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To Cap Hell and Back: A Timeline of the Last Decade of Nets Basketball

Brooklyn didn’t become a destination for superstars like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant overnight. Here’s a look back at the ridiculous, shortsighted decisions that put the franchise in limbo for a half-decade, and some of the shrewd moves that helped get them where they are today.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Nets have come a long way. Less than a decade ago, they managed to score a sit-down with LeBron James with nothing more than hope and Jay-Z. A flurry of shortsighted trades and a long, meticulous rebuild to clean up after them ensued from there. But the Nets finally arrived as a power player on Sunday, when both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant agreed to sign max contracts and play the next four years in Brooklyn.

How did we get here? Here’s a look back at the wild, full-circle journey the Nets took to get to this point:

The Summer of 2010

This all begins not with Mikhail Prokhorov buying the New Jersey Nets in 2009, but with LeBron James. 2010 was LeBron’s year, and the Nets got the all-important meeting with the biggest free agent in modern history in July. ESPN’s Bobby Marks, who was in the Nets front office at the time, detailed the story of the then-Jersey-based franchise’s pitch to James on a recent episode of The Russillo Show. Team president Rod Thorn had agreed to step down once his contract ran out in late June. The problem? Free agency starts July 1. Thorn stayed on until July 15 to help the team through the first two weeks of free agency, but his departure created uncertainty at the highest level of the organization; Marks said Tom Thibodeau would have been the coach had it not been for Thorn leaving.

But the Nets did have Jay-Z. The Brooklyn native purchased a small piece of the franchise ahead of its move to New York City. And though his stake amounted to no more than 1.5 percent during his “ownership,” the organization marketed him like he was their star player. In the summer of 2010, the Nets made a big statement by painting Jay-Z and Prokhorov on the side of a building in Manhattan that towered over Madison Square Garden. Jay-Z, Marks said, was one of the only reasons the franchise got an audience with LeBron. “They just wanted to meet Jay-Z. They wanted to see who our owner was,” Marks said.

It didn’t get much better from there. When the Nets flew to Chicago to meet with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the latter showed up late and the former brought in a camera crew for a documentary he was filming. And yet, this was the headline in Nets Daily after the team’s meeting with James:

By the time LeBron let the world know that he was going to Miami, the Nets already knew. Well, according to Marks, he actually let Jay-Z know first. So what did the Nets do instead? They signed Travis Outlaw, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, and traded for Troy Murphy. Oh, and on July 14, they hired Billy King as their new general manager.

January-February, 2011: The failed Carmelo Anthony trade; the successful Deron Williams trade

The thirst for a star player remained after LeBron’s rejection, so the Nets moved on to another banana boat bro. Anthony wanted out of Denver, and the Nets were reportedly “on the brink” of a trade for him not once, but twice. Instead, the Knicks traded for Melo in February of 2011. But the Nets recovered quickly. Days after the Melo trade, the Nets made a surprise deal for Deron Williams in exchange for Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, and two first-round picks. Williams was one of the elite point guards at the time—a player on par with fellow 2005 draft classmate Chris Paul. The deal was viewed as a huge win for the Nets. Alas, history would show that neither the Knicks nor the Nets were a winner. The Nets went 7-18 after the trade and finished the 2010-11 season with a 24-58 record. The worst moves were yet to come.

Early 2012: Failed to trade for Dwight Howard

Howard, then one of the most dominant players in the league, held an opt-out in the summer of 2012, and after the lockout ended, the Nets were expected to be the team to trade for him. But Dwight Howard had a change of heart on a plane ride back from a game San Antonio, according to JJ Redick. The former Orlando Magic guard re-lived the scene on The Woj Pod in 2016:

“So we play the game, we get on the bus, and we get on the plane, and then I was kind of in the back of the players section, listening to music and then all of a sudden I notice that guys are kind of goofing around, and they start taking pictures, and it’s like, this is our last time together. We’re gonna take pictures. So they start taking photos of each other, I think somebody had posted a photo on Twitter.

“And then like after five minutes, Dwight’s just like, ‘you know what, I love you guys. I’m coming back.’

“And really, that was it! That was it! There was no, like — there wasn’t a heart-to-heart, it was just he was having a good time on the plane, and decided he wanted to come back.”

