The Brooklyn Nets looked more like an MCU film than a basketball team this time two years ago. Even with Ant Man and The Wasp: Quantamania currently bombing at the box office, I mean that in the best possible way. The Nets attracted stars left and right much like a Kevin Feige casting call, adding a new chapter to the NBA’s “superteam” history book.
It started with James Harden’s arrival in Brooklyn, but really began to snowball when Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the team during the buyout period. For those of you who also spend your sleepless nights going down YouTube wormholes of random hoop mixtapes, you could also throw Mike James in there as well, who became something of a viral star for his flashy play overseas before joining the Nets with Kevin Durant’s blessing.
But while Sean Marks and Co. helped assemble the Brooklyn Avengers, James Jones started planting the seeds out in Phoenix which would eventually blossom into the league’s next superteam.
I for one never saw this coming. Yes, the Suns rolled to their first playoff berth over a decade during the spring of 2021 to start molding the team that would eventually catch Kevin Durant’s eye. And Monty Williams is a helluva coach. But still, the Suns struck me as a team still a few steps away from making a serious push for a title and/or attracting big stars. You know, things rarely grow well out in the desert. So, I stuck to that line of thinking.
For that reason, I picked up the Suns as a secondary team to cover alongside the Nets in 2021. On the cusp of college graduation, I needed some extra money. I also thought to myself, “there’s no way this young, Western Conference team, thousands of miles away from New York could ever get involved with and/or impact the Brooklyn Nets — the team I’ve grown up watching and have covered since 2019.”
What an absolute idiot I was.
After a Kyrie Irving trade request and an after-hours Woj bomb, the Suns tied themselves to the Nets forever — or at least until 2029 when those picks run out. Now with the trade deadline over, Durant is all aboard in Phoenix, putting the Valley boys on top of the world and Brooklyn back in the dog house.
Granted, it’s not that bad. Nets fans should consider themselves somewhat lucky upon taking a step back. When you’ve watched a team endure a 12-70 season and the repercussions of that trade with Boston (you know which one I’m talking about), it can make two all-time great talents leaving your team just a bit easier to digest.
This is bad, but again, it’s not that bad. Brooklyn’s previous front office blunders are a crutch — helping fans out right now for all the wrong reasons. Nowhere to go but up? Yes. But having said that, there’s other things Brooklyn can take from their past, including a road map on how to get out of this mess— one drawn out by a different trade partner from those aforementioned brighter days in Brooklyn.
Going back to that 2020-21 season, the Nets were contenders with Durant and Irving at the helm, backed up by a top tier secondary unit featuring young talents in Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen among others. They also possessed some significant draft capital. Then, they pushed all their chips to the center of the table. They traded all their future and young guns for a superstar that they believed would take them from contenders to favorites. Harden was, after all, a “basketball savant,” as more than one Nets executive called him.
Sounds an awful lot like what Phoenix just did, right? Up until a few days ago, the Suns resembled a solid team built around stars Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and Deandre Ayton. They had picks, and two talented, young secondary pieces in Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson. But just like the Nets, they realized they needed to swing for the fences, so they swapped their picks and supporting cast for the Slim Reaper.
With the Nets and Suns conducting a one-on-one trade, Brooklyn landed with the pieces exchanged for a star (Johnson, Bridges, and picks). When the Nets swung for the fences it wasn’t so simple. A majority of their picks went to Houston, LeVert went to Indiana, and Allen went to Cleveland.
LeVert eventually found his way back to Allen in ‘The Land,’ and of those three teams involved in the Harden deal, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the only one inching toward contention right now. For that reason, the Nets need to follow their lead.
The Cavs currently hold the East’s fourth best record at 38-23, two and a half games better than the fifth seed, the Nets. They remain one of the league’s younger teams and their success is spearheaded by Donovan Mitchell, a star now coming into his prime, that is, a superstar. They also possess a strong culture and generally speaking look like one of the league’s more likable teams. That is exactly what the Nets should be after.
For those wondering why Brooklyn should not simply tear it all down and rebuild from the ground up, the Nets will not own any of their first round picks for some time. They are salted away in some Tillman Fertitta vault on the outskirts of Houston. For that reason, it makes zero sense for the team to tank. It’s a rebuild not a tear-down.
What the Nets do have is young talent, just like their counterparts on Lake Erie. They just added a Defensive Player of the Year runner-up and sweet shooter in Mikal Bridges. Cameron Johnson resembles a budding two way stud. Nic Claxton is having a bigger breakout year than maybe anyone. Cam Thomas just strung together a historic scoring streak.
Combining assets from their star exchanges and their own drafting prowess, those players could become Brooklyn’s version of what Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Allen, and LeVert are for Cleveland today.
As for Brooklyn’s Donovan Mitchell counterpart? That’s where all the draft capital comes in. When Mitchell became available this summer, it was largely the draft capital that got him to Cleveland. The Cavs traded three unprotected first rounders, two pick swaps, Colin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, and Ochai Agbaji for Spida.
The Nets got more than that from the Suns for Durant alone (Sexton, it should be noted for irony’s stake, was originally taken with the Nets pick the Cavs got from Boston for Irving.)
When the next NBA star wants a new home, the Nets could have a similar package to reel him in. Brooklyn has two first rounders this summer, and over the next few years a combined five picks from the Irving/Durant deals. They also carry an excess of depth which the team could pool together for a star. I’ve yet to even mention Day’Ron Sharpe, Dorian Finney-Smith, Patty Mills, Joe Harris, or Royce O’Neale. Even with their different shortcomings, all those players hold value across the league. Whether as another young piece to build around or a trade asset, you can make use of Ben Simmons as well if he ever figures out how to play basketball again.
Analogies are messy. I won’t pretend that calling the Suns the new Nets and the Nets the new Cavs isn’t a stretch. But the framework is there and I cannot ignore it. Even some outliers match up. As a locker room leading, well-liked point guard, Spencer Dinwiddie could be your Ricky Rubio!
At the very least, the Cavs represent a fair target for the Nets to emulate and one that fans should have an easy time rallying behind considering Cleveland’s surplus of talent and good will across the league. Not to mention their ability to compete with the best.
There are a lot worse models to follow than the Cavaliers and there are already easy comparisons to be made starting with Nic Claxton and Jarrett Allen. And maybe the Nets won’t have to trade picks to find a match for Mitchell if Bridges looks anything like he did vs. Miami. The Nets — and their fans — also will have to adopt a quality that has served Cleveland well: patience. The Cavs are indeed still a work in progress in terms of championship ambitions, but they have become winners and their organization seen as a winning one.
I stopped covering the Suns this past summer right before the Durant trade request came out. Living in New York and staying up for games on the West Coast didn’t exactly work for me. But I continued to follow the team and a number of those who cover it on social media. From that, I saw how many Phoenix fans continued to root for Bridges and Johnson during their first few games in Brooklyn, similarly to how Nets fans continued to support LeVert and Allen.
That’s what sent me down this trajectory. So if you think there’s any stock in this comparison, want to see the Nets stay relevant, and like where Cleveland is at right now, that’s one more thing we got back from Phoenix in the Durant trade.