clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The KD Saga: Winners, losers ... and innocent bystanders

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

It was — and maybe still is — the biggest story of the off-season, a seven-week melodrama with twists and turns and an ending where everyone at least looks happy.

There is a lot more to digest the morning after the Nets big announcement. There are roster spots to fill, offensive and defensive schemes to evolve, culture to be restored, a championship to be won?

As Alex Schiffer writes Wednesday morning...

The past three seasons in Brooklyn have resembled more of a reality show than a basketball team. The Nets have led the NBA in drama and headlines the past three years. But with Durant back they have a team built to lead the league in wins.

Or as Graig Nettles of another famously newsy New York team, the late 1970’s Yankees, once said:

“Some kids dream of joining the circus, others of becoming a major league baseball player. I have been doubly blessed. As a member of the New York Yankees, I have gotten to do both.”

This being the NBA, there are winners and losers to be named, but not shamed. We are looking forward now, not backward. So here we go...

Winners: Joe and Clara Wu Tsai

He stood his ground, did not panic, and while we don’t know her role, she was the only woman in the room and Clara Wu Tsai was not there as courtesy because she is the co-owner. She is not a figurehead when she is in any room.

Those who know him say Joe Tsai’s steady personality, never getting too up or too down, helped him through the crisis. He does not like to be underestimated either. In fact, he is said to thrive when people doubt him ... and doubt him they did.

In some fans’ eyes, he was the villain of the piece, the rich guy who was obstinate but he and Sean Marks were determined that they were never going through another season like the one they had just experienced. No more embarrassments, no more distractions, no more losing.

He was disciplined as one would expect from a businessman who helped build one of the world’s great companies, Alibaba. He never once publicly criticized his superstars. His two biggest moments were when on July 29, he signaled that there was a truce with Kyrie Irving by praising and then on August 8 when he countered news of KD’s ultimatum with the ultimate tweet of the entire process...

As Brian Windhorst noted, the second line was more important than the first.

Clara Wu Tsai is not just a co-owner. She is a full partner and having grown up in Lawrence, Kansas, during the Danny Manning era, she knows her basketball, with more than one insider suggesting she knows the game better than her husband. She and their children are often sitting courtside at Nets and Liberty games.

What role she played in Monday’s meeting is, as of yet, not specific but Wu Tsai has degrees (plural) from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard. She wasn’t in the room just to be in the room. In fact, she is often the smartest person in whatever room she’s gracing. She also has had great personal relations with the Nets players and is deeply involved in the Brooklyn Social Justice Fund, the $50 million fund she and her husband initiated following the George Floyd protests at Barclays. She’s also a founding partner of the REFORM Alliance, the Meek Mills-inspired criminal justice reform group. She and Irving have a particularly strong relationship, per insiders.

Brian Windhorst, in a fit of rhetorical exaggeration, said of Tsai early on, “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,”

Some fans seized on that as they prepared to light their torches and sharpen their pitchforks, but while it might be an exaggeration, the comment set the tone for those fans. Never mind that he’s spent more money on the Nets than any governor other than Joe Lacob of the Warriors.

Winners: Sean Marks and Steve Nash

As we noted, Monday’s meeting in L.A. featured one guy, Kevin Durant, who had previously asked another guy at the meeting, Joe Tsai, to fire two of the others in the room, Sean Marks and Steve Nash. He didn’t.

Marks and Nash were all smiles at the Liberty - Sky game Tuesday night and why not? Their boss famously stuck up for them. It could not have been easy for the two to be the brunt of so many NetsWorld tweets. But neither are much affected by the “noise” and again, like Tsai, didn’t respond to either the fans’ bleatings or the leak campaigns seemingly orchestrated by one or both superstars. They said nothing, at least publicly, that they would regret or have to take back.

Marks who turned 47 Tuesday was not about to let his creation, the Brooklyn Nets, go to schmutz (old Brooklyn word.) He had built it from literally nothing — No picks, no stars, no nothing — to a contender, in only three years. That is no mean feat. But in some fans’ minds, he had gone from Savior to Satan.

He and Tsai, described alternately as being in “lockstep” or “peas in a pod,” said what they were going to do, then did it.

“I think we know what we’re looking for,” said Marks who sat with Nash at the media availability May 11. “We’ve looking for guys that want to come in here and be part of something bigger than themselves, play selfless, play team basketball, and be available. That goes not only for Kyrie but for everybody here.”

We don’t have the details on the offer to Irving but what we do know what it didn’t include — a five year, quarter-billion deal — and that reportedly didn’t sit well with Irving or presumably Durant.

So, Marks with Tsai’s backing made it clear the front office would not back down. It was high stakes gamble. He could have lost it all, including his reputation, but he decided he would ask for the moon and stars in trades. Never mind that other teams were offering the little house on the prairie with a mortgage.

