Three years ago, the Brooklyn Nets made a historic splash in free agency by striking coordinated deals for both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving—deals predicated on the idea that in Brooklyn, the two could be more than just superstars. Every great player wields a certain level of (often deserved) influence, but much of the reporting around the Nets in recent seasons characterized Durant and Irving as drivers of decisions made all around the organization. Coaches were fired and replaced. The roster was reworked to Durant and Irving’s liking, from accessory center DeAndre Jordan joining the team on a $40 million contract to the Nets gutting their young core to trade for a third star in James Harden.
Every one of those decisions can be explained through some caveated blend of injury, opportunity, and circumstance. Yet ultimately, those choices were made for the same basic reason that Durant, over the weekend, reportedly followed up his request to be traded with an ultimatum to either move him or fire the team’s head coach and general manager.
This is what the Nets bargained for.
The pull was always part of the appeal. Brooklyn entered into a clear-eyed partnership with Durant and, by extension, with Irving as central figures in its future. Yet even in 2019, there was already a distinction between the two stars and what they meant to the organization at large. Sources told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz that the Nets bringing in Irving—and the caravan of baggage that follows him—was “the cost of doing business” to land Durant. Irving was an allowance from the start. He became a critical part of the franchise by the fact that an all-time great wanted to play with his friend. Perhaps that’s unkind to one of the game’s most advanced shot creators in Irving, yet the difference in standing between the two superstar teammates has grown only more apparent.
In Irving’s last official press conference of the 2021-22 season, he assured the assembled media that he planned to be back with the Nets despite a tumultuous year and its discouraging end. He spoke not just about being a part of the franchise, but of “managing” it alongside Durant, team governor Joe Tsai, and general manager Sean Marks, all of whom Irving named specifically. (Notably not mentioned: head coach Steve Nash.) It was a rejection of reality—or at the very least, a misunderstanding by Kyrie of just how much his reality had changed.
Irving spoke that day as if he had stepped straight out of a time machine from 2019, completely oblivious to everything he had done (or would do, in the time travel future tense?) to derail Brooklyn’s season. The uncanny quality of Irving’s comments came from the fact that he seemed to still believe his fundamental agreement with the team was intact. That he still had the same degree of input. That he was still a steward of the franchise, even after willfully making himself unavailable for much of the season. Brooklyn made excuses and exceptions for Kyrie for months, yet his relationship with the franchise shifted when he decided it wasn’t in his interest to be an active part of it.
Durant, for his part, kept showing up whenever his body would allow—to the point of public concern that he was doing too much to keep his compromised superteam afloat. KD was still every bit one of the best players in the world last season, and still every bit the voice the Nets had recruited him to be. Even in upping his demands to the organization now, Durant is still doing more or less what he was brought to Brooklyn to do: declare his intentions and outline exactly what he wants. Sometimes that looks like leadership. Sometimes it looks like this.
The real question is whether Durant’s trade request has broken that dynamic—as Irving broke his—or merely complicated it. On one hand, the very fact that Durant’s future with the franchise is a matter to meet over and negotiate speaks volumes. There are some exceedingly practical reasons for the Nets to want one of the world’s best basketball players on their roster for as long as humanly possible—7-foot reasons with unthinkable touch and skill and instincts. And then there are the realities of that player demanding in the clear light of day that his coach and general manager be fired, creating such a fuss that the team governor felt compelled to respond on Twitter.
“Our front office and coaching staff have my support,” Tsai tweeted on Monday. “We will make decisions in the best interest of the Brooklyn Nets.”
As far as statements go, it’s a bit vague. It’s also noticeably noncommittal. “Support” is far from a guarantee in the modern NBA, and it doesn’t take much strain of the imagination to see how keeping Kevin freaking Durant over a coach and executive could still be in the best interest of the franchise. All in all, that tweet feels like an insistence by the owner of the team that times have changed, even as he meets with Durant to discuss how he might convince him to stay.
The whole situation is a mess, but the kind of mess Brooklyn might happily sweep under a rug and ignore, if only it could. It’s impossible to replace Kevin Durant. Hell, it’s hard enough just to set a fair return for Durant in a trade, much less one suitors can realistically meet. Every ask sounds ridiculous because Durant is a genuinely ridiculous player. That might be the only reason he’s still a Net some six weeks after requesting a trade—and maybe the real reason KD is stirring the pot with this ultimatum in the first place. Does he really want Marks and Nash gone? Or is he just looking to send a shock through the Nets’ system? You can still create leverage with one foot out the door, especially when three years of subtle encouragement have already shown you exactly where to push.