It started as a clean sweep and ended up a disaster.
Three years to the day after Kevin Durant committed to the Nets alongside Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, the 6-foot-10 forward requested a trade from the organization. The Athletic‘s Shams Charania first reported the news on Thursday.
Brooklyn is starting free agency, which tipped off at 6 pm Thursday, in a unique place: its franchise player, who signed a four-year extension last summer, wants out. Never before has a player of Durant’s caliber – a league MVP and two-time Finals MVP – become available with so many years of control remaining on his contract. And perhaps never before has a so-called superteam fractured in such a dramatic and unpredictable fashion. The Nets were once looked at as a potential dynasty. Now they’re one of the greatest hypotheticals in NBA history.
At least one major exit from the Nets had been building since the end of the season. For a while, it initially looked like Irving might be the first domino to fall when reports emerged that the Nets were unwilling to offer him a long-term extension. Durant stayed loyal to Irving despite the constant drama, and he began to grow skeptical of the organization partly because of personnel moves and its hardline stance on Irving’s contract. The Nets’ attempt to reset the power dynamic ultimately became the beginning of the end for the Durant and Irving era that didn’t fully realize its massive potential – or meet the massive expectations.
For three years, Durant and Irving had repeatedly gotten their way into Brooklyn. They took a pay cut for Jordan to join them on a four-year, $ 40 million deal despite the presence of Jarrett Allen, a young, up-and-coming center who is now in Cleveland on a five-year, $ 100 million contract. Steve Nash became head coach partly because of his relationship with Durant, and a lot of his assistants have ties to Durant, too. Adam Harrington was Durant’s personal trainer and introduced him to Nash. Brian Keefe worked with Durant for eight years in Oklahoma City, and David Vanterpool hailed from Prince George’s County, Md., Where Durant grew up.
But despite what they gave in loyalty to their star duo, the Nets lacked much of a return in results. Part of that was out of their control. When Irving and Durant signed three years ago, COVID-19 didn’t exist, and only international travelers and parents of schoolchildren had to worry about vaccine mandates. Plus, Brooklyn’s first year with Durant, 2019-20, was always going to be a wash as he rehabilitated a torn right Achilles; that was amplified when Irving was limited to just 20 games because of a shoulder impingement. Then, coach Kenny Atkinson parted ways with the organization a week before the pandemic took over the globe.
Despite an unceremonious exit from the bubble in the summer of 2020 with a roster that lacked Durant, Irving, Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie, among others, because of injury and COVID-19, the Nets went into the next preseason, their first with a healthy Durant, with an elephant in the room: James Harden wanted to join them.
That put Nash in a unique position as a first-time coach, staving off questions about a potential blockbuster trade while learning the job. Just 13 games into Nash’s coaching career, the Nets traded homegrown rising stars Caris LeVert and Allen, along with Taurean Prince and a bounty of future draft picks, to Houston for Harden. Given Durant’s trade request, one can only imagine the Fourth of July party the Rockets ’front office is throwing this weekend at the thought of Brooklyn’s picks rising up draft boards.
Irving was away from the team for personal reasons when Harden was traded, and the Nets’ big three spent the rest of the season mostly playing in pairs and hardly ever as a trio. Durant strained his left hamstring a few weeks after the Harden trade and went on to miss 23 games in a three-month span. Harden suffered a left hamstring strain in April and hasn’t looked like the same player since. And Irving played in 54 games, notching a 50-40-90 season as Brooklyn’s most reliable star, a unique title given his injury history and what’s happened since.
Despite all those injuries, including another hamstring strain by Harden in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against Milwaukee and sprained ankle by Irving in Game 3, the Nets came within an inch of the conference finals in 2021 after Durant stepped on the 3-point line in a miraculous turnaround shot over PJ Tucker in Game 7. That’s the closest these Nets would get to a championship, though Durant later disputed the notion that they were an inch from a title and said they wouldn’t have won later rounds due to his workload with Irving and Harden both injured.
Like the one before it, this past season started with drama before a game was even played. The Nets sidelined Irving for his reluctance to get vaccinated in accordance with the New York City mandate. Even so, Brooklyn won early on, but at the expense of heavy workloads for Durant and Harden. When the Nets relented and brought Irving back part-time in late December amid a COVID outbreak, the team began a freefall in the standings. Harden asked for a trade out of Brooklyn and down Interstate 95 to Philadelphia in exchange for Ben Simmons, breaking up the superteam before anyone got a chance to see what it could look like if everyone stayed healthy.
“We’re that good,” Harden said in January after the trio teamed up for the last time to blow out the Bulls.
The Nets were in first place in the conference on Christmas. They finished in the Play-In Tournament.
Ultimately, the lack of a homegrown star may have been the Nets ’biggest shortcoming. The Nets built a culture that gave them enough success to attract Irving and Durant, two stars to whom they showed great loyalty, but without a star they’d drafted and developed, the whole thing eventually unraveled. Brooklyn chased aging All-Stars such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, who had spurts of productivity but lacked the consistency of the gems they rehabbed like Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie.
And finding a homegrown superstar doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards for this next incarnation of the team. Simmons, who came from Philadelphia in February’s Harden trade, hasn’t played in more than a year and recently underwent back surgery. And he’s participated in some of the recent drama, too, after he failed to make his team debut in the postseason after hints he might do so. Could he be on the move, too? The Nets want multiple All-Stars back in return for Durant, which would keep them in the playoff hunt and away from the dark hole they were in after their first superteam with Deron Williams blew up in 2014.
The only certain thing about the Nets in recent years has been uncertainty. Durant’s request doesn’t stop that. Now, what happens to Irving, who is presumably out the door with Durant at some point soon? What about Nash, who’s said throughout his coaching tenure that he doesn’t want to coach a rebuilding team? Does Marks hold onto Harris, the team’s longest-tenured player and lone remaining poster boy of the brief renaissance under Atkinson, or does Marks trade Harris for more assets?
And what will the Nets do differently this time around? After all, it wasn’t the process to build the superteam that got them here, but the people they bet on. Marks has already taken the organization from laughable to respectable with a more depleted hand than when he was hired in 2016. What can he do with potentially one of the biggest trade returns in NBA history?
The Nets superteam era that started with a clean sweep of two superstars and Jordan has now ended with a playoff sweep at the hand of the Celtics, whose stars came from the picks acquired in Brooklyn’s original superteam trade to pair Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce with Williams , Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. The Celtics nearly won the title. The KD-Kyrie Nets never came close to sniffing one, and they really didn’t get anything out of the Durant and Irving era – except a blueprint on how not to build a superteam.
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(Photo by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)