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Learning experience: How the Nets are integrating their Big 2 ... one step at a time

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

UPDATE: Kenny Atkinson and Nets deny —and denigrate— Jackie MacMullan’s contention that the Nets are concerned about Kyrie Irving’s “infamous mood swings.”

It started on a luxury cruise ship anchored in Rio de Janiero harbor during the 2016 Olympics, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan grew as friends. KD and DJ had been close since high school. Kyrie, who had just won an NBA ring and would ring an Olympic gold, was new to the other two and as Jackie MacMullan notes in her feature on the Nets took some getting used to.

Durant even admits he had to give the tired Irving some encouragement, basketball style, to get him into the Olympic swing of things.

“He was tired, not quite committed like the rest of us early on. I felt that, and I pushed back on him, not in a personal way, but as teammates do. And that was the start of our little relationship,” Durant told MacMullan.

”For him to allow me to do that, for him to take it in the right spirit, and for us to be able to talk through it, that only solidified our respect.”

It’s one of several times recounted by MacMullan that Irving went his own way. He declined to participate annual two-day minicamp with the performance team, which involved, among other things, gathering biometric data through wearables. He has his own trainer. Eventually, Irving has become more a part of the Nets plan.

Then, there was the time in Shanghai, MacMullan writes, when Irving declined to take his hat off for the team photo atop the Pearl Tower, the traditional setting for such photos, and instructed the team to photoshop it out.

The Nets front office and coaching staff are willing to give Irving —and Durant and Jordan— a little more leeway in their individual ways. They have, after all, noted Atkinson, won big.

“Look,” Atkinson says. “These guys have won championships. They come from darn good pedigrees, and we’ve thrown some things at them that they’ve said, ‘Hell no!’”

Indeed, a Nets official has told NetsDaily that the two players aren’t afraid to voice their opinions on a wide variety of issues, pausing before adding, “and that’s a good thing.”

And so, the Nets are moving from what Atkinson has admitted is a bit of a rigid system to something else.

“I can already see it morphing into something it was not before. When Joe Harris was trying to make it in the league, he was saying, ‘I’ll do whatever you want.’ Now we’re dealing with veterans who are saying, ‘OK, this is how you do it. But this is how I’ve always done it, and this has worked for me.’

”The challenge is, can we meld the two? No one gave us an award for mastering the culture code. We’re still learning.”

“We can’t stop the train, and say, ‘Whoa, whoa. They don’t want to do this, so let’s put on the brakes,’” Sean Marks said of the team’s performance data-mining efforts. “We’re doing something that requires building their trust -- and that takes time.

”They need to know the things we’re doing are coming from a good place. It will never be used against them. It’s not malicious. It’s not, ‘Hey, you did this, it’s going to affect your contract.’”

Durant admits it will take time. While he appreciated the Nets culture enough to sign with the team, he wants his say.

“It’s going to have to be a give and take,” KD told MacMullan. “At this point of our careers, we have routines. At the same time, I want to learn what they’re about. We have to be willing to meet halfway.”

Is this a problem?

No one is suggesting it is. But as MacMullan notes...

Yet Irving’s infamous mood swings, confirmed by his ex-teammates, which followed him from Cleveland to Boston to Brooklyn, are the unspoken concern that makes Nets officials queasy. When Irving lapses into these funks, he often shuts down, unwilling to communicate with the coaching staff, front office and sometimes, even his teammates.

For the record, Nets executives, coaches and players praise the leadership Irving and Durant have brought. It was they who organized the L.A. —actually Santa Monica— mini-camp and teammates are on the record pointing to other examples.

“I look at Kyrie as somebody who is an artist,” Durant says. “You have to leave him alone. You know what he’ll bring to the table every night because he cares so much about the game.

”Now, it might not be how other people want him to care about it. He has his way of doing things. I respect who he is and what he does. He has all the intangibles you want in a teammate and a great player. So, how he gets to the point to be ready for 7:30 every night, I’m supporting him 100 percent.”

Dinwiddie and Irving spent a week together in Hawaii in July with their families. LeVert says Irving drops “a little basketball gem in his lap nearly every day” writes MacMullan, whether it’s how to cross over to shake off defenders, or the concentration and repetition required to finish in traffic. Even Jaylen Hands, the Nets second rounder now in Long Island, has said Irving has worked with him.

And if Irving does go too far in own way, the Nets hope Durant will be able to “coax his friend into a better frame of mind.”

As for KD, the anticipation of his return grows.

“He goes out and takes a couple of set shots -- not jumpers -- and the whole gym stops,” Marks says. “You can hear a pin drop. That’s great for our guys, because they sense this guy is waiting in the wings. We’re not waiting for him, but man, it’s kind of a cool feeling to know he’s coming.”

It’s not all about concerns, MacMullan notes. It’s about learning by both sides.

Marks tells MacMullan he’ll continue the dialogue with Irving, who has already shown up for table time and the weight-training sessions. “I want him to know we’re coming from a good place,” Marks says. “If players get the feeling that we’re using them or have an ulterior motive, it’s going to fail. ... We’re taking the stance of ‘How can we help you?’”

Harris thinks the Nets culture, already imbued in the players, is going to help.

“I don’t think any of us plan on telling these guys how things are done,” Harris told the ESPN writer. “You won’t find a ton of egos around here. Our thing is to play unselfish and play together.

”I’m sure Kyrie will have some ‘days’ and so will we. As long as the accountability is in place, we’ll all ride with it.”