N.B.A. Power Shifts to the West With Trade Frenzy
It was supposed to be a quiet dinner with friends and family, who were there to celebrate Mat Ishbia’s big win — officially taking over as the controlling owner of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury.
But Ishbia had his sights set on another win.
Ishbia, an energetic 43-year-old billionaire in the mortgage industry, kept ducking out of the room to take phone calls Wednesday evening as he and James Jones, the Suns’ president of basketball operations and general manager, worked together to make a deal for one of the greatest scorers in N.B.A. history: Kevin Durant.
On his first full day on the job, Ishbia agreed to trade with the Nets for Durant, adding him to a competitive Suns lineup that already has the star guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
Ishbia had delivered the biggest splash in a season full of them, and he’d done so during a critical moment: the frenzied days before the N.B.A.’s trading deadline, which have shifted the power in the league to the Western Conference.
The Lakers got rid of their ill-fitting and expensive guard, Russell Westbrook. The Dallas Mavericks acquired a disgruntled Kyrie Irving from the Nets to pair him with the star guard Luka Doncic. Around the league, smaller deals tinkered with rosters and reset timelines, but no team changed as much as the Suns. Now, they are a championship contender and a potent threat to everyone else, including elite teams like the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets.
Ishbia told reporters this week that he wanted to “think big.”
It had been difficult to know what to make of the West for much of this season. While the East has two teams at the top that have proved that they can win in the playoffs — Boston and Milwaukee — the West has been a jumble of aging stars and unproven youth.
Heading into Thursday, only three games separated fourth-place Dallas from 11th-place Utah. No team is dominating, not even the Nuggets, who have led the conference since Dec. 20 but have developed a reputation for stumbling in the playoffs.
The Grizzlies have been firmly in second place since Jan. 1, but they are also an unproven team in the postseason. They earned the No. 2 seed in the West last year, but were challenged by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round before losing to the Golden State Warriors, the eventual champion, in the second round.
A few days before Christmas, the Grizzlies’ star guard Ja Morant was interviewed by ESPN’s Malika Andrews. She asked what teams he would have to go through to win a championship.
“Celtics,” Morant said, without hesitation.
“No one in the West?” Andrews said.
“Nah,” Morant said, shaking his head and smiling mischievously. “I’m fine in the West.”
On Christmas, the Grizzlies faced Golden State, then struggling in 11th place in the West. Golden State didn’t have its best player, Stephen Curry, but taunted the young and braggadocious Grizzlies team on the way to a 123-109 victory.
Now Morant’s team has more competition to worry about.
After news of the Durant trade broke Thursday, New Orleans Pelicans shooting guard CJ McCollum recalled Morant’s oft-memed words.
“This all because @JaMorant said he was good in the West,” McCollum posted on Twitter, adding at the end three emojis of laughter with tears.
Hours before the Durant trade surfaced, the Lakers agreed to trade Westbrook to the Jazz in exchange for a package of draft picks and players headlined by Minnesota’s D’Angelo Russell. The Lakers are in 13th place in the West but just four games away from a secure spot in the playoffs above the play-in tournament positions.
With LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers’ roster, it stood to reason that a few tweaks could dramatically change their fortunes. Russell, whom the Lakers drafted No. 2 overall in 2015 but traded two seasons later, is a much better 3-point shooter than Westbrook and should help on offense.
Durant, though, is in a class by himself as a difference-maker in the West. He is one of the smoothest scorers ever to play the game.
On Wednesday, Ishbia walked onto a stage at the Suns’ arena, the Footprint Center, for his introductory news conference. He eschewed the podium, using it only to hold a bottle of water he sipped from during questions. He paced the stage with the energy of a start-up founder giving a keynote address, using his hands to emphasize his rapidly delivered words.
“I’m not going to be sitting here counting the dollars,” Ishbia said, adding, “We’re not going to sacrifice long term for short term, but we are going to look at how do we improve every day.”
Durant, 34, improved the team immediately, and dramatically. He has been out with a knee injury since Jan. 12, but his health is the only thing that has slowed him lately.
He comes to a Phoenix team searching for a steady postseason identity.
The past two seasons have ended with different kinds of heartbreak for the Suns. They lost to the Bucks in the finals two years ago, with Paul working through injuries. Then last year, despite winning the most games in franchise history, they ended their season with an embarrassing blowout loss to the Mavericks in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.
If all goes as planned, the West will now go through Phoenix.