The dominoes of free agency are starting to fall, and the biggest one on the table is already creating aftershocks. Here are the winners and losers of Kevin Durant’s decision to sign with the Brooklyn Nets.
Loser: Kevin Durant
Justin Verrier: Durant can do whatever the hell he wants. It’s important to get that out of the way up front. He is a free agent, and as a free agent, he gets to choose where he wants to play and whom he wants to play with. But, boy, he sure does have a knack for making the least popular decision on the board, doesn’t he?
After mowing down everyone in the way for two straight years with the Warriors, Durant’s eye started to wander. Was he looking for a new challenge? Did he realize Golden State will always be Steph’s team? Did he want to live in New York? Was he sick of the wind in the Bay always frizzing his hair? We’re still not sure, but we settled on the fact that the Knicks had whatever he wanted. Joining a superteam and stacking titles didn’t satisfy Durant or his detractors, so maybe reviving one of the most popular franchises in sports—under the bright lights in New York—would do the trick? Yeah, about that ...
Instead of charting a new path, Durant ended up doing basically the same thing he did in 2016. The Nets don’t have multiple Hall of Fame teammates waiting for him, or even much of a history of success since leaving New Jersey, but it does feel like Durant is joining something rather than building something of his own. Maybe that’s my own projection; though Irving’s deal with the Nets was leaked a day before and was forecasted for the past month, his and KD’s max contracts will become official at the same time. Then again, reporting over the past few months suggested that Irving was the one persuading Durant to join him in Brooklyn; Irving will now have perhaps an entire season as a Net before Durant, on the mend from that ruptured Achilles, gets to suit up.
Durant’s motivations have been impossible to pin down, and his decision to go to Brooklyn only muddles our understanding of him even more. But maybe that makes us the losers for even trying.
Winner: Kyrie Irving
Paolo Uggetti: No one had a louder and weirder voice all of last season than Irving, whose every word created a needless, grating sense of drama. Yet he still went out on the court and spun together an All-Star season, even though it was ultimately at the detriment of a once-ascendant Celtics team. Irving is used to getting what he wants. He asked to get out of Cleveland in 2017 and got it; now, he’s found a way to leave Boston and team up with the biggest free agent on the market.
At the past All-Star Game in February, the famous video of Irving and Durant talking went viral; Irving chafed at the notion that it meant anything regarding free agency. So we moved on to the next Irving-Celtics issue, and Irving moved on to his next weird Instagram post, but it’s impossible to look at this now, in retrospect, and see anything other than “two max slots.” I’m sorry, but you can’t convince me otherwise.
Good on the Nets for getting not one, but two superstars, and two whom multiple teams wanted to pair up. But above all, congrats to Kyrie. He got what he wanted and proved yet again that in today’s league it doesn’t matter if a star player burns down a house and wants someone else to build a new one for him—star power will always get him what he wants. Now, it’s time to prove that the Celtics were the issue and not him.
Loser: The Warriors
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Nothing will be the same as it was without Durant—rewatch the 2019 Finals for proof of that—or even as it was before he arrived in the Bay. While Golden State reigned, teams built with the Warriors in mind. Players signed together to counter superteams. The league isn’t the way it was three years ago. With Durant headed east, there’s now more plausible parity than in years.
Not only do the Durant-less Warriors have to return from divinity to face an all-around better league, they’ll have to do it without Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL in the Finals, for a good chunk of the upcoming season. (Thompson is also an unrestricted free agent, but it’s believed he’ll re-sign with Golden State quickly after free agency opens.)
There was always going to be a next chapter after Durant’s Next Chapter. He came to Golden State to be a winner, not a forever Warrior. Two titles and recognition as the best dynasty of this era certainly make the sharp end worthwhile, but the franchise is now faced with an identity crisis. Without KD, and temporarily without Klay, the 2019-20 Warriors are no longer the superest superteam. By the end of free agency, or at least after Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler sign, they might not even in the top three. All the old criticisms—lack of depth, for example—will likely return next season; but this time, they won’t have an extra all-time talent to bail them out. The upcoming season will bring something for the Warriors that this new crowd in San Francisco isn’t familiar with: a full season of adversity. They can ask the longtime Warriors fans about that.
