In February of 2016, the Brooklyn Nets made a move to hire Sean Marks as their General Manager from the San Antonio Spurs. An organization that was widely seen as the worst in the league slowly morphed into something else; the short-term fixes, crippling contracts, and shipping out of future first round picks came to a close. A lot of losing continued to happen. That losing allowed a lot of folks around the league to miss what was happening.
Slowly but surely the Nets worked to build its repertoire of assets. They rolled the dice on adding D’Angelo Russell, and sought out shooters like Joe Harris and creators like Spencer Dinwiddie. Last week at the NBA draft they were able to utilize two first round picks to help themselves clear space for salary. Eschewing the modus operandi of trying to buy their way to relevance, they put together a culture of players with a lot to prove, ones that happened to have skills that help you succeed in the modern NBA. It led them to the sixth seed in an improved Eastern Conference this season.
Still, there were no victory laps. The Nets may have had to start from scratch in building a competitive front office, but as anyone will tell you in real estate and the NBA, it’s all about location. Brooklyn, New York is a good place to be. As Marks said around the All-Star Break in February, “We look at it like a startup. We were a penny stock. Maybe we’re worth 10 cents now. Someday we’ll be worth a dollar. One day this franchise is going to be worth 10 bucks. But don’t wait to get in.”
He wasn’t kidding. Before NBA Free Agency even officially kicked off, it was clear that Kevin Durant, perhaps the best basketball player on the planet, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan were joining what now looks like a devastating mix of front office savvy, individual star power, and the spotlight of the largest media market in the country. No, Durant and Irving won’t be tearing up Madison Square Garden, but then again, the people who run that franchise couldn’t even be bothered to offer the injured Durant a max contract. This is the spicy alternative, deadly scorers in black and white lighting up Gotham.
Before NBA Free Agency even officially kicked off, it was clear that Kevin Durant, perhaps the best basketball player on the planet, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan were joining what now looks like a devastating mix of front office savvy, individual star power, and the spotlight of the largest media market in the country
Nothing’s guaranteed, of course. Durant is coming off an Achilles injury and turns 31 in September. He likely won’t play at all next season. Kyrie Irving is coming off a masterful season in Boston, numerically, but the questions around his mindset and leadership are deeper and more fair than ever. He was abysmal in the Celtics’ playoff exit to the Milwaukee Bucks. The Nets may not play there anymore, but there are risks to the New Jersey native Irving’s move to his hometown team. He’ll be entering his age 27 season, but he’s got injury concerns of his own.
Durant and Irving are betting on themselves, and taking less than the max to allow the team room to bring in DeAndre Jordan. In this day and age of player’s securing their value, that’s stunning. This is the first time that Irving is a full-fledged free agent. It’s the first time he’s been able to dictate where he goes, who he plays with, what front office he’s going to trust. He obviously shares a friendship with Durant, and there’ll be time for them to work out how they’ll share the ball. He’ll be reunited with former teammate Joe Harris, who has developed into a deadly marksman. He’ll throw lobs to Jordan. He’ll count on Marks to continue to round out the roster and help him. It all started well in Boston, with Irving praising Brad Stevens and even going so far as to say he planned on re-signing with the Celtics. Skepticism is warranted; he couldn’t make it work with LeBron James in Cleveland, and he couldn’t make it work in Boston when he was unquestionably the face of the franchise.
The key difference may lie in the simple fact of choice; this one was Irving’s, and Irving’s alone. If it doesn’t work, there’s no one else to blame. It’ll be interesting early on to see how he meshes with Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, young players who like to have the ball in their hands. The assumption might be that Irving would struggle to share, but Irving’s assist rate ticked up in Boston, and in the playoffs the Celtics couldn’t get any sort of consistent offense unless it came off his dribble. Kyrie seemed exhausted by the end of it. If Dinwiddie and LeVert can get to a level with Irving that Jayson Tatum wasn’t able to, the Nets may really have something.
Similarly, Durant seems to be exercising true freedom of choice for the first time, even if he’s been a free agent in the past. He’s won multiple rings, and his team failed to win when he succumbed to injury. He no longer needs affirmation or validation. It’s simply about being where he wants to be. With Irving, he’ll never have to deal with the chafing he got from Warriors teammates who didn’t love his isolation basketball. Big parts of his game work even without elite athleticism, even if it never fully returns post-injury. He’s an assassin shooting the basketball from anywhere, and he doesn’t really need to create much space because he’ll simply shoot over you. He may be asked to do even more defensively when he comes back, because that will simply never be a big part of Irving’s game. In theory, he’ll have Jordan to help him. The Nets felt that they got beat up inside this spring in the playoffs, so Jordan’s addition makes some sense. In reality, he’s close with Durant and he’ll likely have more value in his role making Durant comfortable coming to Brooklyn than from any on-court contribution.
In going to Brooklyn, Durant has made his quest for championships more difficult. Irving did the same when he begged out of Cleveland. For reasons obvious and not, they’ve decided they’ll be happier pursuing rings in New York. Sean Marks laid the foundation. His work is far from done, but they’re closer to a $10 franchise than ever. More interestingly for fans of the game, two of the game’s most mercurial, perhaps misunderstood, players might just have found their route to peace. Irving and Durant are betting on themselves; would you?