Howard agreed to opt-in to the final year of his deal, and that was quickly followed by the infamous press conference when Stan Van Gundy said Howard wanted him fired and Howard, unaware of what SVG had just said, put his arm around him. That summer, Howard was traded to the Lakers. The Nets, meanwhile, moved on to another target.

March 15, 2012: Traded Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams, and a first-round pick to the Trail Blazers for Gerald Wallace. The pick turned into Damian Lillard.

Here’s a good way to sum up the early 2010s for the Nets: This trade was described in a Nets Daily headline last year as “The Other Worst Trade.” The other one.

Ben Falk, a former Blazers analytics manager, wrote last year on his site Cleaning the Glass that when Portland realized the Nets not only wanted Gerald Wallace badly, but were willing to give up a top-three protected first-rounder for him, “My heart hit the gas pedal.”

It’s a thrilling (and hilarious, unless you’re a Nets fan) account that underlines how ridiculous this deal was, even at the time. The Nets were 14 games below .500 and reportedly convinced that there were only three players worth having in the upcoming draft. Wallace was a 29-year-old free-agent-to-be. But the Nets believed Wallace could help them re-sign Williams in the offseason, so they made the deal. The Nets finished 22-44 in the lockout-shortened season and ended up with the no. 6 overall pick. The Blazers took Lillard; maybe you’ve heard of him.

July 11, 2012: Re-signed Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Wallace; traded for Joe Johnson

A busy day for the Nets. They officially re-signed Deron Williams to a five-year, $98 million deal, Wallace for four years, $40 million, and Lopez for three years, $60 million. Then they finalized a three-team trade (agreed to on July 2) in which they gave up Farmar, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams, two picks, and two future pick swaps in exchange for Joe Johnson. With the grand opening of Barclays Center, their new arena in Brooklyn, on the horizon, the Nets were finally building the title team that Prokhorov wanted, the one they brought Deron Williams in to lead.

Fall 2012: Barclays Center opens

This was it. The Nets were cool now. The red, white, and blue uniforms had been traded in for a sleek black-and-white kit. Jay-Z opened the arena with a concert. Then, in November, an NBA team with some talent took center stage. The Nets started 11-4 and had a seven-game winning streak around January, but won only 49 games and earned the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference. Their first playoff appearance in six years was short; a Bulls team without Derrick Rose bested Brooklyn in the first round in seven games. It was an underwhelming finish to a promising season. It was not, in fact, cool.

April 10, 2013: Jay-Z sells his ownership shares to start Roc Nation

Let’s rewind just a bit. Two days before the Nets started their playoff run, Jay-Z announced that he was selling his ownership shares in the Nets in order to begin representing NBA players through his sports agency, Roc Nation Sports. Its first NBA client? Kevin Durant. He got out just in time.

July 12, 2013: The worst trade in history

The big one. The Nets traded Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph, Wallace (so much for that!), a 2014 first-round pick, a 2016 first-round pick, a swap of 2017 first-round picks, and a 2018 first-round pick for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, D.J. White and a second-round pick. The Nets were going for it once again. Unfortunately, the players they traded for didn’t have much left to give. Garnett was 37, Pierce 36, and Terry was 36. The Nets went on to win 44 games and lose to the Heat in the second round of the playoffs.

Garnett and Terry combined played 89 games in the 2013-14 season. Pierce and Terry left the following summer. Garnett lasted only a half-season after that (see below).

The draft picks traded to Boston, though? They became James Young, Jaylen Brown, Markelle Fultz (flipped for Jayson Tatum), and Collin Sexton.

February 2015: Traded Kevin Garnett back to Minnesota for Thad Young

By the trade deadline of the following season, the Nets were 10 games below .500 and clinging to the fringes of the playoff race. Pierce had already left for the Wizards in 2014. So with nothing to play for, the Nets worked with Garnett, who held a no-trade clause, to send him back to the team with whom he started his career. Brooklyn would stumble to a 38-44 record—still good enough to make the playoffs in the East, somehow—before losing in the first round to the Hawks.

This was the start of the no-man’s-land for the Nets. Williams agreed to buy him out of his contract in the summer of 2015. Johnson was bought out a few months later. Lopez stuck around until 2017, but by then, the team had fully embraced its dire situation and turned its attention toward the future.

