Kevin Durant Gives Phoenix Suns The Ultimate ‘Pick Your Poison’ Weapon

In case you haven’t heard, the Phoenix Suns executed the biggest surprise of the NBA’s trade deadline, acquiring 13-time All-Star Kevin Durant in exchange for forwards Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, as well as four unprotected future first-round picks.

T.J. Warren was also sent to Phoenix, while Jae Crowder was traded to Brooklyn and ultimately rerouted to Milwaukee.

This deal automatically becomes one of the most significant in league history, both due to the superstar involved and the return package. Rarely, if ever, does this type of massive haul occur at the February deadline. If traded, most superstars are moved in the summer when teams are attempting to recalibrate their system and plan for the future.

However, due to the dysfunctional nature of the Brooklyn Nets in the Durant and Kyrie Irving era, this rapid breakup shouldn’t really stun anyone that’s paid attention. Durant didn’t want to waste the tail end of his prime in a state of unknown, and he clearly didn’t view Brooklyn as a title-contending unit after the first domino fell with Irving’s departure.

He joins the Suns, who are currently tied for fourth in the West standings with a realistic path to the second seed if things break right for them.

Durant is in the first season of his four-year contract extension, which gives him an annual salary of $48.5 million. He doesn’t hit unrestricted free agency until July 2026 because he did not get a player option in his deal.

This reunites Durant and head coach Monty Williams, who spent the 2015-16 season as an assistant in Oklahoma City while also sharing moments with KD throughout their Team USA experiences.

Alongside Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton, the addition of Durant makes Phoenix the most talented roster in the league. For a group that was watching their championship window disappear, new owner Mat Ishbia had no intention of letting it happen. His first day on the job ended with a gigantic splash, swinging for the fences to put the Suns right back in the mix.

When push came to shove, it required saying goodbye to two important starters in Bridges and Johnson, who quickly became fan favorites after being drafted.

Booker addressed the trade for the first time on Friday after guiding his team to a victory over the Indiana Pacers. When discussing the emotional angle of the Suns’ departing players, he mentioned how pivotal Bridges and Johnson were to the culture of the team.

“It’s tough, man. I’d say the definition of bittersweet,” Booker said. “Those two guys were a big part of building this organization to what it is today. I can truly say I love them, and those are my brothers that we’ll be in contact forever. They were guys I envisioned myself playing my whole career with. It’s tough.”

The tandem often referred to as the ‘twins’ will always be viewed as foundational pieces to the Suns’ title-contending core – Bridges for his superhuman availability and two-way excellence, Johnson for his world class shooting threat and how much space he created for the stars. Both of them were revered for their upbeat attitudes and how much they gave back to the community.

“What makes it a little easier is, they’re together (in Brooklyn),” Booker added. “Mikal is back on the East coast where he’s from, and closer to family. That’s the beauty in it. But on the other page, you have one of the best players to ever touch a basketball coming in here. So, it’s exciting times for the Phoenix Suns.”

Phoenix is about to implement (arguably) the greatest scorer in basketball history to their established and nuanced system. Among all 13 players to average at least 25 points per game over the course of their career (min. 400 games), Durant still holds the title in efficiency. His 61.8% true shooting tops the list, with LeBron James second at 58.8%.

Before the knee injury, Durant was scoring at the best rate of his illustrious career – shooting 62.2% from two, 37.6% from deep, and 93.4% at the foul line.

For an offense that stalled in the second round of last year’s playoffs, when the Mavericks hard-trapped Booker and Paul to force others into creation duties, having a seasoned veteran in that role will be a cheat code of epic proportions. Phoenix clearly wasn’t prepared for a counter in those instances, as they couldn’t generate open looks on 4-on-3 opportunities and make the defense pay for doubling their main ball-handlers.

Now, Durant gives them a multitude of looks if any coach dares to send a trap. He can effectively operate as the pick-and-roll handler with a guard or big screening for him. Just like KD witnessed in Golden State, some of the deadliest actions involve great shooters acting as screeners. It’s primarily because defenders are stuck between hard decisions and you only have a split second to make one. Imagine Booker or Paul in the same scenarios Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were in during KD’s pick-and-roll actions. If Booker comes up to screen, the defense will have to choose between switching a much smaller player (likely a guard) onto the seven-foot shot creator, or hedging the screen and giving Booker, a tremendous shooter, just a sliver of daylight.

“I can’t wait to be out there with him,” Booker said. “It’s one of those pick-your-poison type of situations. All of our games complement each other, everybody on this team. I’m sure there will be some kinks we have to work out early on, but when it comes down to it, I like what we got.”

