Where to begin? At the end, of course.
The “Clean Sweep” is over. The “Big Three” era is over. It’s about “Grit and Grind” and the future. At this point, no one knows who the Nets will be next season, next month, next week or even tomorrow. It is fluid and uncertain ... and not at all positive.
Other than perhaps Julius Erving being sold to the 76ers in October 1976, there has been no other organizational failure in the NBA like the Brooklyn Nets, circa 2022, no matter the starting point, whether it’s the original decision to bring in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan in June 2019 or ownership’s decision to take a hardline this past month on giving Irving the full, four-year, $245.6 million. It was colossal.
The last few days should not be compared to a roller coaster, unless it’s the final part of the ride, the death-defying descent. No matter what the return — and that remains highly uncertain as well — we’ve seen dreams dashed, plans ruined, parades postponed.
It’s not as if we weren’t warned. Starting with the (delayed) end-of-season press conference on May 11 when Sean Marks made things clear. In answer after answer, Marks said things needed to change. Players needed to be committed. In private discussions at HSS Training Center, he told staffers that he wanted to get back to the “grit and grind” that marked the team’s rise from 20 to 28 to 42 wins in his (and Kenny Atkinson’s) first three years.
Two weeks later, Kristian Winfield laid out the risks of that change in philosophy, dare we say culture, in the seminal piece of this whole debacle. The Nets weren’t going to offer Irving a long-term deal, Durant hadn’t spoken to the team in weeks and if Kyrie exited, the Nets ran the risk of losing KD.
Then, in the last few weeks, things accelerated and with each tweet from Shams or Woj or Windy, reality became clearer. Yes, the Nets were willing to risk it all to regain control of the franchise that Irving was so willing to “manage.”
Was there a breaking point? There were certainly enough things to drive management and ownership, aka Joe Tsai, mad.
Was it Irving’s suggestion after the four-game sweep in Boston, he, KD, Marks and Tsai would “manage the franchise” going forward? Was it those leaked threats that Durant could follow him out of Brooklyn, seemingly orchestrated by Irving’s camp? Was it the fact that Irving didn’t inform the Nets of his decision to opt-in, choosing instead to use a Shams Charania tweet, an indicator that he was not going to change? Or was it simply that the co-founder and executive vice-president of Alibaba felt like he was being being pressured, taken for an NBA rube, a patsy?
More than likely it was cumulative. Marks and Tsai were “deadset” against a repeat of last year. Brian Windhorst contended that it wasn’t just that Irving declined to get the COVID-19 vaccine but there were issues with the way the guard treated coaches and teammates. Windy did not elaborate but insiders spoke of the exhaustion many felt in dealing with him, assuaging him. A Nets insider told NetsDaily there were also complaints about Irving’s effort in the Celtics sweep.
Of course, that is what the Nets signed up for when they went all player empowerment back in 2019. They knew it going in. They embraced it. They were proud of it. It was their culture.
Perhaps Howard Beck said it best when asked when did it go wrong in Brooklyn:
Maybe the moment the Nets signed DeAndre Jordan to a $40 million deal, at the insistence of Durant and Irving back in 2019. Or the moment they fired Kenny Atkinson, because Atkinson wanted to start Jarrett Allen over Jordan, which soured his relationship with Durant and Irving. Or the moment they traded all of their best role players for James Harden, on the (ill-fated) bet that this trio of stars would mesh. Or the moment that Irving declined the COVID vaccine, making him ineligible for home games. Or the moment Harden soured on the team because of Irving’s lack of availability. Or the moment they traded Harden for Ben Simmons, who never played a minute last season. The truth is, the Nets ceded authority to their stars long ago, and have been paying the price ever since.
Of course, nothing, nothing affected the Nets like Irving’s refusal to get the vaccine. It was not about putting a foreign substance into his body. He was not anti-vaccine, he claimed ... at least publicly. It was about the mandates that required him and others to get the shot or risk their livelihoods. In other words, it was a political protest. He disagreed with the government.
Other players who had initially refused the vaccine ultimately got it. One of them, Andrew Wiggins, won a championship with Golden State. But not Kyrie Irving. He stood his ground, no matter how it effected his team. He became a face of the anti-vaxx movement, a darling of Ted Cruz and Joe Rogan and a few hundred protestors who tried to breach Barclays Center in an ugly protest on Opening Night in Brooklyn. Security staff, perhaps the lowest paid employees in the organization, were pummeled. Did he ever apologize to them?
