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Ian Eagle talks upcoming season: KD, Kyrie ... and who killed Kenny

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2018 NBA Draft Photo by Stephen Pellegrino/NBAE via Getty Images

In a wide-ranging interview with David Aldridge of The Athletic, Ian Eagle talks about the Nets, their two superstars, their new head coach, their now veteran GM and their new owner, including his role in dispatching Kenny Atkinson last March.

Eagle, who’s anchored Nets — and NBA — broadcasts for the past 20 years, spoke to Aldridge as part of The Athletic’s NBA preview. On the podcast, the YES Network broadcaster spoke about how the Nets progressed from the franchise with the worst future to a championship contender in only four years, what Eagle calls “the New Normal Nets.” He also spoke about the future, both in terms of who the Nets have already and the possibility of adding James Harden.

In talking about where the Nets came from after the Boston trade and a 21-win season in 2015-16, Eagle said simply, “it was hard,” then offered a lengthy tribute to Sean Marks, saying the first thing he did was do away with the idea of competing against the Knicks. The idea was just to get better.

“What struck me about Sean and it really resonated with me early was they were treating their players, even though they weren’t all all-stars, even though they weren’t the biggest names, they were treating them like they were gold and treating their families extremely well. Even on the team flights families were invited, extended families were invited and that was a new vibe.”

From that point, Eagle said, nature took its course: Players talked to players. Eagle also said there was a more subtle change as well in Marks and the franchise’s relationship with player agents.

“They realized they needed them to be advocates and not enemies,” Eagle said of the agents. “That was a huge decision. Maybe people don’t see it that way on other teams. They look at the fight and the battle and the constant drama. The Nets viewed it as we need the agents on our side to show them we’re going to be a first class organization. So they could share with their clients that Brooklyn could be a destination.”

Ultimately, Eagle said that culture led to the Nets getting Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and are appealing to James Harden.

“The fact that the Nets are even in that conversation is hard to wrap your brain around,” he noted. “It’s crazy.” But Eagle doesn’t think (nor does Aldridge) that Harden will wind up in Brooklyn.

“In all sincerity, the fact that this came out ... and I can tell you from the four years plus that Sean Marks has been running the team, you know from where information flows. This did not flow from the Nets. Everything that has come from the Nets — making deals, free agent signings — if you look at it, everything has been a bit of a surprise or under the radar and then they do it. There hasn’t been a lot of rumblings, ‘they’re doing this, they’re doing that. The Nets ... they don’t talk.

“So the fact that this information came out leads me to believe that it came from the Houston side. It came from either Harden or his people that wanted to get the ball rolling and get the word out.”

Eagle argued that Marks is “too shrewd” to play this out publicly, adding, “I don’t see how the Nets are going to give up the farm for this and I think Houston is playing a little rope-a-dope too, trying to figure out what’s the market. This is a transcendent type of player and if you’re Houston, you’d better get back what you need in order to take the next step as an organization. So, I think both parties are trying to figure this out.”

As for the present, Eagle sees Steve Nash’s communication skills as being critical, calling him a “unifier.”

“You can see him relating to KD and Kyrie, then finding commonality with Caris LeVert, then all the way down to Chris Chiozza. He’s going to be able to articulate where he’s coming from, at every level, and to me that would going to be the biggest key of this hire. Of course, he’s never been in this spot. That’s why Mike D’Antoni is there. That’s why Jacque Vaughn’s there. Amar’e Stoudemire, somebody that he’s really familiar with, really comfortable with and someone who brings an immense amount of credibility to the coaching staff is there.”

As for two superstars, Eagle has few of the doubts other pundits might harbor.

“The one thing I’ve learned about KD is that this guy really cares. who is a true student of the game. This is not someone who’s finding something to fill his days other than basketball. He eats, he breathes, he cares about this and for him to be out 18 months, he has played over and over again in his mind how these games are going to go.

“I think he is going to be man possessed, personally. I think you guys know this, but he takes names. and he knows what’s been said, who said it, when it was said and it motivates him to no end. Now how that all works.”

As for the Robin to Durant’s Batman, Eagle offered, as he has repeatedly, a portrait of Irving as someone much deeper, more involved than he’s generally viewed.

“Kyrie is an interesting guy and find him incredibly deep and affable. And if you talk to him, you walk away digging his vibe. He goes deep into stuff and he’s a naturally curious guy. He actually wants to know about you and ask you questions and ‘what’s going on?’ and ‘what are you doing and ‘how does that work?’ I find it refreshing and I think he does look at basketball as a canvas. He gets his brush strokes and then he dpes a little more of that specialized painting and he gets inside and works the edge.

“I’m really curious like everybody is about how this is going to play out and how those two guys jibe together when this thing starts for real.”

Asked by Aldridge’s co-host, Wos Lambre, about what happened with Kenny Atkinson, Eagle said it was more Joe Tsai than anyone else.

“My impression of that, from reading all the tea leaves from that, was, look, new owners! When new owners come in, they evaluate everything, every bit of the organization. And every department is viewed and analyzed and assessed. And at some point when you start talking to people and you’re getting reports back or your instincts are telling you that you may need to make a change here or make a change there. Ultimately that’s on ownership.

“Now, do players have a voice? Oh course, they do! Do your best players have a voice? Absolutely. But ultimately, owners make the call. Whatever vibe was being felt, at that point, there was a general consensus from high atop the food chain that they needed to make a change.”

Bottom line for Eagle? We’re talking the “New Normal Nets” whose success is still TBA.

“There’s no doubt that there’s a whole new flavor here. With KD being healthy, that’s the big first step. and how everybody comes together and how all of this works and a new approach. Jacque Vaughn being in charge of the defense and Mike D’Antoni being in charge of the offense. And how all of this comes together, I don’t know. Honestly, guys, I think it’s one of the big questions of the 2020-21 season!”

But if it works, he says, normal for the Net will be the championship.