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Sacrifice: How player after player gave up millions to win in Brooklyn

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Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It is a word tossed about by coaches and players alike. Sacrifice. You need it to win a championship, whether in terms of playing time, ego ... or money. Fears that the Nets “Big Three” wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice their egos never materialized. They sacrificed because they saw something larger. To a certain extent, that it’s worked has surprised even them ... as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant both said Thursday after the Hornets game,

“I don’t know if everyone could have saw this vision a year ago, or two years ago. You know or just when it was the birth of an idea of what a place would look like with some guys in our league that we’ve played against. Guys in our league, we’ve played against each other for so long, and then now in one place, it’s unreal at times, a little surreal because we’ve all accomplished so much individually.”

“My vision was for us to come in and have championship habits every day with how we work and how we communicate with each other from the coaches to the players to the front office and how we build this family of fans in Brooklyn, in our borough. That’s what I was envisioning,” added Durant. “The roster was going to come together the way it was going to come together, but I was more so envisioning the culture that we wanted to create, and I think we’re on the way to that.”

It’s beyond sharing the ball, though. It’s hard to calibrate, but the dollars and cents Nets players have sacrificed is one of the most under appreciated stories of Brooklyn’s rise. From the contract restructuring at the time of the “Clean Sweep” to James Harden decision to turn down the biggest salary in NBA history to the buyouts of Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge, players have given up tens of millions of dollars to help create a superteam in Brooklyn.

In each case, in order to win a championship, players had to be willing to set aside their egos, and play a different role. Taking less money, a sacrifice which might have been difficult, was necessary if you want to be the last team standing. While owners grimace and grind over how buyouts are giving big market teams like Brooklyn an advantage, little has been written about the players’ financial sacrifices. Here’s a summary of just how much Nets players have given up to play together. It used to be axiomatic that players wouldn’t leave money on the table just to win. That, as the Nets have proven, is no longer true. Here’s the details.

Kyrie Irving/Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant, to some extent, and Kyrie Irving, to a larger degree, have been criticized in the past for not being good teammates, but their stay in Brooklyn has shown them in quite the contrary light, starting with their initial contract talks with Nets brass back in 2019.

First, Durant turned down the Supermax extension — $221 million over five years with the Warriors to sign with the Nets at four years $164million. Giving up this kind of lucrative deal —and security— is a lot to pass on, especially considering that KD was a veteran player coming off a devastating Achilles injury. Irving didn’t qualify for the supermax in Boston but he and Durant were willing to do something else: manipulate their contracts so that some of the money wouldn’t count against the cap ... and that two big men could be added to the roster.

Both were initially willing to put $4-to-$5 million of unlikely bonuses in their contract. Bobby Marks, the Nets former assistant GM, explained how it would have worked back then.

“That extra $10 million — generated because unlikely bonuses don’t count toward the salary cap — would have allowed the team to sign Irving and Durant outright and use the remaining room on free agent DeAndre Jordan and second-round pick Nicolas Claxton,” Marks wrote in September of 2019.

But as he noted, the two players didn’t have to do that. The Nets and they caught a “lucky break.” The Warriors called and asked for D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade for KD. The sacrifices would be smaller, but Irving would still have to restructure his deal.

“Because cap space was not required to sign Durant, Brooklyn only needed to structure $1 million in unlikely bonuses for Irving to still have room for Jordan and Claxton,” Bobby Marks noted. (If all that hadn’t worked, the Nets would have had to sign Claxton to a two-year, veterans minimum deal, not the three-year, $4.2 million contract he ultimately agreed to. As we can see now, that third year will be invaluable for Claxton’s development.)

Durant has been in the headlines recently for tweeting “I’ll never be able to do anything that I really want to do on earth, by myself”. There’s the proof.

James Harden

The Nets; dominance began in mid-January when they traded for James Harden. This all was made possible because Harden turned down the opportunity to be the first $50 million a year in NBA HISTORY. As reports of conversations among Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden began to circulate in the fall, the Rockets decided to go all in to retain him.

In mid-November, just before the NBA Draft, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Harden declined an extension of two years and $103 million ... on top of his current deal, three years $133 million. The extension offer would have paid him more than $103 million for the 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons when he’ll be 34 and 35 years old. The grand total —$236 million— would have been more than the biggest deal signed since, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s $228 million supermax. But no, Harden wanted to play in Brooklyn. He declined.

