A team that was destined for great things now seems destined for yet another rebuild after shooting for the stars and missing for the second time in a decade
In the current climate, 2019 feels like an entire lifetime ago. A short three years ago was characterized by a world where the terms pandemic and shelter-in-place were not part of the lexicon. In short, it does not feel like only three years ago. In the NBA world, 2019 was supposed to be the year that the Brooklyn Nets made a splash and took over the NBA. The team had signed both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, making them instant title contenders. But three years later, the team only has one playoff series victory to its credit. They are a story of poor team building, bad decisions, and a flagrant lack of leadership that can only be considered a total disaster.
The Road Less Traveled
Even in the super team era, there has always been a sort of steady hand in place with a current star and/or respected coach. When LeBron James came to Miami, Dwayne Wade had already been an established force that already won a title in that city. When Kevin Durant joined the Warriors, Steve Kerr was already an established coach and Stephen Curry was an established superstar. But with the Nets it was different. They signed two superstars from other teams (Durant from the Warriors and Irving from the Celtics) and hired a first-time head coach in Steve Nash to the fold as well. This hire was especially puzzling as Nash before getting hired worked as a consultant for the Warriors and a part-time soccer analyst. On the surface, this felt like a curious choice for a head coach of a team that was looking to win championships.
To accommodate Irving and Durant, the team eventually dismantled the playoff roster that was filled with young players like Jarrett Allen and Spencer Dinwiddie to accommodate win-now players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. This culminated in the acquisition of James Harden from the Houston Rockets and mortgaging the team's future draft capital in the process. This move solidified the Net's super team, super villain status. This was the microwave dynasty, the instant championship and many basketball fans hated it. There was no organic development, there was no building through adversity. This was a meeting of the minds of three insanely talented basketball players to win a championship for a franchise that had never tasted it, that was always playing second fiddle in the city that it played in.
But this was derailed from the start due to injuries and absences suffered by all three of the team's stars. Role players like Joe Harris also faced untimely injuries, putting more of the burden on stars. There were times during the regular season when each star had to carry the load of the scoring for a team that was so top-heavy by themselves due to these absences. This ultimately led to unrest on the team, which resulted in the trading of James Harden to the 76ers for Ben Simmons.
Pandemic Domino Effect
The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to all of our lives but also had an impact on two NBA seasons. There was of course the shortened 2020 season, which resulted in the Orlando bubble. And then the following season, there was a shorter offseason with limited fan attendance and 10 fewer games. Both of these outcomes impacted the Brooklyn Nets. In 2020, Kyrie Irving was a vocal critic of the bubble even citing that it should not happen altogether. In the following year, due to local New York City vaccine mandates played in only 29 games due to his decision to not receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
This moment was especially trying for the Nets as there was a fumbling of messaging in how the team would approach handling Irving's decision. The team went from saying that they will not have Kyrie as a part-time player to bending on that decision and allowing him to play in road games as the Nets continued to slip in the standings due to injuries to James Harden and Kevin Durant. This enhanced workload and responsibility were not what James Harden signed up for, and he then demanded to be traded. The team obliged and traded him to Philadelphia in exchange for Ben Simmons, a player that was also sitting out of the regular season for his reasons as well.
With Harden gone and Simmons still working himself back into basketball shape, it was back to being just the duo of Irving and Durant. With a thought that if they could just get into the playoffs, then they would be able to make some noise. The team then proceeded to be swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, leaving more questions than answers about the future of this team. In the following weeks, the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors met in the NBA Finals calling into question the validity of the superteam in today’s NBA. And with that came Kyrie opting into the final year of his deal, the Nets deciding not to offer him a long-term extension, and the worst domino of them all: Kevin Durant requesting a trade. The strain of the pandemic and the decisions of the team players and management have culminated in what might be considered the biggest free agency flop of all time.
A Decade of Big Swings
The Brooklyn Nets decided to swing for the fences and appear to have struck out. This is not the first time that the team has decided to mortgage its future in the hopes of bringing a banner to the Barclays Center. In 2013, the team acquired an aging Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics for a few players and three unprotected first-round picks. This move also did not work and led to a few years of futility before the team righted the ship with a youth movement. Only then to abandon that strategy in favor of acquiring two superstars yet again. And yet again, the franchise seems poised for an immediate future of futility as a result of shooting for the stars and missing. And while it is easy to mock the Nets for entrusting their destiny to players with shaky reputations of leadership like James Harden and Kyrie Irving, perhaps this is simply a commentary on the current state of the NBA.
In the era of the LeBron James-led Miami Heat, assembling three All-Star caliber players on the same team was a formula for success. Those players would eat up most of the salary cap and the remainder of the roster would be filled with developing players or veterans playing for a minimum salary to have one last chance at winning a championship. This worked due to thin rotations on many NBA rosters, where the 7th or 8th guys in a rotation were simply not that good. It seems that is no longer the case in today’s NBA. Teams have gotten deeper, with players that can defend and shoot at a relatively high level. There is no need to look any further than the Golden State Warriors as an example of this. One of the key pieces to their run was the excellent play of Gary Payton II, a role player that offered excellent rotational defense and key shot-making down the stretch.
It seems that there is a new trend in the NBA where in-house development seems to be the new thing to do. We have seen it with teams like the Warriors, Bucks, and Celtics. It appears that the model that the Nets have been chasing and implementing for the last decade is not the winning path in today’s NBA. So now the Nets are stuck, yet again, with two disgruntled superstars that appear to be on their way out and a third who has become the great unknown in NBA circles. A team that was filled with elevated expectations has now begun the process of destroying and rebuilding.
What Happens Next?
The ultimate question now becomes, where will Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving end up? It is surely going to be a storyline that will captivate NBA circles all summer and many other players' ultimate destinations rest in the outcome of where both of these players will end up. The future of a player like DeAndre Ayton, for example, will more than likely not be determined until the eventual landing spots for the Brooklyn duo is determined.
The market for Kyrie Irving seems incredibly limited, with the perception that the Lakers are the only team with any levels of interest in acquiring the services of the point guard. The perception that Kyrie does not prioritize basketball has increased, and questions about his durability and longevity have continued to pop up. As for Durant, there is no question that he remains one of the most lethal scorers in the game today, it is simply a matter of which team will have the assets to acquire him, especially considering the haul of draft picks that Utah just received for Rudy Gobert.
In the end, I think that Kyrie will end up on the Lakers, and Durant will likely be traded to Miami (one of his two preferred destinations alongside Phoenix). As for the Nets, they will likely be rebuilding with a youth movement centered around the trade package that the team receives for its two stars. In three short years, this experiment has failed magnificently. A team that was supposed to stack up championships and prove that Durant didn’t need Curry and that Irving didn’t need LeBron to win titles. This validation continues to be fleeting, and in the process perhaps the super team concept lays dormant. As we look back at it years from now, this may have been the worst outcome of a free agent haul in the history of the NBA.