers for Nets
Harper: A timeline of the Kevin Durant saga

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(Top photo: Brad Penner/USA Today)

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