The coda to the biggest failure in NBA history may have happened in the middle of the night, but even darkness couldn’t hide the humiliation the Brooklyn Nets would wake up to on Thursday.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that such would be the end of the Kevin Durant era in Brooklyn. He had already asked for a trade once, and with his running mate Kyrie Irving plotting and eventually taking care of a new destination, there probably was no reason for him to stay.
But with Durant now headed to the Phoenix Suns and Nets toward an entirely new franchise paradigm, it’s worth comparing the past four seasons. For a team that managed to get three all-time geniuses on the same roster with Durant, Irving and James Harden, it is an almost unimaginable scale of disaster to be left with only Ben Simmons among the rubble.
Once Irving requested a trade last week — a move born out of Brooklyn’s justified hesitation to give him a long-term deal — the superteam experiment was over. The only real question was whether the Nets would have enough time before the trade deadline to make a deal for Durant, or whether that piece of the trade would need to take place in the offseason.
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Purely from the perspective of transactions, the Nets did not perform too badly. Now loaded with future first-round draft picks, they have a lane to spin off even more assets and move into a full-fledged rebuild like Oklahoma City. Or, after getting plenty of functional wing players to remain on the roster over the past week in Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith and Cam Johnson, they could move around the edges and try to stay competitive. can do. Given the alternatives, it could have been worse.
But this obscures the bigger picture of wasted opportunity in Brooklyn. The Durant-Irving-Harden trio not only failed to win the championship, but its entire legacy is to win a series after the season and eventually be sold to pieces like a company that went belly up.
Whatever the extenuating circumstances – and injuries have certainly accounted for some (but not all) of the issues over the years – there has never been a team that promised more and delivered less.
And now it’s gone.
It is remarkable to think that just a month ago, the Nets could have been considered favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Durant was playing incredible basketball, Irving was determined to avoid any controversy and the supporting pieces around those two stars had become comfortable in their roles.
If Durant had not suffered an MCL sprain on January 8, it might have all been different. Maybe Irving could be convinced to play through the end of the season, see if this team can make a deep playoff run and count on good behavior earning him a new deal after the season.
Then again, that might have been asking too much. In retrospect, the Nets should have pulled the plug on this team after the controversy in October when Irving promoted an antisemitic film, was suspended and later apologized.
After that incident, which punctuated Irving’s unreliability for a long time, it was impossible for Nets owner Joe Tsai to commit to giving Irving the max contract he wanted. Which meant a relationship, and this team was ultimately going nowhere.
As it turned out later, the fate of the Brooklyn Nets was another tease of championship potential, only to have the rug pulled out from under them one last time. And as a result, the entire NBA has been reshaped for the stretch run
With an inspired Irving in Dallas, the Mavericks will hope that pairing another superstar with Luka Doncic will be enough to propel them to the Finals. And assuming everyone comes back healthy after the All-Star Game, a Phoenix team that sits at 30-26 with Durant and Devin Booker around Chris Paul will look like a more likely championship contender.
At the very least, it makes the Western Conference an attractive place.
With another injury to Steph Curry, the Warriors are going to struggle to finish in the top six and survive the play-in tournament, but nobody would like to see him healthy.
With hours before the trade deadline, we’ll see if Memphis, Denver or even the LA Clippers can make a big move that puts them ahead of the pack. Throw in Zion Williamson being healthy and figuring out his chemistry down the stretch in Minnesota and there are a nearly infinite number of variables in how the West can shake up the playoffs.
Pending more potential moves on Thursday, the former seems more ossified — and the Nets, even at 32-22, aren’t going to be a part of it.
There is almost no precedent for this. How does a team that was firmly in the championship mix in January suddenly get battered on its season and its long-term ambitions in February and walk away holding a bag of draft picks and Ben Simmons?
Even in the most pessimistic scenario you could imagine when Irving and Durant signed with the Nets in 2019, that’s at least five levels worse. And he got nothing more than a glimpse of greatness for all his troubles.