He resisted entreaties from Marks and from Tsai who took him aside at a team reception at the owners’ residence in La Jolla during training camp in southern California. Discussions were frank but with no “evangelizing,” as Tsai later told NetsDaily. Durant said he had not tried to convince Irving to get the shot. He supported his friend.
The one and only time the Nets showed some resolve (spine?) was when they decided that if Irving wouldn’t get vaccinated, he was not welcome at Barclays Center or HSS Training Center. Then, two months later, after Durant applied pressure and they were down several players due to COVID, management and ownership caved, letting him play in road games. They lobbied the Mayor and other city officials to get the vaccine mandates lifted.
After the ignominious end of the season, Irving and the Nets talked about an extension. As both Shams and Zach Lowe reported, there was good-faith negotiating, but no resolution and Irving decided to opt-in. His decision not to inform the team directly was, we are told, particularly grating.
What drove KD to make his request to Tsai remains unclear but Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports said, ”Kevin Durant did not see enough infrastructure and leadership in the franchise,.” He didn’t elaborate. Durant certainly wasn’t pleased that the Nets dumped his friend, Adam Harrington, the director of development, shortly after the season ended.
Logan Murdock, who’s known Durant since Golden State and spent two weeks with the Nets in March researching a KD profile, talked about what he thought the issue was five days before Durant asked to be traded. That podcast which aired three days before free agentalso seminal. “I don’t think Kevin is confident in the front office right now,” Murdock said, adding the two sides hadn’t spoken in weeks. “I don’t know if he’s at the stage of leaving but there’s a big uneasiness from not only from the Kyrie side, but the KD side as well.”
Murdock also described what he saw during his time in Brooklyn. “It just wasn’t good, man. It didn’t seem like a functioning environment.” He added Durant saw dysfunction in his current team and the success of his former team. It wasn’t a stretch to think Murdock’s source was in KD’s camp or the superstar himself.
The next day, Winfield again had the scoop on Irving. He had given the Nets a list of teams he preferred as his final destination if he and the Nets couldn’t reach a deal. Things were getting to crunchtime.
No doubt the team was trying to wrench back some of its power from the superstars and they were resisting. The Nets would regularly run big — and even some small — decisions past their “Big Three” and Joe Harris. It was the way the franchise worked. Had worsening relationships ended or changed that process?
Every team will run things past their bigger stars, not just because you want to please them, keep them in the loop but because they know the game, the personnel, often personally, and can provide insight into how they might fit on and off the court, whether that’s a player or a coach. But with the Nets, it seemed more than that, maybe because there were more stars, bigger stars, more mercurial stars ... for the want of a better word.
There were apparently other issues. Kevin Durant is not LeBron James. He is not that kind of leader. He just loves to play the game. Initially, it seemed that Harden could provide that kind of leadership. He took on a measure of that load on arrival which the front office initially loved but things soured and at some point, his comments, his complaints, were seen as “bitching.” It didn’t help that he was out of shape and obviously unhappy.
Moreover, Kyrie Irving wasn’t just polarizing for the fans. The roster, coaching staff and front office were divided — and exhausted, according to insiders. How could it not be? Tsai and Marks were reportedly in “lockstep” on changing, limiting “distractions,” the sense that as Goran Dragic said in April, “Every day there was something different, something difficult.”
When the end finally came Thursday, with a phone call from Durant to Tsai, it seemed like the natural culmination of a string of events. A resignation accepted, clarity achieved. There should have been regrets, more than a few. Marks is notoriously unsentimental but this was catastrophic for the 46-year-old, turning him almost overnight from savior to villain in the eyes of many fans. How could they let this happen after everything the franchise had experienced?!?
The buck stops here
Joe Tsai, more than Sean Marks, has taken the brunt of criticism at least from those fans who wanted KD and Kyrie back, no matter what the cost, psychic or financial. He took a huge risk, as businessmen do, and at this point, it appears he lost. He drew the line that Durant and Irving crossed over as they exited. He has taken his hits. So, now, the question is not about blame, but what lies ahead.