The beauty of having KD next to Booker and Paul, aside from the fact you can stagger them to ensure two are on the court at any given moment, is that Durant has no problem filling the duty of a floor-spacer on occasion. It’s unclear how much he enjoys waiting in the background, spotting up on the wing or planting himself in the corner to put immense pressure on the low-man (or weakside defenders in general). After all, one of the reasons he left Golden State was his preference for a more traditional offensive system instead of the read-and-react motion that Steve Kerr installed.

At the same time, Durant is a basketball savant. He knows you can’t give a defense a steady diet of anything without it becoming predictable. Variety is needed in order to win at the highest levels.

Therefore, could we see instances of the Suns running their “Snap” set, a stack pick-and-roll set with three players, while KD is chilling in the weakside corner? We should, from time to time. Because if you want to stress a defense to the max, try making them choose between many evils:

Then, if Williams deploys KD in lineups as the “small-ball” center, he can be the screen-and-dive big man in those Snap actions (shown below). Despite not being as forceful as Ayton on his rolls, he can replicate those duties because of his threat of pulling up at the foul line, or simply being too quick to stop with a runway to the basket:

Phoenix can also slot KD in Booker’s usual role as the backscreener/shooter. With all of the attention focused on whether or not to switch those screens and prevent KD from breaking free, someone else on the floor is going to be completely abandoned for an easy look.

One of the main concerns about this Suns group, though, is their general lack of downhill pressure and ability to force enough weakside rotations because of it. While Durant is certainly not as fast and devastating of a driver compared to his OKC days — I mean, it’s understandable, he tore his Achilles — there is still enough burst left in the tank to get the job done. He’s averaging roughly the same number of drives per game as last season … but shooting 8.6 percentage points better in those situations (63.0%).

With Durant, it’s hardly ever been about the north-to-south speed. His abnormally long strides and finishing ability make up for the half-step he’s lost over time. He’s still able to create advantages on the floor after receiving a screen and utilizing his handle (east-to-west movements) to gain all the separation he needs. Sometimes that results in a pull-up jumper. Other times, it will give him an opening to the rim because, as a defender, it’s almost impossible to recover for a strong contest once he takes the first step around you.

The Suns still need to sign another guard from the buyout market to supply them with defensive juice, to be sure. But when the game is in the balance and buckets need to be produced, the Suns are banking on creating just enough chaos in mismatches to trump all of the concerns about their rim-attacking. Of course, you would like to have a younger and quicker guard to apply more pressure than Chris Paul is in 2023, but Phoenix is also relying on Durant’s presence to rejuvenate Paul and give him more avenues to score — it’s worth noting CP3 is 25-of-47 (53.2%) on catch-and-shoot threes this year, and the volume is about to rise.

“The thing about our games is, none of us force it,” Booker said. “We’re big fans of the game, we all watch the game, and we understand how to play the right way. I know (KD’s) strengths. I know his not-many weaknesses. Same with Chris. We have a high respect for each other and we’ve done a lot on this court.”

There’s a whole catalog of offensive sets Durant will be plugged into, and we’ll break that down in the coming days. But they all follow a common theme: The fit is going to be seamless, just as it was in 2016 when he walked into Oakland and replaced Harrison Barnes.

The Suns have officially ruled out Durant until after the All-Star break. He will likely get reevaluated during the week of Feb. 20-24, as Phoenix has a total of seven days off between games.

Hypothetically, if Durant were to return on Mar. 1, that would only give the Suns 20 games from his debut to the end of the regular season. Keep in mind, that doesn’t factor in the scheduled absences, such as KD potentially resting back-to-backs or being ruled out for precautionary reasons.

So, realistically, this team might have 15 games to get everything figured out before the playoffs. That also assumes all of the rotation will be intact for those games. Given Paul and Booker’s injury luck this season, nothing is guaranteed. When speaking with Forbes Sports, Booker wasn’t worried about the reality of Phoenix having a short window after the break.

“We know each other’s games,” Booker remarked when asked if the Suns have enough time to develop chemistry. “I’m sure he knows our system already. He spent time with Coach Monty. All he does is watch basketball. I’ve been with him a few times, been over to his house. That’s all it is. Highlights and games on. That’s the type of people I like to be around. We have that same common interest.”

Aside from the late-game creation and how switch-proof Durant makes the Suns’ offense, one thing flying under the radar is how beneficial the extra free throw opportunities will be. This is a Suns team that has struggled to generate freebies for a while. They are currently 27th in free throw attempt rate (.242), getting to the line just 22 times per 100 possessions.

