Nets

KD-Kyrie Era Highlights Limitations of Player Empowerment

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What if Kevin Durant’s foot was behind the line? This what-if scenario still haunts Nets fans to this day:

Brooklyn was mere inches away from advancing to the Conference Finals in 2021. If the Nets won, they were easily the favorite to win the title that season.

Now, instead of bathing in champagne, the franchise is preparing to nail the final coffins on their once historically-unstoppable Nets.

Durant requested a trade from Brooklyn at the start of this offseason. Uncertainty is the only way to describe Kyrie Irving’s future with the Nets. James Harden is gone after 13 months on the team. Ben Simmons’ shaky postseason play and latest back problems are becoming a greater concern.

Fortunately, at the very least, the Nets just solved their Kevin Durant problem.

After constant uncertainty, the Nets announced that Durant will remain on the team for the foreseeable future:

For a team that’s been in turmoil for a while, it’s a step in the right direction.

But like a stock market, the NBA’s best teams can quickly rise as they fall. Brooklyn’s fall from grace is the franchise’s own version of Black Monday.

At this point, any scenario is on the table. We don’t know what’s next for the Nets. Brooklyn could lose in the first round or win the title. Both are scenarios with equal probabilities. 

However, we do know how the franchise arrived at this very point and why the Durant-Irving Nets were always destined to fail. 

A Rocky Start

In 2018-19, Brooklyn surpassed all expectations, doing so in entertaining fashion. Coming off the disastrous Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade, the Nets had their first promising season in a while.

Brooklyn went above .500 for the first time since 2014, finished sixth in the East, and played Philadelphia in a competitive first-round series.

During that season, the seeds were planted for Durant and Irving to team up with the Nets.

That dream turned into a reality in the 2019 offseason.

Durant and Irving teamed up after wearing out their welcomes in both Golden State and Boston, respectively. Just like that, the Nets fielded one of the best up-and-coming rosters in the league.

But the team wasn’t built up without controversy.

As stated earlier, both KD and Kyrie soured with their respective teams in the previous season. Durant would miss all of the 2019-2020 season recovering from an Achilles injury.

The Nets only went 28-34 with both Durant and Irving missing time in 2020. However, Brooklyn did go 5-3 in the NBA Bubble and earned a playoff berth.

In a surprising move, promising Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson agreed to “mutually part ways” with the organization in the middle of the 2020 season. Former Suns MVP Steve Nash became his replacement the next offseason. According to some in the media, Durant and Irving both wanted a former player to coach the team.

Thus began both KD and Kyrie unofficially controlling Brooklyn’s front office and management decisions.

Here Comes Harden

With both Durant and Irving healthy, the Nets stumbled out of the gate in the 2020-2021 season, only going 8-6 to begin. 

Struggling to start the year, Brooklyn made a home-run trade and then some, acquiring 2018 MVP James Harden from Houston in a blockbuster move.

On the one hand, the team now possessed three of the league’s most gifted offensive scorers ever.

Yet, Brooklyn grossly overpaid for Harden. Plus, instead of addressing the team’s weaknesses (lack of two-way wings or any defensive personnel in general), the team doubled down on a hyper-scoring offense at the expense of defense.

Did KD and Kyrie play a role in pushing for the Nets to acquire Harden? It seems like it.

Irving made controversial comments about some of Brooklyn’s young players during the Nets’ disappointing 2020 season. It also seemed like Irving (and to an extent, KD) pushed Nets management to embrace the short-term at the expense of the long.

The result— losing an All-Star player in Jarrett Allen and all of their first-round draft picks for the foreseeable future. Oh, and Harden eventually became a Sixer just over a year later.

While players run the league, organizations run the teams. KD and Kyrie all but ran the Nets, even if the consequences became more and more apparent.

To be fair, Brooklyn did have a fantastic 2020-2021 season.

The Nets went 48-24 in the pandemic-shortened season. Despite losing Kyrie to injury and Harden struggling in the postseason, Brooklyn was still a Durant shoe size away from the 2021 Conference Finals. KD played at an all-time level against Milwaukee.

Yet, a superteam seemingly on the rise just reached its peak. For Brooklyn, it was all downhill from here.

2022: A Season of Turmoil

This past season was nothing but a catastrophe for the Nets.

Each of Brooklyn’s Big Three suffered from a lack of availability and consistent drama off the court.

Durant began the season with MVP-caliber play, but he missed significant time to injury. When he returned, Durant played exceptionally but quietly disappointed against Boston in the first round of this year’s playoffs.

Meanwhile, amidst the looming COVID-19 pandemic, Irving refused to get vaccinated. Kyrie was ineligible to play on Brooklyn’s home games all of last season. In combination, Durant and Irving being unavailable for the Nets is a common theme:

Durant/Irving Availability (2020-2022)

  • Kevin Durant: missed 136 of 226 (60.2%) total regular-season games
  • Kyrie Irving: missed 123 of 226 (54.4%) total regular-season games

Besides KD’s and Kyrie’s absence, the rest of the roster was disappointing. Brooklyn signed washed veterans and players who didn’t improve the team’s biggest weaknesses.

Even worse: Harden showed signs of slowing down.

Harden dealt with a lingering hamstring issue that affected him in the 2021 playoffs. He returned out of shape and not his MVP self. 

Harden was soon traded to Philadelphia just 14 months after Brooklyn broke the bank to acquire him from Houston.

Recent tension, drama and uncertainty came to a boiling point this offseason.

Once free agency began, Durant asked out. Recently, he reaffirmed the organization to let go of coach Nash and GM Sean Marks. That’s right: Durant wants to fire the same coach he wanted on the team just two years earlier. 

Irving’s situation is equally as complicated. Other than the Lakers, his trade value is at an all-time low. The Nets wisely didn’t sign Kyrie to the maximum salary. Now, Irving is in the last year of his contract. Knowing him, anything could happen and it wouldn’t be surprising.

What’s Next?

Durant’s trade request (and Brooklyn’s subsequent response) is a referendum on the player empowerment era.

Recent history shows that when players run the team, disaster soon follows. 

After all, it was LeBron James who originally wanted to acquire Russell Westbrook. Ben Simmons held out from the Sixers as much as possible until he got his way out of town. Harden somehow got his way off of two teams in back-to-back seasons.

Brooklyn is in a state of uncertainty, specifically with Durant.

Durant turns 34 in September with 14 NBA seasons on his basketball odometer. He was disappointing against the Celtics in the postseason, and his previous injuries are a cause of concern for any team.

While we don’t know what will happen, we do know how we got here: player empowerment, taken to the absolute highest level.

KD and Kyrie demanded everything the Nets asked for and more. New coach? Check. Another ball-dominant superstar? You bet. Max money despite limited availability? Of course. Brooklyn all but handed the keys to the franchise.

All of this, just for both players to (on their own terms) nearly force their way out of the mess both stars created.

For now, it seems like Durant and Irving will remain in Brooklyn until further notice. There will be some stability. For now.

The real question for the Nets is this: was it all worth it?

In this era of Nets history, the team was supposed to be an undisputed title contender and a clear championship favorite.

Instead, all the team got was a quick glimmer of hope, a handful of what-if possibilities, and constant turmoil that has now pulverized the team.

Welcome to the new NBA.

About Dominic Chiappone

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