There will be plenty of compelling storylines when the NBA returns from hiatus. The future of the Brooklyn Nets remains as exciting and uncertain as any of them.
Whatever transpires when the league returns from its’ COVID-19 induced suspension, the next full season will start with questions. Outside of the obvious ones regarding changes to the actual procedures of the game, the answers we really want are about the teams on the court.
Will the new champs be soaking in the sun of LA or living the high life in Milwaukee? Will another team emerge behind the will of a superstar like the Raptors did with Kawhi Leonard to take the title? What about the return of the Warriors? Will small-ball still reign in Houston? How does another year of the “Process” progress, or not, for the Sixers? The Thunder, Pelicans, Nuggets and Celtics all have interesting outlooks with lots of questions as well.
And then there are the Brooklyn Nets. They may have the most intriguing and unknown future of any squad in the league. That’s what happens when two injured and enigmatic superstars, neither known for great qualities of leadership, come together on the same team. Will they look like their promising pieces form the nucleus of something special or blow apart with acrimony like other squads Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have led?
Irving and Durant have complicated histories and undeniable talent. They just have trouble harnessing that into team wins on some occasions and, due to their mercurial tendencies, they aren’t given a pass like some beloved players are.
Their words and actions are talked about as much as their games. Next season the Nets hope to answer some questions of their own and see if their big risk/big reward gamble in free agency hits to make them the new kings of NYC and the NBA. New York, a historic mecca of the sport, has been starved of good basketball long enough to feel the promise and excitement that the Nets could bring. Even before Durant and Irving signed on, the Nets were riding an unexpected wave of moderate success into the 2018-19 playoffs and gave the Sixers a tough series despite losing 4-1.
They won over the fans by playing hard and together, while the organization have picked players reasonably well and developed them even better. The Nets survived draft-capital hell after being fleeced by the Celtics, to become New York’s premier free-agent destination — a more stable franchise with a better vision than their uptown neighbors.
Joe Harris was signed after averaging less than three points per game in two seasons in Cleveland. He has averaged double-figures each of his last three with the Nets. Spencer Dinwiddie was signed out of the D-League and has become a borderline All-Star. Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert were taken at No. 22 and No. 20 in their respective drafts.
Add Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler and Deandre Jordan, a good friend of Durant and Irving, in the off-season and the Nets have young and old combinations of talent and role players at a lot of positions. Despite all of the prospective top four scorers being better players with the ball in their hands, they aren’t selfish or unwilling passers, but chemistry and hierarchy will need to be figured out along with the growing pains associated with these issues.
The Nets’ next choice in head coach will be crucial as that person needs to be someone respected by the players to be able to speak freely. With questions surrounding a superstar’s ability to call out teammates, it would be best if the new coach was comfortable in his player relationships to be able to take on this role. That’s why Tyronn Lue, Mark Jackson and Jacque Vaughn, all ex-players, and point guards interestingly enough, are considered the main contenders.
While some say Durant gamed the system in joining a championship squad, he knew his legacy would be lessened if he never won a title. While some like to fault the player for taking the “easy” route, the narrative on ringless players has to take some blame. That perception will not be there with the Nets. In spite of the negative talk, he actually improved as an all-around player. His commitment on defense was markedly better with all the switching he was required to do and he had career highs in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and blocks for the season at some point in his three years with the Warriors.
Durant seemed like he more wanted to be part of something rather than the face of it. While he felt at home during his playing days with the Thunder, his departure brought the stark reality that he was just another player. At Golden State, he felt accepted, but still not part of what the big three were since they were drafted by the organization, or even Andre Iguodala who was there for the first title back in 2015.
His arguments with Draymond Green and Steve Kerr, who said he felt the run was over after the 2019 Finals, further showcased this. Even though Durant picked the Warriors, he picked them for business more than pleasure and did everything he could to make it successful with two straight Finals MVP awards and his ruptured Achilles in pursuit of another.
Durant has never blamed or said he felt pressured by the organization to come back early from injury in that Game 5 where he was hurt. He just accomplished what he wanted to do and felt it was time to go somewhere he was really wanted, citing the love he felt from the fans as one of the reasons for selecting the Nets. All basketball fans, really, are hoping he shows the league he is truly back to that which he was, an effortless scorer and deadly mismatch, the likes which the NBA has seldom seen.
Irving is probably the biggest conundrum in the NBA. He is one of, if not the most skilled player in the league with perhaps the best arsenal of must-watch dribbling and shot-making talent. He should be an NBA marketer’s dream but he is not because he has called out teammates in the media, declared his own basketball brilliance, and has made interesting statements regarding the wokedness of perception and flatness of certain planetary bodies. He’s made his own movies and commercials, seems to have a love/hate relationship with the media and fans and can give exceedingly generous amounts to charity or publicly support social causes that some find controversial.
He’s easy to love or hate but as the aesthetic of the NBA is the closest a sport can be to a true art form, Irving seems to be its most frustrated artist. One capable of the greatest achievements and masterworks to be placed on the highest of pedestals, but also one who seems constantly dissatisfied and demanding of perfection; when he himself can lose interest sometimes and let it affect his game and those around him.
Genius can be a lonely business and it only gets lonelier the more you profess it without the adoration of those you want to lead, despite the jaw-dropping highlights that speak to its’ truthfulness. He is a champion though, who hit one of the most significant and iconic shots in NBA history but also regarded as a chemistry problem by a significant and growing portion of the basketball community.
Whatever your feelings about him as a person or a leader, Irving’s game still makes a positive impact. He was having a career or second-best year in numerous regular and advanced statistics with his lowest turnover rate despite his highest usage rate in the short season. The Nets are just hoping that all the efficient numbers translate into winning basketball.
On paper, this roster looks fantastic, but realizations don’t always match the expectations, as health, chemistry and coaching are all huge question marks that have derailed a lot surer things in the NBA. In the end, this team was built by choices and those are what will dictate what happens next.
This was the choice of Durant to play with his best friend in the league in Irving and vice versa. It wasn’t made to secure a title for his legacy after a lengthy free agency tour. It was done with his agent in a restaurant and was announced on Instagram without any prior notice given to the Nets. He has said he thought about other teams for a few seconds, but that it would have always been the Nets because of the brand of basketball and the organization. When you have fans, friends and a foundation to build on, the choice looks even easier.
For Kyrie Irving, also free from the pressure of chasing a title, he chose to play as close to home as he could, in New York with fans who support him and with his friends in a situation that will make him happy on and off the court. Players are people too, and when people are happier in their jobs, they are generally better at and more invested in making it successful.
Durant and Irving can hopefully temper each other’s weaknesses and tell each other the truth as friends. They can call each other on their BS, but also be there and understand what the other is dealing with better than anyone else can. For two players often accused of being moody and distant, having a ready-made support system would only be a benefit.
The Nets made a choice that they thought Durant and Irving could do this too. They were at the bottom just a short time ago and are hoping to make it to the top with this as their foundation. Time will tell if their hunch was right, that two friends and superstars could turn around the fortunes for at least one of New York’s basketball franchises, but whatever happens, the Brooklyn Nets will be one interesting team to watch.