“Harden believes his window to chase championships in Houston has ended,” Adrian Wojnarowski wrote at the time. “And constructing a super team with the Nets represents his best pathway to a title, sources said. Harden can become a free agent in 2022 if he opts out of the final year of his contract — and sources said Brooklyn represents a two-year play to win a title before deciding on the next steps in his career.”

Since then, of course, Harden was traded to Brooklyn and became an MVP candidate worthy of any contract the CBA permitted. Few thought this three-headed monster would work, many stating that the personalities were too strong, or that there is only one basketball. This all changed when Harden modified his entire game, really owning into the playmaking role. For him, the money mattered less than the game.

Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin is the next player to make extreme sacrifices in the pursuit of a championship. After a mediocre beginning to the season, the Pistons shut him down February 12. Under his Pistons contract, he was owed $36.6 million this season, and $39 million in 2021-22 Impossible to trade, the Pistons decided to bite the bullet and buy him out.

Ultimately the six-time All-Star gave up more than $13 million just for a chance to compete for a NBA championship in Brooklyn. In basic terms, he agreed to take $4.3 million less this season and $8.7 million next.

In order to allow the Nets to have more money and sign someone else down the road, Griffin agreed to a one-year deal worth $776,873 (the vets minimum pro-rated) instead of asking the Nets to make him whole by giving him all or part of the Nets two remaining exceptions.

This added piece continues to build a winning mentality. In one of his press conferences, Blake Griffin said “I just want to win” and “I got the feel of the ultimate goal, winning a championship, at practice tonight”. He has gone on to back this up with his play. Whether it means taking a charge, diving on the floor for a loose ball, coming off the bench, or not complaining about reduced minutes, Blake only has put winning over money.

LaMarcus Aldridge

For LaMarcus Aldridge, the latest player to join the Brooklyn Nets, the situation was similar. Just as the Pistons shut down Griffin, the Spurs and Aldridge came to a “mutual agreement” after the All-Star Break to send him home, end their seven-year commitment to each other.

The national media continued to say, “The Miami Heat are the frontrunners to land LaMarcus Aldridge”, right up until he had a meeting with the Nets front office and coaching staff. KD went after him early and all the connections he had with the Nets players and staff paid off. Forfeiting $7.2 million of a $24 million deal, he, too signed a pro-rated veterans minimum deal, He’s only getting paid $554,998 the rest of this year.

So, like his teammates, Aldridge gave up a bunch of money to sign with the Nets. In his debut against the Hornets Thursday, Aldridge looked like someone worth a lot more than a half million dollars, racking up 11 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in 30 minutes. He was also +22 plus/minus, his best number in nearly a year and a half.

“I had fun out there,” Aldridge said post-game. “These guys are great. It’s a bunch of good guys that just want to win and play good basketball, so that makes it easy.”

No talk of lost wages, just winning. There was a subtext to Aldridge’s arrival that spoke as well to sacrifice, if not the monetary kind. Aldridge chose to wear No. 21, not 12 which he had worn in San Antonio. He didn’t ask Joe Harris if he could wear 12. Instead, he chose 21 (a number he couldn’t have worn with the Spurs, it being retired by Tim Duncan). As it turned out, Harris told reporters that if Aldridge had asked, he would have agreed to give it up, saying he wasn’t that attached to it!

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Is it over? Will the Nets sign another player who’s been bought out? Probably not. There are only 24 games left till the playoffs. Not a lot of time to integrate yet another high usuage player. If they did, of course, there would no doubt be more criticism of how the buyout process is unfair, something both Howard Beck and Adrian Wojnarowski have written this week. The argument is that it allows good teams to get better, the “rich get richer” as Beck wrote. But the rich players who go the buyout route don’t get richer. They sacrifice as Durant, Irving, Harden, Griffin and Aldridge all have, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. They didn’t have to. They chose to sacrifice.

And as Bobby Marks said on Instagram two days ago, it’s time to give the Nets front office some credit in convincing everyone to make that sacrifice. The Nets have also been deft in finding nooks and crannies in the CBA, Marks noted.

Not only are the Brooklyn Nets the most talented team in the NBA, they are also a team full of former and current stars with one common goal, winning an NBA championship. It is difficult to put aside egos and minutes and money when you assemble a team as strong as the Nets, but if they can continue to sacrifice for a common goal, Brooklyn will be hoisting a banner this summer.

After all, Luis Scola warned everyone in 2017, when he said, “Once they win, they will get everyone they want”.