The greatest player ever to pull on a Nets jersey returned to Brooklyn on Wednesday, where he got a 30-second video tribute, a smattering of cheers, lots of boos, a win with his new team, and many hugs from his old team. It was all very fraught—but then, Kevin Durant’s relationship with the Nets was complicated from the start. And by that, I mean the very start.
Remember, Durant joined the Nets in July of 2019, just weeks after rupturing his Achilles tendon. Remember, he announced that decision on Instagram, before free agency officially opened, without even meeting with Nets officials (he simply said he was coming, along with his buddy Kyrie Irving). Remember, Durant spent a full season out of sight and out of uniform, while rehabbing from surgery.
It wasn’t until Dec. 22, 2020, that Durant actually made his Nets debut—in the midst of a global pandemic, in a near-empty Barclays Center, where the only spectators were team staffers, a handful of reporters, and several dozen “essential workers” invited as special guests. There were maybe 150 people in the building that night, counting me. And it was weird as hell. As I wrote then, for Sports Illustrated: “The greatest player ever to pull on a Nets jersey made his Brooklyn debut Tuesday night, and the excitement was … not palpable.”
It turns out, that profoundly strange introduction served as an omen of sorts. Things never did get much better, or more normal, or more palpable, during Durant’s time in Brooklyn. The era could best be summed up with a shrug emoji and a two-word slogan: Shit happens.
James Harden forced his way to the Nets, then forced his way out a year later. Irving missed dozens of games because of his refusal to take the COVID vaccine. All three stars got injured at inopportune times. Irving was suspended for promoting an antisemitic film. They had three head coaches in three years. Durant made a trade demand and rescinded it. Irving made a trade demand and got his wish … which prompted Durant to ask out again, a wish the Nets granted by sending him to Phoenix last February.
All told, the Nets won just one playoff series during Durant’s choppy tenure. He played 129 regular-season games, just 68 at the arena he dubbed “The ’Clays”—a clunky nickname that, like Durant, never really took root here.
So it was no wonder that Durant, when asked earlier this week about a possible video tribute for his Brooklyn return, told the Arizona Republic, “What did I do to deserve that?”
If there’s one constant with Durant (aside from all the brilliant scoring and playmaking), it’s his unique sense of perspective and refreshing candor. No, he really didn’t do much to earn an extensive tribute. (And no, it wasn’t entirely his fault.) But that doesn’t mean he considers his Brooklyn chapter a failure, either.
So Durant embraced the inevitable pregame video tribute (there was no way Brooklyn was going to snub him), and the smattering of applause that followed, then set aside sentiment to dice up his old team in a 136-120 Suns victory. When it was all over and he was asked to put his rocky Brooklyn chapter in perspective, Durant answered in a very Durant way—with a mix of pride, defensiveness, and self-reflection.
“I was an All-Star every year,” Durant said. “I was the leading vote-getter every year in the All-Star Game. Sold a lot of jerseys. [Shot] 50-40-90. Averaged 30 [points per game]. All-NBA. I mean, was that successful? But team success is a different thing. You like to put that on one of the best players and call it a failure. But look at the work. If you want to talk about me individually, just look at the work that I put in here. I think I’ve grown as a player. I think I was on my way—I’m on my way—to mastering the game. I think coming here helped me, pushed me closer to that.”
If it seems Durant would rather focus on what he personally accomplished in Brooklyn—as opposed to what the Nets did not—well, it’s understandable. Justifiable, even. Recall again how this Brooklyn chapter began: with his right leg in a walking boot, his career absolutely in doubt.
Few elite NBA players had ever regained their dominance after Achilles surgery, or sustained it for very long. And Durant was almost 31 when it happened. The odds were against him. But he averaged nearly 27 points per game in that first season back and nearly 30 the next season. He was averaging 29.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.3 assists at the moment the Nets traded him. His efficiency remained elite—always in range of the vaunted 50/40/90 club. As Durant noted, he was an All-Star every season, and All-NBA in 2022. Of course, he also missed nearly half of all the Nets’ games during his tenure, a predictable consequence of the Achilles surgery.
So what did Durant accomplish in his brief, strange time in Brooklyn? He recovered, he grew, he evolved. And though he’ll never say so, perhaps he even learned something about separating personal relationships from professional partnerships. Because if there’s one major mistake Durant made, it was tying his fate to anyone as flighty as Irving in the first place.
Of all the what-ifs that haunted the Durant-era Nets—and there were many—the greatest remains: What if Irving had just gotten vaccinated? Had Irving been vaccinated (and eligible to play home games), Durant would have shouldered less of a burden. Harden might never have become disillusioned. Irving might have gotten the max extension he wanted—instead of becoming disgruntled when the Nets balked. They all might have stayed together long enough to accomplish something—instead of playing (gulp) a grand total of 16 games.
But the era wasn’t a total loss, even for the team. Until Durant made that stunning Instagram announcement, no star of his caliber had ever chosen the Nets—a vagabond franchise forever in the shadow of its glitzy Manhattan rivals. The joint decision of Durant and Irving changed perceptions and expectations. Even after everything the Nets have been through (and put themselves through), players and agents view them differently today than they did four years ago. They’re a desired destination now.
What that ultimately means for the next incarnation of this franchise is unclear. It’s been nearly a year since the Nets were forced to dismantle a plausible contender at the trade deadline. They got a good long-term return on both Durant and Irving, but the resulting roster was, and remains, an awkward mish-mash of overlapping talent and spare parts. They’ve won just six of their past 24 games. The Nets aren’t just bad (19-28), but boring, and lacking any clear direction, their identity now reduced to existential questions.
Are they really planning to rebuild around Mikal Bridges, a complementary star miscast as a first option? Are they really refusing all offers for him? Can they find a true no. 1? When? What will they do with all those supervaluable Suns draft picks? Are they really banking on a Ben Simmons renaissance? How long will they hold on to Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale, and Nic Claxton—high-level role players who could be flipped for draft equity? A course correction seems long overdue. Maybe they make a move by next Thursday’s trade deadline.
But for at least one more night, Durant shimmied and scored at will again on the Barclays court—a reminder of what the Nets briefly had, what they lost, and what might have been. They played a video, offered their well-wishes and hugs, then returned to the malaise of another lost season. The eccentric, demanding superstars are all gone, but the mantra remains. Shit happens.