We do not know whether Tsai will assert more control than he has in the past. He is a brilliant businessman whose record with Alibaba shows he knows when to step in. In any company where an asset is declining in value and/or not producing up to expectations, it’s common for the controlling shareholder to step in and review strategy and management. Tsai has already done that twice on the business side. He’s now on his third CEO in as many years at BSE Global.
What about this comment, from Windhorst?
“Joe Tsai would rather have a team that plays hard that he’s proud to own that wins 40 games and fights for the play-in than have a team that has way more talent that he’s not proud to be a part of,” said Windhorst on ESPN Friday. At best, that’s an exaggeration.
The Nets owner has already expended hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, luxury tax, financial losses, cash considerations etc., etc. in the nearly three years since taking full control of the franchise in October 2019. More in fact than any owner other than Joe Lacob in San Francisco. Not to mention his contributions to social justice efforts in Brooklyn. Team insiders have told NetsDaily that they consider Tsai “the best owner in the NBA.” Or did.
Those who know him say Tsai’s steady personality, never getting too up or too down, is trait that should help the franchise get through what is certainly a crisis (and one that’s partially of his own making.) But he is no patsy. He does not like to be underestimated. In fact, he is said to thrive when people doubt him. That’s good because it is the case now.
Joe Vardon of The Athletic wrote this Friday of where Tsai stands on his team:
Nets owner Joseph Tsai had already reached his limit, multiple sources told The Athletic, after years of injuries, off-court embarrassments and playoff failures were followed by threats leaked by Irving and Durant during Brooklyn’s contract negotiations with Irving.
Vardon notes that while Tsai normally stays out of the planning and execution of basketball operation, this was different, had to be:
As an owner, he stays out of his basketball operations staff’s way, for the most part, giving his blessing on the most important decisions, and would otherwise understand/support/not be averse to the general trend of player empowerment in the modern NBA.
The Nets did take on an additional $9.2 million in salary Thursday when they traded a first rounder in 2023 for Royce O’Neale using the largest of their trade exceptions to bring him in. The Nets also brought back Nic Claxton at $20 million over two and Patty Mills at $14.2 over two as well. Of course, we won’t know what the payroll — and luxury tax — will look like going forward until the smoke has cleared. (We look forward to that day.)
Indeed, where do we go from here?
The rumors are flying and some of them strain credulity. The 76ers are interested in Kyrie Irving? The Nets and Lakers could move on a Kyrie Irving-for-Russell Westbrook trade as early as Sunday? The most hopeful scenario re KD — and we have no inside information — is that the Nets get a young star — Scottie Barnes? Jaylen Brown? Brandon Ingram? — as many picks as they can pry loose and another starter. Virtually no pundit thinks any deal will be “clean,” that is a two-team trade. Marks has orchestrated a five-team trade (Spencer Dinwiddie) and a four-team trade (the first Harden) in the past 18 months.
Right now, before the anticipated “haul” from moving Durant and Irving, the roster looks like it’s lottery-bound. There is no one player who you can realistically see taking that last shot. There’s a shortage of bigs and uncertainty at the point. Will Ben Simmons play at the 1 or the 5 on offense?
Of course, the bar for success is not that high, judged by that standard. The Nets won 44 games last season, finished seventh in the East after winning the play-in. Durant played in only 90 games over three years mainly because of injuries. Irving played in only 103, mainly because he has put basketball behind his life choices. The two played together in all of 44 games out of 226 (winning 27.) Of course, it looks like the best player in the world won’t play for Brooklyn again and that hurts an awful, awful lot. The Nets blew it. No matter where you stand, that is a core truth. Moreover, the stone is at the bottom of the hill again which long time Nets fans are familiar with. This time it just feels heavier.
Looking back and forward
Should the Nets have avoided all the sturm und drang that came with their superstar pursuit and gone with the kids who got them 42 wins in 2018-19: D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert and Joe Harris. That’s a narrative among some fans right now and it’s not an abstract question. The Nets made a fully conscious decision when they decided to take a chance on Kyrie Irving. Of course, they should have gone for the moonshot! That’s how you win in the NBA. Take a look at history as Brian Lewis did this weekend.
Going back to 2004-05 — a span of 18 seasons now — almost every team that has won the NBA title was led by a superstar that either had earned an MVP or was going to. Every single one except a lone outlier.
That was Toronto. But the Raptors had the unique two-way brilliance of Kawhi Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP and arguably the third-best player in the world at the time behind Durant and LeBron James.