Winner: Sean Marks
Dan Devine: Marks took over the Nets in February of 2016, midway through a 21-61 season, with their first-round picks in the next three drafts all burning a hole in Danny Ainge’s pocket. In three and a half years, he has transformed Brooklyn from a superfund site into a superstar destination.
He hired Kenny Atkinson, renowned for his player development work as an assistant with the Hawks, to be his head coach, and he gave him time. He flipped established players for lower-tier first-round picks, turning Thaddeus Young into Caris LeVert and Bojan Bogdanovic into Jarrett Allen. He trusted his scouting and took chances, landing contributors like Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie after other teams had passed on them. He took advantage of teams desperate to shed too-rich deals, renting out cap space in exchange for young players and picks to land prospects like Rodions Kurucs, Dzanan Musa, and D’Angelo Russell, who’d become Brooklyn’s first All-Star in years.
Marks took what looked like salted earth and made it fertile again. Year-over-year growth and improvement turned the Nets into a surprise playoff team, one with a definable culture and style of play—a team, it seemed, with everything you could ask for in a could-be contender except the megawatt star talent that can take you from good to great. Now, thanks to the investments Marks made and the changes he’s sparked, they’ve got that.
Whether this all pans out very much remains to be seen. Kyrie, as you might have heard, is a particular sort with a range of peccadilloes to consider and monitor. How Durant bounces back from the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer is anybody’s guess. Marks has made a very big bet that what he’s built is strong enough to sustain the seismic shift that comes with hitting the gas pedal and pushing for title contention. That he’s even in position to push all his chips in, though, just three and a half years after taking the reins, is absolutely astonishing.
Loser: The Knicks
Devine: The idea, it seemed, was to pave the path to a bold and impossibly bright future. In what felt like the space between breaths, the Knicks traded Kristaps Porzingis, the best homegrown talent the team had cultivated in a generation, to the Mavericks and shed the contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee, carving out enough salary cap space to sign two maximum-level free agents in the process. We’d heard rumbling about Durant–to–New York all season; now, he could bring a friend, and the Knicks could go from the outhouse to the penthouse even faster than it took for the Porzingis deal to materialize.
And now, here we are. Durant and Irving will wear black and white instead of orange and blue, and attempt to shift the Eastern Conference’s locus of power not to Madison Square Garden, but a short train ride away. Anthony Davis is a Laker. Kemba Walker is a Celtic. None of the other top talents on the free agent market appear at all interested in signing up to be the next would-be savior of a franchise with a nearly uninterrupted two-decade-long losing streak.
The Knicks may well add quality players this summer, but they’ll once again fall short in the chase for the kind of transformative talents who can reinvigorate an organization and breathe new life into a fan base starved for a reason to believe. At the moment, the Knicks have nothing to show for their big bold gambit but cap space and a couple of future first-round picks. Nothing to put on the court that can help you win games; nothing to sell but more hope. It’s a tough beat.
But Also Maybe a Winner? The Knicks
Devine: OK, now the glass-half-full take:
It’s possible that committing $164 million to a player who will miss an entire season before returning from a devastating and career-altering injury will wind up being a disastrous decision. Committing to Irving, who’s had a litany of issues with his left knee and has sounded sour notes on the way out of his last two towns, could go poorly, too. By doing nothing, the Knicks remain on the slow-and-steady rebuilding trajectory that team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry had sketched out before the start of last season—stay patient, stack young talent, amass more draft capital, and try to build the kind of exciting young core that the Nets plan to launch into something bigger.
If they stick to the script and take that station-to-station approach of getting meaningfully better—if Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson continue to develop, if RJ Barrett shows star potential, etc.—they might actually have on-court value to sell to future free agents. They need to stay frosty on their rebuilding timeline and avoid blowing all that unspent cap space on some of the market’s more underwhelming options. The Knicks lost one future on Sunday, but they’ve still got a future. And if things break bad in Brooklyn, it might wind up looking brighter than it seems today.
