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Phoenix Suns in championship or bust mode following Kevin Durant trade

The Phoenix Suns pulled off one of the biggest blockbusters in modern NBA history ahead of the trade deadline, acquiring Kevin Durant in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets.

This deal came together shortly after Phoenix had missed out on acquiring Kyrie Irving from the very same Nets in a deal that it had offered up future Hall of Famer Chris Paul. It also came mere hours after new owner Mat Ishbia took over officially for the disgraced Robert Sarver.

It’s no surprise that Phoenix — in the midst of a down season — was looking to pull off a blockbuster. In his introductory press conference hours before the Durant trade was announced, the billionaire made it clear that maintaining the status quo was not in the cards.

“The way we look at it is, how do we improve our team?” Ishbia said on Wednesday, via ESPN. “I’m not going to be sitting here counting the dollars. We’re going to focus on, how do we improve our team? If there’s a way to improve our team, we’re going to look at doing it.”

By making this move for a two-time NBA Finals MVP who turned 34 in September and is currently sidelined to a knee injury, these Suns perfected the philosophy of attempting to win now. After all, the bounty Phoenix gave up to land a player in Durant who is in the back-end of his prime was earth-shattering.

Phoenix Suns getBrooklyn Nets get
Kevin DurantMikal Bridges
T.J. WarrenCam Johnson
Jae Crowder
1st-round pick in 2023
1st-round pick in 2025
1st-round pick in 2027
1st-round pick swap in 2028
1st-round pick in 2029

All four of the first-round picks headed to Brooklyn are unprotected. It’s an historical haul for a Nets organization that quickly came to the conclusion that Durant should be moved for assets less than a week after Irving demanded a trade. Within 48 hours, general manager Sean Marks had ended the “super team” era by moving both Irving and Durant.

As for the Suns, there’s no other way to go about it. They have two future Hall of Famers in Chris Paul and Kevin Durant on the roster. They boast a true franchise cornerstone in two-guard Devin Booker. It’s championship or bust this season. Here’s why.

Related: Winners/losers from Kevin Durant trade to the Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns part with young stars in Kevin Durant trade

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Washington Wizards
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The addition of Mikal Bridges in Thursday’s blockbuster was a necessity. If he had not been included, the Nets would have looked elsewhere. This doesn’t make the loss of a 26-year-old three-and-D wing any less significant.

A top-10 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Bridges has morphed into one of the best young stars in the game. The former Villanova standout was in the midst of a career-best season in which some believed he was deserving of an All-Star spot.

How big of a coup was Bridges for the Nets? It was reported prior to Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline that the Nets received ridiculous offers for the forward.

“When he was in Phoenix before the trade and then into Brooklyn today, there were a lot of teams banging on the door in Brooklyn. But Mikal Bridges, I’m told, was, there were offers of four first-round picks for him out there in these last, last 24 hours.”

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski following Phoenix Suns trade for Kevin Durant

In addition to Bridges, Phoenix parted with another young forward in that of Cameron Johnson. Still only 26, he’s less than four years removed from being a top-11 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Related: Phoenix Suns and the winners of the 2023 NBA trade deadline

Like Bridges, Johnson has seen his game improve leaps and bounds prior to dealing with an injury this season. En route to helping the Suns to a league-best record in 2021-22, the North Carolina product averaged 12.5 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting 43% from three-point range.

It must be noted that Bridges and Johnson combined to post a 6.1 win shares a season ago, making them one of the best defensive forward tandems in the entire league. Sure Durant plays at a high level on that end of the court, but these two losses are going to have an impact in what is now a loaded Western Conference.

Related: Sportsnaut’s post-deadline NBA Playoff and Finals predictions

Phoenix Suns: Betting for now at the cost of the future

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Brooklyn Nets
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“We’re not going to sacrifice long term or short term, but we are going to try to win every game,” Ishbia said in his intro press conference.

About that? Phoenix yielded four future unprotected first-round picks (2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029). It also gave Brooklyn the right to swap first-round selections in 2028.

We have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen around the Association in the years to come. We do now that Durant is still among the best players in the game when he’s healthy.

But we’ve also seen how deals of this ilk have worked out in the past. It was a decade ago that the aforementioned Nets sent multiple unprotected first-round picks to the Boston Celtics for a package surrounding Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. These two played less than two full seasons together in Brooklyn without a championship.

Indirectly, Boston was able to add current stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to the mix with the selections it acquired from Brooklyn. Fast forward a decade, and we just witnessed the Suns pull off a similar win-now blockbuster.

Looking at the finances, it’s clear that the Suns are banking on championship contention this season. Durant, Booker and Deandre Ayton are set to count a combined $116 million against the cap in 2023-24. Paul has $15.9 million in guarantees with a $30.8 million cap hit himself. If he were retained, that’d be roughly $147 million allocated to just four players.

Landry Shamet and Cameron Payne are the only other players currently under contract with Phoenix next season. We fully expect veterans on the buyout market to seriously consider Phoenix as the All-Star break approaches. There’s also no reason to believe that other veterans won’t go ring-chasing once free agency hits in the summer. But we’re talking about some major issues on the fringes of the Suns’ roster behind the “big four.”

The lack of draft capital coupled with recent injury issues surrounding Paul and Durant makes this a tricky proposition for the Suns. In short, they now lack any real type of flexibility should things not lead to a Larry O’Brien Trophy once June comes calling.

Related: Phoenix Suns standing in Sportsnaut’s NBA power rankings

Western Conference is now elite

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks acquired Kyrie Irving to team up with Luka Doncic. The Los Angeles Lakers brought in several core pieces, including D’Angelo Russell. The Denver Nuggets boast the best record in the conference and two-time reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic. Despite some struggles this season, the defending champion Golden State Warriors will be heard from when all is said and done.

This doesn’t even take into account Ja Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies, a surprising Sacramento Kings team and a Los Angeles Clippers squad that’s much better now than it was prior to the trade deadline.

The Phoenix Suns saw their NBA championship odds shorten big time following the Kevin Durant trade. But as we’ve seen in the recent history of the organization, that might not matter.

Remember, it was this time last season that Phoenix found itself at 44-10. It would finish up the regular year with an NBA-best 64-18 record, only to be blown out at home in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals by the Dallas Mavericks.

What’s the moral of this story? The Phoenix Suns went all in. They followed Ishbia’s edict. They are one of the top contenders to win the title. If that does not happen once June comes calling, changes will be in order and an even darker cloud will hang over an organization that has dealt with bad luck throughout its history.

So while the Durant trade is a blockbuster and makes these Suns much-watch television, the win-now mentality puts a ton of pressure on everyone involved. As we saw with the Brooklyn Nets’ “super team,” that could simply be too much.