February 18, 2016: Hired Sean Marks as GM
April 17, 2016: Hired Kenny Atkinson as head coach

The changing of the guard happened when the Nets hired Marks away from the Spurs’ front office to be their general manager. Marks was a breath of fresh air: He actually had a plan. Three days after his hiring was made official, Andrea Bargnani was waived. Joe Johnson was gone a few days after that. When the Nets finished the season 21-61, Marks replaced head coach Lionel Hollins with Kenny Atkinson, who was then a Hawks assistant. If it wasn’t clear by now what was going on, Marks laid out his vision in Atkinson’s introductory press conference.

”[Prokhorov’s] given us the reins to build this thing our way, and if it takes some time, it does,” Marks said in May 2016. “But we’ll be doing everything we can to turn this thing around quickly.”

2016 Draft: Traded Thad Young for rights to Caris LeVert

The defining characteristic of Marks’s reign has been the ability to turn the disadvantages left by his predecessor into advantages. Like Sam Hinkie before him, Mark rented out the cap space no players would fill in order to absorb bad contracts (Darrell Arthur, Kenneth Faried, DeMarre Carroll, Andrew Nicholson, etc.) for draft picks. And he used open roster spots to take chances on overlooked players like Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie.

The Nets’s scouting department also displayed a keen eye for talent late in the draft. In the 2016 draft, they flipped Young for the rights to LeVert, a talented Michigan wing with recurring foot problems. LeVert, the 20th overall pick, turned out to be a steal—the first of a few. In 2017, they nabbed Jarrett Allen with the 22nd overall pick; he has already become one of the league’s best shot blockers at just 21 years old. Rodions Kurucs, the 40th overall pick in 2018, started 46 games last season.

June 22, 2017: Traded for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov in exchange for Brook Lopez, rights to Kyle Kuzma

After throwing around pricey offer sheets to lure away players like Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe, and Otto Porter Jr., Marks went for a more direct approach. By 2017, the Lakers had soured on Russell. With L.A.’s sights set on Lonzo Ball in the draft and clearing cap space for the future, the Nets landed the former no. 2 overall pick and Mozgov’s hefty deal in exchange for Lopez’s expiring contract and a late first-rounder. It was the perfect low-risk, high-reward move for a player with loads of talent but in need of a change in scenery. The pick the Nets gave up turned into Kyle Kuzma, but Russell became an All-Star this past season and, for a brief moment, the face of the franchise.

October 27, 2017: Prokhorov sells 49 percent of the Nets to Joseph Tsai for reported $1 billion

The beginning of the end of the Prokhorov era. Tsai, the executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group, bought a large chunk of the Nets with an option to take over full control in 2021-22—though recent reports suggest Tsai is trying to get full ownership of the team and Barclays Center sooner. Tsai also bought the WNBA’s New York Liberty this January.

April 2019: Made the playoffs as a 6-seed

After years of making moves around the margins, everything finally came together for the Nets in the 2018-19 season: they won 42 games and returned to the playoffs. Smart picks, shrewd contracts, great development—it all paid off. Brooklyn took the first game from the 76ers, in Philadelphia, only to lose the next four. But the series itself was an advertisement for what the team had built under trying circumstances.

June 6, 2019: Traded Allen Crabbe, the no. 17 pick in the 2019 draft, and a 2020 lottery-protected first-rounder to the Hawks for Taurean Prince and a 2021 second-rounder

Six years after selling off as many future picks as it could to become relevant, Brooklyn went all in again. The Nets traded the first first-round pick they had full control over since the Celtics deal to Atlanta. The reason? They could now open enough space to sign a second max player this summer. Reports swirled that Kyrie Irving to the Nets was virtually a done deal, and that he might bring Kevin Durant with him. Brooklyn might have to part ways with Russell, a restricted free agent, but it would be worth it to forge a new superteam—or perhaps more importantly, steal one away from the Knicks.

June 30, 2019: Agreed to max contracts with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant

The Nets officially arrived when they agreed to a max deals with Irving and Durant on the opening day of free agency. Not even six months earlier, Irving was expected to land with the Knicks alongside Kevin Durant. But both players, it turned out, had eyes only for Brooklyn, and that speaks volumes. The Knicks have everything a star player is supposed to want—the world’s most famous arena, a passionate fan base, the New York spotlight. The one thing they don’t have is what the Nets have come to be defined by: organizational stability. Maybe Irving and Durant wanted to be Brooklynites all along. Or maybe what pushed them to the Nets was an identity that took nine years and countless mistakes to build.

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