Where Do the Nets Go from Here?
Photo Credit: Kidfly182, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Kyrie Irving opted in. Kevin Durant opted out. Go figure.
August 8, 2021. That’s the day Durant signed a four-year, $194.22 million contract extension with the Brooklyn Nets through the year 2026. Less than one year later, he wants out.
February 10, 2022. That’s the day the Nets traded James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers for Ben Simmons. Less than five months later, Durant wants out.
June 27, 2022. That's the day Irving opted-in to his $36.5 million player option to remain with the Nets through the 2022-23 season. Less than one week later, Durant wants out.
A team that has been an NBA Finals favorite for the past two seasons looks to be on the verge of ruin. Time’s already up for the Nets, and they didn’t even realize the countdown had begun. All that’s left is to try to discern where the franchise goes from here.
The news that Durant wants out comes as a moderate surprise. The timing, more than anything, is hard to grasp. As I mentioned earlier, Durant has reportedly asked for this trade just three days since Irving opted-in to the final year of his contract. If anything, we would have expected to see Durant ask for the trade before Irving opted-in, not after.
There are two possibilities here. One, Durant and Irving, who by all accounts are good friends, have both decided that it’s time to move on from Brooklyn. For Irving, taking the $37 million guaranteed was a no-brainer. Now, he too can request a trade. The other possibility is darker - that Durant is sick of Irving’s shenanigans and realized he could never win another title playing alongside the ever-unreliable Irving.
Either way, there’s a distinct (read: certain) possibility that when the 2022-23 NBA season begins, the Nets will be without both of the superstars they moved heaven and earth to acquire in 2019. A team that has had titles on the brain for years will be going back to the drawing board. Thankfully, they have some experience with this.
In 2013, ex-Nets’ GM Billy King traded three first-round picks and a pick swap to the Boston Celtics for an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The results were predictably terrible. Despite featuring two Hall of Famers in Pierce and Garnett, two former 20-point-per-game scorers in Joe Johnson and Derron Williams, and an emerging Brook Lopez who would average 20 points per game that season, the Nets could only manage to advance one round in the playoffs before they were dispatched by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in five games in the Conference Semifinals.
Aaaand that’s about it. The Nets wouldn’t win more than 38 games for the next four seasons. The Boston Celtics would feast on those picks, acquiring Jaylen Brown with the Nets’ 2016 first-round pick and Jayson Tatum with the 2017 pick swap.
It seemed like the Nets had put all this crap behind them when they signed Irving and traded for Durant back in 2019 - and with the pandemic upending everyone’s lives in 2020, doesn’t 2019 feel like ancient history now? It’s deja vu all over again for the Nets, who are back to square one.
There is hope for a quick turnaround, however. With four years remaining on his contract and coming off a season in which he averaged 30 points per game, Durant will not be short on suitors. And even though Irving might be specious and unpredictable, his raw basketball talent is undeniable, and some desperate team will surely convince themselves that they can be the ones to harness his skills. There could be a bounty of draft picks coming the Nets way, provided they can play their cards right (hopefully they learned their lesson from the Celtics all those years ago).
One holdover from the pending Durant-Irving exodus is Simmons, who only arrived a few months ago and has yet to don a Nets jersey in live action. It would surprise exactly no one if Simmons demanded out too. Frankly, the Nets would be well suited to just wash their hands of all three of these mercurial stars.
Simmons, for his part, may still be a decent trade asset. He still has the size, athleticism, passing ability and defensive chops that made him an appealing addition for the Nets this past season. He will have to prove he’s healthy after undergoing back surgery in May, but he might fetch the Nets a little something.
It’s amazing how quickly all of this unraveled. The Durant-Irving partnership in Brooklyn will go down as an unmitigated disaster. In three years together (granted, Durant was injured for all of the 2019-20 season), the furthest the Nets advanced was the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where they would lose to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the eventual-champion Milwaukee Bucks.
It’s like the Nets are this guy who went through a horrible, nasty divorce eight years ago. The settlement left him in financial ruin with no clear way out on the horizon. Instead of despairing, though, this guy worked his way through the misery. He hustled, made sacrifices and took risks, just to get back to a sense of normalcy.
After four grueling years, the guy finally emerged with a renewed sense of confidence and freedom. He started dating again and had a few flings. Finally, he met the one. She was beautiful, a hard worker, thoughtful, and not afraid to be different. She promised him that they’d see the world together. And after about two years of marriage, she gets bored and dumps him for a bartender on a cruise ship - oof.
Fortunately for the Nets, they’ve been here before. They’ve been kicked to the curb. They’ve been hung to dry. But they found a way to get back in the mix before - they’ll just have to do it again.