There were stories about the outlandish asking price for Durant’s services. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown plus a slew of picks? Ohmigod! Outrageous, other teams’ fans screamed. But Marks knew that the price had to be high. It wasn’t just because KD is arguably the best player in the world when completely healthy. Giving away Durant also meant giving up a chance at a ring or rings. A team with Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons and whoever he got in return for Durant might win a lot of games, but it wasn’t a glory machine.

He had help. Thank you very much, Danny Ainge, for demanding all those picks in return for Rudy Gobert. That was a fine starting point. New teams with new terms would come calling but it was the same story, different names. Nope, not doing that. With some pundits suggesting Durant could hold out deep into the season, pressure was building. Didn’t matter.

And as Marks is fond of saying, “I’ve never had to be reminded there’s work to be done” and indeed while rumors and leaks dominated, he went out and did some work. He re-signed three of his free agents, Nic Claxton, Patty Mills and Kessler Edwards, added Royce O’Neale in a trade the same day as the KD trade request, took a chance on injured T.J. Warren and Edmond Sumner and in an underrated move, added veteran assistant and development maven Igor Kokoskov to the coaching staff. Marks may have been hurt in free agency because of the unsettled situation with his superstars but the roster does look better ... and has more continuity.

Meanwhile, Nash learned just how many fans wanted his head. At least there’s that. Never mind that Durant himself had twice in April, including after the Boston sweep, praised Nash.

“I mean, come on now, yeah,” Durant said. “Steve’s been dealt a crazy hand the last two years. He’s had to deal with so much stuff as a head coach, a first-time coach: trades, injuries, COVID, it’s just a lot of stuff he’s had to deal with, and I’m proud of how he’s focused and his passion for us. We all continue to keep developing over the summer and see what happens.”

Never mind that when Nash had healthy players in 2020-21 he led the Nets to the best offensive rating in NBA history or was a shoe size away from the Eastern Conference Finals ... and maybe more.

If Durant wanted him gone and the choice was Nash or Durant, send him packing!!, said some fans Easy choice!! Lost in Durant’s either/or ultimatum was the scent of desperation. KD was looking for an off-ramp and considering his April praise for Nash, the ultimatum did not ring true. Desperate men do desperate things.

Nash will have challenges this season. He and KD will have to get along and any hand gesture or smirk by Durant will be analyzed and over analyzed on Get Up, SportsCenter, NBA Today, etc. He’ll have to fix offensive and defensive schemes that will take into account all that new personnel — primarily Ben Simmons. He will be the most scrutinized head coach in the NBA this year. He’s dealt with worse, like last season, for example.

Losers (sort of): Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving

Yes, it would appear that the Nets two superstars may not have the power they once did. It seems unlikely that the Nets would give their okay to signing an over-the-hill big man for $40 million, then agree to have him replace a rising star in the starting lineup.

Nor are we likely to hear Kyrie Irving, at the end of an awful season in large part of his doing, say this: “When I say I’m here with Kevin (Durant), I think that it really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe (Tsai) and Sean (Marks),” Irving stated,

Or this, just after Steve Nash was hired:

“I don’t really see us having a head coach,” Irving said when appearing on Kevin Durant’s new podcast The ETCs. “You know what I mean? KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.”

Hope not.

Maybe they sign Markieff Morris at Durant’s suggestion, maybe even Irving gets an extension, but it seems the failures of last season and the sturm and drang of this off-season have diminished that level of empowerment. As Brian Windhorst said Wednesday, for the last five to eight years, players have had the upper hand in situations like this. Not in this case.

Their reputations — and maybe their legacies — are tarnished, too. Durant may say he doesn’t care about his legacy, even joking about it when pundits were saying, in very serious tones, that he would never be viewed the same again. Irving, too, seems to be immune to that sort of criticism. It has accompanied him wherever he has gone.

But as one NBA insider told us. the Nets have two of the “flakiest” stars in the league. That IS at this point their rep. Good copy for ESPN but not so good if you’re dealing with it every day. And it’s hard to believe that Kevin Durant doesn’t care about where he will stand among the all-time greats when he finally hangs them up.

“You know who I am,” he has said. “I’m Kevin Durant.” Does that sound like a man who doesn’t care about his legacy?

Put ALL that aside and look at the narrow focus of the coming season. As one of ESPN’s own, Stephen A. Smith, has said, this is the best roster, top to bottom, that the Nets have fielded in the three years since the Clean Sweep. Ben Simmons is often underrated because of his ugly holdout in Philadelphia but with his defense, playmaking and ability to play all over the floor, he offers so many options as well as an opportunity to experiment. Joe Harris and Seth Curry are the two best 3-point shooters, by percentage, in the NBA today and the third and fourth all-time. Like KD, Kyrie and Ben 10, they have never played a minute together. Royce O’Neale and T.J. Warren should offer solid defense (O’Neale) and offense (Warren.) The Nets also expect improvement from Nic Claxton, Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe and Edwards.

