When the news broke that Kevin Durant would be traded to the Phoenix Suns, it sent a shockwave through the NBA world. Kevin Durant, one of the 15-or-so greatest players to ever touch a basketball, coming to the Suns immediately ranks as one of the biggest trades in NBA history. It created more East-West balance among NBA stars and took the Suns from being a longshot to win a championship this season to being among the top contenders.
While nearly all would agree this makes the Suns better short term, some have raised concerns over Durant’s health and the Suns’ ability to integrate him into their team quickly enough to win a championship this year. With that in mind, I set out to see what NBA history tells us about enormous mid-season acquisitions like this to get a better idea of what to expect from this year’s Phoenix Suns.
At the time of the trade, over 39 games Durant was averaging 29.7 Points, 6.7 Rebounds, and 5.3 Assists per game while posting an other-worldly 67.3% True-Shooting Percentage in Brooklyn. Durant is one of the greatest players of all time, and still producing at his prime level at age 34. Players like him rarely get traded, and it almost never happens in the middle of a season, so there is not much precedent for what the Suns can expect from their newly acquired superstar this year. Only one other time in NBA history has a player averaging at least 29 a game been traded mid season, and you have to go back over fifty years to Wilt Chamberlain in 1965.
While there is very little data on a superstar like Durant changing teams in the middle of the season, many great players have been moved who were just a tier below KD. To get a sense of what the Suns might expect from Durant, I researched multi-time all-stars who were traded mid season while still in or around their primes. The impact they had on their new teams varied greatly, but I organized them into four main groups. For each player, you’ll see the new team’s record before and after the trade, and what the team did in the postseason that year.
Group 1: The Best Case Scenario
There have been three times in NBA history where a star player was traded in the middle of the season and won the championship with his new team in that same season. None of these examples is a perfect equivalent to the Suns trading for Durant, since none of the players was a superstar of KD’s caliber. Nonetheless, they were still major shake-ups, and they prove that it’s possible to win the title in the same year as a major trade.
- 1988-89: Mark Aguirre to DET (33-13 before, 30-6 after. Won title that season and next)
- 1994-95: Clyde Drexler to HOU (22-11 before, 25-24 after. Won title that season)
- 2003-04: Rasheed Wallace to DET (34-22 before, 20-6 after. Won title that season)
There are similarities between those two Pistons teams and the current Suns. In both eras, Detroit had a great team that had made deep playoff runs, but never got over the hump. Then, that one last acquisition was what helped them finally complete the mission of a championship. Houston in 95 is also comparable to this Phoenix team in that injuries made their regular season record deceptively worse, but the talent was clearly there to make a title run. These Suns have more talent on paper than any of the teams above, so it stands to reason winning a title this season is well within their realm of possibility.
Group 2: The Next Best Thing
In this next group, trading for the star mid season did not result in a championship that same year, but they did win it within 1-2 seasons after the trade. There are only two examples. Both had solid playoff runs in the year of the trade, losing to the eventual champion. They then regrouped in the offseason and eventually achieved the ultimate goal of a title.
- 1964-65: Wilt Chamberlain to PHI (22-23 before, 18-17 after. Lost in ECF that season, won title 2 seasons later)
- 2007-08: Pau Gasol to LAL (29-16 before, 28-9 after. Lost in Finals that season, won title next 2 seasons)
This group is perhaps the most interesting because of the greatness of the players involved. Wilt Chamberlain is the only player ever traded mid season that was on the same level of superstardom as Kevin Durant is now. And, while Pau Gasol may not have been on that level, he was traded to a team with a player who was: Kobe Bryant. Having a top-five player in the NBA is almost always necessary to win a championship, so now that the Suns have one their status as contenders is stronger than ever.
Even if the Suns fail to win the title this season, though, their championship window will continue to stay open as long as Kevin Durant is still playing at an elite level. Some are concerned about Chris Paul’s age affecting the Suns’ title chances, but their timeline is tied to Durant’s durability now, not Chris Paul’s. So, even if they don’t win the title this year, there is still hope to end up like the two teams above.
Group 3: Not What They Wanted, But Not A Catastrophe
These are cases where the star players were traded in the middle of a season, and while they mostly played well for several years on their new teams, they never won a championship there. It would be hard to say that trading for these players was a failure, since they all continued to contribute and make their new teams better, but they still never delivered the desired result of a title.
- 1995-96: Tim Hardaway to MIA (25-29 before, 17-11 after. Lost in 1st round that season)
- 2000-01: Dikembe Mutombo to PHI (41-14 before, 15-12 after. Made Finals that season)
- 2002-03: Ray Allen to SEA (22-30 before, 18-12 after. Missed playoffs that season)
- 2004-05: Baron Davis to GSW (16-38 before, 18-10 after. Missed playoffs that season)
- 2010-11: Carmelo Anthony to NYK (28-26 before, 14-14 after. Lost in 1st round that season)
Most of these examples are not great comparisons to what the Suns can expect with KD. In almost all the cases above, the teams who traded for a star did not have the other pieces in place to contend immediately like Phoenix does. Additionally, none of these players are close to as great as KD has been this year. The only way the Suns would end up like these teams is if Durant has a major decline in production.
Group 4: The Sky Is Falling
This is the disaster scenario. Every star player listed below was traded for mid season, then was gone from that team within two seasons after having little to no playoff success there. While Suns fans may not like to think about it, one must remember that huge trades have sometimes ended in calamity.
- 1976-77: Bob McAdoo to NYK (12-14 before, 28-28 after. Missed playoffs that season)
- 1993-94: Dominique Wilkins to LAC (18-34 before, 9-21 after. Missed playoffs that season)
- 2006-07: Allen Iverson to DEN (14-9 before, 31-28 after. Lost in 1st round that season)
- 2007-08: Shaquille O’Neal to PHX (37-16 before, 18-11 after. Lost in 1st round that season)
- 2016-17: DeMarcus Cousins to NOP (23-35 before, 11-13 after. Missed playoffs that season)
These examples are quite varied. There are no two situations that are just alike. The scariest example for Suns fans will obviously be when Phoenix traded for Shaq. Just like now, those Suns were a great team looking for that final piece to help them get the title, so they went after a mega star with a proven pedigree. The difference, though, is that Shaq had clearly shown that he was in steep decline when the Suns got him, whereas KD this season is playing as well as he ever has. Still, though, the Suns’ success is far from guaranteed with Durant. If the Suns fail to win the title in the next two seasons, however, there’s no telling whether Durant might ask to be traded again, which would make acquiring him an abject failure. That’s the doomsday timeline.
Reviewing the history of big in-season trades can help give an idea of the possibilities for this year’s Suns, but it can never perfectly predict the future. The 2022-23 Suns have more star talent than nearly every team above, so Suns fans have plenty of reason to be optimistic, but talent does not in any way ensure success (just ask the Brooklyn Nets). At the end of the day trading for Kevin Durant gives the Suns a real chance at winning it all, something most would not have said before the trade. In a league as volatile and unpredictable as the NBA that’s all a team can do.
Cody Hunt is a long time friend of Bright Side, Suns twitter and the ol’ Solar Panel podcast. He’s a certified bucket-getter on Suns history, so when he DMd me a request to host this guest article, I absolutely jumped at the chance. You’re welcome on Bright Side any time, Cody!