Loser: Kenny Atkinson
O’Shaughnessy: Imagine how pessimistic you’d have to be to hear that Durant and Irving have agreed to sign with the Nets on this fine summer Sunday afternoon and think, wow, Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson is going to suffer from this. I am not a pessimist, but I am a worrier. And this is my concern.
It’s easier to exceed expectations when they’re aren’t any. That’s not meant to discount what Atkinson and the Nets accomplished in 2018-19, but part of the delight in following them was their underdog status. Atkinson took a group of unknowns and grew them into a somebody, individually (Joe Harris winning the 3-point contest and D’Angelo Russell being named an All-Star, for example) and collectively. So much so that the organization at large became appealing to massive free agents like Durant and Irving.
This is the end of the grace period for the team and for Atkinson. Merging a group of up-and-comers with established stars isn’t as easy as it sounds— Irving and his former Celtics coach Brad Stevens can tell you that. Like LeBron James last season, any move Durant makes is expected to produce results immediately (even if KD himself won’t be on the court for the first season or so). The largest task for Atkinson now is keeping both sides of his roster happy—the Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie glow-up is no longer the most charming part of the Nets’ narrative, but it is still part of the reason Brooklyn is in this position in the first place.
Winner: DeAndre Jordan
Uggetti: Let us not forget about the third banana in this equation. And how could we? DeAndre Jordan has been a pivotal figure in free agency ever since he was amicably ambushed in his Texas home in 2015 by Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, and the Clippers contingent who convinced him to stay after he had agreed to leave Los Angeles for Dallas. The Great Emoji Free Agency Summer of 2015 feels like ages ago, and since then Jordan has gone from the Clippers to the Mavs and the Knicks, who traded for him, at least in part, because they were hoping to end up with Durant. Instead, Jordan’s third phase of his career will be with the Brooklyn Nets. Jordan had recently reemerged in the news as Durant’s buddy—a coveted free agent not for his basketball skills but for his close proximity to the biggest free agent in this year’s class. And so the Nets did what they had to do and locked him up.
Brooklyn is making a clean sweep tonight: Brooklyn will sign Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2019
On the one hand, Jordan’s inclusion, both in this tweet and on the league’s newest superteam, is undeniably hilarious. But good for him. On the other hand, this likely means Jordan will take at least some minutes away from Jarrett Allen, the Nets’ young center. Allen has been growing steadily as an elite shot-blocker and versatile defender and stunting his growth even a little bit is less than ideal. That being said, if signing Jordan in order to get Durant and Irving was the price, then there was no question the Nets were going to pay it. This is no longer a youth operation.
Loser: The Boardroom
O’Shaughnessy: At 12:25 p.m. PT, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Durant’s free agency announcement would be issued on “his company owned sports business network”:
Source: Kevin Durant will announce his free agent decision tonight on his company owned sports business network: https://t.co/ovJCDTOEMz— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2019
The tweet was peculiar. It was obvious that said company-owned sports business network is really just Durant’s company’s Instagram for The Boardroom. With just 280 characters at hand, didn’t Woj realize how irresponsible the verbiage was? Even more peculiar: Woj was announcing an announcement. He was teeing up for another guy to report where he was signing, albeit that the other guy was the free agent himself.
They don’t call it a Woj whisper, because Woj doesn’t give a friendly heads-up. He was never the one in fourth grade silently passing a thrice-folded note desk-to-desk across the class. He was the one intercepting it and yelling aloud to the class that JESSICA B. HAS A CRUSH ON NICK C. And that little boy grew his audience to a classroom of 3.26 million Twitter followers.
Woj bombs aren’t meant to be gentle. And right now, it’s Woj bomb season: free agency. Any planned, secret announcement should beware. Which brings us back to Durant’s company-owned sports business network. At 1:52 p.m. PT, it was bombs away:
Kevin Durant is planning to sign with the Brooklyn Nets, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2019
Woj set The Boardroom’s Instagram account up for success, then couldn’t help but take the scoop for himself. Long live The Boardroom, we never even knew you.