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Arnovitz: In Superteam culture, things don’t always go as planned. Ask the Nets

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers

In a feature on whether the NBA has seen the end of superteams, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz writes about how things can go south quickly, citing the example of how the Nets’ “Big Three” came apart, how culture and personality issues drive success — or failure — as much as play.

Specifically, Arnovitz writes about what led up to the February 10 trade centered on Harden for Ben Simmons. The seeds of the Nets’ issues with James Harden, he reports, began in training camp when the superstar showed up out-of-shape ... and Kevin Durant noticed.

KD was not pleased.

Sources say that much of the discontent between Harden and the Nets started in September when he arrived into training camp out of shape. Durant had been understanding of Harden’s predicament in Houston as a man in need of new scenery, but also tacitly expected his former teammate to commit himself to conditioning and self-care when he came seeking a title in Brooklyn, according to a source close to both stars. With Irving’s status already in flux due to his unwillingness to get vaccinated, Durant was astonished in the opening weeks of the season at Harden’s lack of explosiveness and sluggish play, something he attributed in large part to Harden’s being out of shape, as he did the ensuing hamstring issues.

In response, Harden wasn’t enthralled with KD.

Harden, sources say, found Durant’s slant grating and self-righteous. The two never resolved the conflict, and there was little that teammates, coach Steve Nash or Marks could do to mediate it. With each passing week, Harden became more isolated, with staff and teammates increasingly frustrated by the static. The Nets ultimately excised him from the locker room in a blockbuster trade deadline deal with Philadelphia for Ben Simmons.

Now, two months after the big deal, Harden has been playing at a less than superstar level and Simmons still isn’t playing at all. For Arnovitz, it’s all about how building superteams is an iffy proposition with egos and unpredictable irritants.

Arnovitz also offers some new details on the tension between Kenny Atkinson, who brought the team to the edge of respectability in 2019 before Sean Marks engineered the “Clean Sweep” that summer. A big piece of the problem, Arnovitz reports, was that both Durant and Kyrie Irving relied on outside experts — trainers, medical staff, etc. — that kept them separate from the rest of the team.

NBA players typically operate with some degree of isolation from the team when working through rehab, but Irving and Durant had a bevy of medical specialists and personal trainers outside the team’s purview that added to their sense of removal from the Nets, sources say.

Atkinson had some difficulty managing the superstars from afar.

Then, there was the “big” issue, that is which big should Atkinson play: DeAndre Jordan, who was pals with KD and Kyrie, or Jarrett Allen, nearly a decade younger and coming into his own. That, argued Arnovitz, led to a stars vs. kids dynamic before the Harden trade.

According to multiple sources, the starting assignment at center became a source of internal strife, with DeAndre Jordan the preferred option for the vets, while Atkinson favored the blossoming Allen. Sources describe the situation as a proxy battle between the scrappy pre-2019 Nets and the new brand-name iteration. As much as the existing core in Brooklyn acknowledged that having transcendent talents would goose the offense, the cultural transition “bummed them out a little,” in the words of one source with knowledge of the locker room dynamic.

It didn’t help that the Nets weren’t winning and Atkinson and the Nets agreed to a “mutual” parting of the ways. As for whether KD and Kyrie engineered Atkinson’s departure, Arnovitz downplays that narrative saying that it’s been “greatly exaggerated.”

Marks, as he has in the past, denied there was an issue with the Nets vaunted culture either in his dealings with his superstars or ownership, specifically Joe Tsai.

“We have always involved our key stakeholders at the appropriate times,” he told Arnovitz. “Our players are at the core of everything we do. They set and drive our culture, and receiving their input sometimes allows you to see things from a different point of view. Ownership has been nothing but supportive of our decisions. Personally, I love bouncing ideas off Joe [Tsai].”

On Irving, Arnovitz doesn’t focus so much on his anti-vaccine stand but rather the parade of issues the third superstar has brought to the Nets since arriving in 2019.

Admire him, loathe him, pity him or be confounded by him, Irving has been a very complicated piece in that composition. One Nets source says it’s not so much one single act that weighs on the team or organization, but rather Irving in the aggregate: ”It’s always something,” irrespective of how productive he is when he suits up.

Now, of course, is the big test for the superteam ethos. The Nets have a healthy Durant, a healthy Irving and as Steve Nash said, “who knows,” a healthy Ben Simmons if they can get into the playoffs. As Arnovitz writes, a lot of NBA executives will be watching.