The two superstars have a chance to make everyone (or some of us) forget the last several months of pain. Refresh, refresh, refresh. Run it back! Redeem, redeem, redeem. That doesn’t seem to be a losing proposition for either them or us.

And word is that Durant was upbeat after the meeting in L.A. Monday, looking forward to the season.

Winner: Ben Simmons

Who would think Ben Simmons would be seen as the low-key, no-maintenance superstar, but here he is: All stable and healthy.

Amidst all the rumors and leaks, Simmons has been steady if silent member of the Big Three. He’s showed up at Liberty games and community events, smiling as if the City of Philadelphia didn’t exist. After not playing for almost 15 months, Simmons is about to begin 5-on-5 workouts at HSS Training Center. People tend to underestimate Simmons but like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, he’s been Rookie of the Year, an All-Star and All-NBA selection. Unlike them, he’s also been named All-Defensive twice and was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.

How will the New York media, New York fans and Simmons interact when things don’t go according to plan? We don’t know, but the 26-year-old Aussie is likely to do fine. He’s been there. People also forget that after Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals, he sat at the podium until the last question was answered ... even though he was being blamed for the loss. And the place is overrun with Australians starting with Mills.

Winner: Jaylen Brown

Of all the teams with interest in Durant, Boston seemed to present the most attractive package, starting with Jaylen Brown. The Nets initially asked for Brown and Tatum as well as all the Celtics first rounders. But as Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe reported over the weekend, the talks weren’t really that serious.

However, for Brown it was the same ol, same ol. He’s been mentioned every time a superstar’s name appears in trade rumor with Boston. He even tweeted about it in mid-rumor...

Now, it looks like he’ll be able to relax and await training camp.

Winner: Sam Zussman

Zussman is the newly annointed CEO of BSE Global, the Nets and Barclays Center parent company, and alternate governor of the Nets. He started both jobs a month ago, Joe Tsai’s third CEO in three years. He has been charged by Tsai to take BSE Global from $343 million in revenue this year to $500 million in three years and a billion dollars within seven. That goal was hard enough but if Zussman didn’t have superstars on his team and in his arena, well. good luck!

On Tuesday night, ESPN caught Zussman in rapt conversation with Sean Marks at the Liberty game. He was probably trying to wring every ounce of information about the meeting in L.A. and its ramifications.

Similarly, two classes of Zussman employees, the ticket reps and those who sell endorsement deals are big winners. They may even get some phone calls that don’t start with advice on who to trade for.

Winner: Ronny Chieng

Back in May, Variety reported that the Daily Show comedian was going to play the General Manager of the Brooklyn Nets in an upcoming Hulu show. Shooting was supposed to begin on July 5, a few days after Durant asked out. We don’t know if Chieng’s writers took account of the saga but after a Summer of headlines about the Nets and his friend Joe Tsai, a show about the Brooklyn Nets has to be an easier sell than it was a few months ago.

When we hear more about the show, including its name, we’ll let you know.

Innocent Bystanders: US, THE FANS!!

There we were on June 30 at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic when we were struck by a speeding tractor trailer, dragged a few blocks and deposited in nowhere land. We got the name of the driver but did that matter? What could we do? There was pain and anger at the hit-and-run but mainly there was confusion. Where are we? Turns out we were at the beginning of a long, painful rehab.

Since then, that confusion has manifested in a lot of ways. The fan base already polarized by Irving’s absences became more so. There were rumors and not just from established sources but also from less conventional sources, like Twitter Spaces, podcasts, etc. Some were right, some were wrong and some were so cryptic that the author could take an online victory lap no matter what eventually happened.

Durant was slandered, Tsai was slandered, Marks was slandered, Nash was slandered, Irving was slandered, even Tsai’s son took heat! For liking a tweet by his father!

While it was smart for the Nets organization not to blab about what was going on, and smart for KD and Kyrie to stay disciplined in keep things quiet, at least publicly, the fan base — the soul of the machine — was left to the mercy of a series of pundits.

Could it have been avoided? Yeah, Durant didn’t need to request a trade. It may take some time for things to return to normal for a lot of us. We expect that at some point, probably before Media Day on September 26, Durant will sit down for an interview, probably with someone from Boardroom or The Etcs., his media outlets. Or maybe not.

Of course, everyone knows that winning cures everything. Indeed if the Nets take off in the early days of the regular season, many sins will be forgiven, but if not, well, there’ll be another one of these stories.