Durant, by himself, averages 7.3 trips to the line per game. He automatically becomes Phoenix’s leading foul-drawer, eclipsing Booker’s 6.2 average (next on the team is CP3 with only 3.2). They have desperately needed someone to help snap their major scoring droughts, and a player with this skill-set is the ultimate answer. It’s something Bridges, for all of his improvements as an offensive talent, was never going to be able to do at KD’s level.

Defensively, one could make the case Durant has forever been underrated. He’s never quite earned the reputation of a stellar defender, perhaps because he’s always fallen in the shadows of other premier wings. Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Paul George are all better defensive forces in their primes, often taking up the All-Defensive selections for the last decade. Compared to those peers, it’s understandable why KD isn’t considered elite on that side of the court.

In the aggregate, Durant is significantly above average in many defensive areas – and has been for years. He’s innately gifted as a paint protector due to his uncanny height and wingspan, making him a nightmare on closeouts and in ‘free safety’ situations when he’s the one rotating to the rim.

Up until his injury, KD was enjoying one of his most impressive years on that end. The last time we saw him consistently dialed in on defense, at least to that degree, was during his last season in OKC (2015-16) and his debut year with the Warriors (2016-17). Competitors have noticed the intensity he’s played with defensively and how much burden he had to carry for the Nets.

“I think early on in your career, people label you what you are as a defender, and don’t give you props when you improve on it,” Booker said. “I’d say (Durant) is one of the best defenders in the game, also. Tough to score on. I’ve played one-on-one (against) him. He likes to play in that pinch-post and elbow area. He has a 7-3 wingspan. So it’s tough to score on him. I think that’s going to be our key, locking in and guarding teams.”

No question, the Suns will miss the durability and youth of Bridges as a one-on-one defender. In that respect, Williams would rather have a 26-year-old Bridges guarding opposing stars, navigating screens, and sticking with quicker guards on switches. At this stage of Durant’s career, he’s not exactly a guy that excels in such a role.

Does KD know how to utilize his physical traits to be a great perimeter defender in small stretches? Of course. Even at age 34, he can still slide his feet effectively and force opponents into difficult shots. But it’s not something you want him doing for majority of the game, especially when you factor in the fatigue element in fourth quarters and how it’s best to keep your tier one stars from exerting most of their energy on defense.

For that reason, the value of Torrey Craig and Josh Okogie just went through the roof. If the Suns win the title, the main quartet will obviously get the bulk of the credit, but those two will be at the heart of any success. Every championship team requires players that star in their role, and the wing tandem of Craig and Okogie will need to be agitators on the perimeter, hard cutters when the attention is focused on KD and Booker’s ball-screen action, and reliable spot-up shooters when the defense sells out to cover the stars.

Durant’s defensive impact will be felt in similar ways to his Brooklyn role. He’ll give Williams a secondary rim protector to ensure the opponent always has a seven-footer to account for near the basket. This can naturally unlock more defensive coverages for the team to use — if Williams wants to get more aggressive at the point of attack and trap opposing handlers after a screen, they can use one of KD or Ayton in the trap, while the other takes the back-line responsibility and guards the rim.

Think about how compromised teams are with just one defensive big. In the past, Utah couldn’t use Gobert in anything but drop coverage because of how much it would ruin their interior defense to bring him too far out. With Durant and Ayton, both are agile and mobile enough to toggle between coverages and give them more flexibility.

Before his injury, Durant had contested 196 shots in the restricted area over 39 games. That’s over five per game, which is significant when you consider he’s mostly viewed as a scoring forward. He held his opponents to a conversion rate of just 56% on those attempts — a mark that cracks the top 25 among all players to contest 150-plus shots. It’s right in line with Myles Turner, percentage wise, who allows a 55.7% success rate at the rim on double the volume.

Does this move make the Suns automatic championship favorites?

Booker isn’t giving other teams the bulletin board material, or trying to get overconfident after the way last season went down.

“I’ll let everyone else decide that,” he said. “I know we have a really talented group, and I feel like we have enough in this locker room already – we showed that tonight (in Indiana). Then, adding in one of the most skilled players to ever touch a basketball is going to take us to a whole new level.”

Health is going to be the Suns’ biggest hurdle. With one star in his mid-thirties and the other set to turn 38 this May, Phoenix will have to be on the right side of luck. But if they are in good graces with the basketball gods, every other competitor in the West will soon realize the Suns create severe matchup problems in a playoff setting.

Durant’s introductory press conference is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 15, in Phoenix.