Inside the downfall of the Nets’ Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving era
NEW YORK — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose the Nets. Not the other way around.
It’s an important note to remember as we unpack the end of a not-quite era of championship contention in Brooklyn: The superstars chose to be here. Then they chose not to be.
James Harden, Irving and Durant each requested a trade from the Nets in a year’s time, in that order, culminating with Thursday’s seismic trade in the still of the night that sent Durant to Phoenix for Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Jae Crowder and a bevy of first-round picks.
Durant and Irving chose Brooklyn — just like they chose to leave within 48 hours of each other, a course of events with breadcrumbs dating back to the team’s handling of Irving’s decision against getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
It was the Nets, not Irving, who decided the star guard shouldn’t be around the team for road games or home practices up until the moment the virus ravaged the NBA, including 13 Nets players who were sent into the league’s health and safety protocols at the same time. Prior to that outbreak, the
Nets played a hard line with the superstar, who was eligible for most road games and could have kept the team on a trajectory toward championship contention. But when the situation became too inconvenient, the team ultimately folded.
Irving exercised his personal right not to get vaccinated, and believed he was vilified by his own organization for the decision. In most other NBA markets, he would have been eligible to play in all games. It was New York City’s vaccine mandate, which Mayor Adams refused to amend until pressure from Major League Baseball, that created havoc in Brooklyn.
That’s one of three examples, according to a source familiar with Irving’s thinking, of the “disrespect” the star guard described to Dallas media in his
introductory press conference on Tuesday.
Irving was also put off by the wording in the statement the Nets issued when they suspended him a total of eight games for posting the link to a film widely considered antisemitic on his social media feeds.
The organization used the words “unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets” for a player whose talent transcended basketball. Irving has Jewish family members and claims to have posted the link in search of his own family history. Everyone he spoke with in the aftermath of the incident, including Nets owner Joe Tsai, said they did not believe Irving was antisemitic. That much is true. In speaking carefully and delicately to appease Irving in private but taking a hardline in the statement to appease the public, the Nets tried to have it both ways.
And then there was the charade that followed last season’s four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Celtics.
Irving proclaimed he wanted to “co-manage the franchise” with Tsai and general manager Sean Marks, words that drew criticism from some both within the organization and the Nets fan base due to his pattern of unavailability through his first few seasons in Brooklyn.
A week later, Marks — twice in the same week — suggested the Nets weren’t sold on a longterm future with Irving, that the team only wanted players who were fully committed to being available in Brooklyn.
It was an understandable response, given the rancor Irving had already inflicted at the time. It was also a sign that the Nets were completely illequipped to deal with the personalities who had chosen to occupy their arena. They had just elected to trade Harden rather than try to win him over, and here was Marks impotently implying that the team might move from Irving rather than deal with the headache, thereby adding to the headache he was implicitly criticizing. Toxic relationships can do that to people.
All the while, Durant had been monitoring the situation.
Durant is four years older than Irving and has more urgency to win now given both his injury history and the mileage accrued on his legs as a player who has been vehemently against minutes restrictions of any form.
Durant was frustrated by the trade that sent Harden to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond. Specifically, he became frustrated with Simmons, who has received more lenience in a shorter period of time than Irving, despite providing significantly less production in his minutes on the floor.
Durant and Simmons’ timelines never aligned: Simmons was always going to be a longer-term reclamation project given his history of both mental health issues and back injuries. He is beginning to come to terms with the idea that it will take him a “long time” to get back to the Uber-athletic form that helped him dominate on both ends of the court.
If that moment ever comes.
Yet, the Nets could have made a move to bolster this roster during the offseason.
The Nets had an opportunity to get involved in the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes, according to a source familiar with the Nets’ attempts to add talent to the roster this offseason. A source told the Daily News in October there was framework for a deal that would have sent Simmons to Utah, Mitchell to Miami and Bam Adebayo to Brooklyn.
It was the Nets who declined, and Simmons, due to lingering back issues that have impacted the integrity of his knee, has yet to string together an extended, impactful stretch of games. Head coach Jacque Vaughn is still working on getting Simmons to give his all for all the minutes he’s on the court.
Simmons, very obviously, is not a player for right now. And the Nets’ investment into him during the twilight of Durant’s prime is the sort of hedging typically reserved for a team like the Warriors, which has already demonstrated it works at the championship level, not one like the Nets, struggling to make it work at all. As with the flip-flop on Irving’s vaccination and the mixed messages of his suspension, the Nets were trying to live in two worlds at once without ever committing to either.
On the whole, Durant was put off by Marks, who remains Nets GM despite Durant’s request he be fired this offseason. With Marks’ penchant for finding gems in the draft, and the Nets’ now-loaded treasure trove of seven first-round picks in the upcoming draft classes, it’s hard to envision him parting from his post.
In the end, the Nets decided to rebuild, or at least retool. Brooklyn’s roster is still talented, and they possess enough draft picks and young players to take a swing for the fences and acquire a star talent that becomes available on the trade market.
Along with finding and developing new stars through the draft, that might be the only route for this team to get marquee talent through the doors in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future.
Durant and Irving chose the Nets, then they chose to leave, taking the idea of a championship out West with them.
That marks the end of the Seven-Eleven Era, a two-and-a-half-year span riddled with more controversies than playoff wins, punctuated by a series of trades that leaves seasonticket buyers holding an empty bag. They paid the premium for a team that is no longer as advertised.