How much will the debacle hurt the Nets? With free agents, coaches and front office staff, etc. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some already on board are considering their options going forward.
And what about the FANS??
Some of the faithful are simply bereft, in shock, even mourning. Other are resigned. From what we can tell most are in a wait-and-see mode. ‘Tell us what you got, Joe and Sean, and we’ll tell you how loyal we will be, how many tickets we will buy, how loud we will scream and rant and take to Twitter?’
Training camp begins in a little less than three months, the season a little more. Hopefully, next week and the week after will be better than this one. We dread to think that it could be worse. One thing we know, change is coming.
Joe Harris gone?
It’s probably not a good time to suggest that Joe Harris might never suit up in a Nets uniform again. The player with the most time in Brooklyn has just been in too many rumors. Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, John Hollinger of The Athletic and Legion Hoops have all written this weekend that Harris could be included in a deal centered on Kyrie Irving for Russell Westbrook. Maybe that’s true, maybe not but he’s a big trade asset even after two ankle surgeries in the last seven months.
So, there’s enough smoke to make us believe that either Harris — or Seth Curry — will be gone by camp. The main reason is not the rumors. It’s that trade for Royce O’Neale. The 29-year-old started 77 games last season for Utah. He was their best on-ball defender and a more than credible 3-point shooter at 38.9 percent. That’s not Curry (43.95 percent for his career) nor Harris (43.90) but O’Neale is younger than both and defense is a priority going forward.
As we also noted, the Nets made a significant investment in him. Moreover, the Nets are bringing Patty Mills back at $14.2 million over two which is the max they could have given him. So the Nets have a lot of shooting.
Coaching changes final?
The Nets have updated their coaching staff on the team’s official website. Here’s the screen shot.
So no changes from what we could glean from news reports. Adam Harrington, David Vanterpool and Amar’e Stoudemire have not been renewed and Jordan Ott is headed to the Lakers. Not quite a bloodbath, but more than the usual turnover.
The Nets have yet to announce who will replace those who are gone, but there have been rumors that long-time NBA assistant and former Suns head coach, Igor Kokoskov will join the staff. Also, there have been reports that James Borrego, late of the Charlotte Hornets, and Adam Caporn, the Long Island Nets head coach, will join the bench. Caporn will coach the Summer League starting Friday in Las Vegas. That’s a job that’s often given to an assistant coach. Caporn could wind up in a player development role. It’s his calling card, running Australia’s Centre of Excellence.
Bruce Brown is gone, having taken the taxpayers MLE from the Nuggets. The Nets could have matched but Brown said they didn’t even make an offer. In fact, the Nets TMLE remains open. It may be that they want to preserve it in case they need it down the road in some scenario related to a Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving. Maybe they have someone in mind but what to wait till other business is taken care of before they finalize things. Flexibility is important.
The Nets also pulled the Qualifying Offer from Kessler Edwards which (we hope) is a housekeeping move. According to Alex Schiffer, the Nets still intend to sign him. But he is an unrestricted free agent.
As for the team’s two other losses, Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic, neither was much of a surprise. That they’re both headed to the Bulls might be. It’s not known whether the Nets wanted Drummond back, but he didn’t sign for any more in Chicago than he could have gotten in Brooklyn. As we noted above, Dragic was unhappy with his experience at Flatbush and Atlantic.
Reading tea leaves and Twitter
One final point about this week and the ones ahead. One national writer keeps showing that he is on the cutting edge. Brian Windhorst has proven that he deserves our attention. He’s just been right again and again. He was the first reporter to say James Harden was unhappy and wanted out, specifically predicting a trade to Philly. He was the first reporter to say Ben Simmons wouldn’t play a minute this season. And he has been right on what’s been going on the past couple of weeks, saying Joe Tsai and Sean Marks were willing to risk everything, including Kevin Durant, to get things straight. In each case, the news he brought was not what fans wanted to hear, making it easy for them to dismiss his scoops. They shouldn’t have.
Shams has a direct link to Camp Kyrie, Woj to the Nets front office. Windy just reports the hell out of NBA. Kudos to him.
True words in front of Barclays right now. In more ways than one. pic.twitter.com/kJzAP8GcJs— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) July 3, 2022
That work on the Nets entrance plaza is expected to continue till near the beginning of training camp. The same may very well be true of the roster. Hang in there.