The Nets won the NBA offseason sweepstakes when they signed maximum-salary free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and added former all-NBA center DeAndre Jordan in the bargain. But a disjointed preseason that ended with a blowout loss at home to the defending champion Raptors amid a political protest underlined the difficulties the Nets face entering what only can be described as a transformative season.
Durant is not expected to play in the coming season while rehabbing from right Achilles tendon surgery. Irving had preseason facial injuries that limited him to a one-minute cameo in the second preseason game before his home debut against the Raptors, where he struggled with his shot and conditioning.
The political turmoil that surrounded the Nets’ two games against the Lakers in China after Houston general manager Daryl Morey issued a tweet supporting freedom protesters in Hong Kong has complicated the transition. Nets owner Joseph Tsai previously issued a statement supporting U.S. free speech but then adding, “Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland.”
That sparked a group of about 300 protesters to show up for the Nets’ final preseason game, wearing T-shirts that said “Stand Up for Hong Kong” and “Free Tibet.” All those circumstances swirled around Irving, who reportedly spoke along with Lakers star LeBron James at a meeting in China with NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
Addressing that situation for the first time, Irving made it clear he was upset that news of his role leaked out. He was worried about the impact on the NBA brand but also was conflicted because of his own social values.
“I stand for four things, man — inner peace, freedom, equality and world peace,” Irving said. “So, if that’s being conflicted inside of me, then, I’m definitely going to have something to say. I left it in that room and Adam and my teammates … We talked about it as a team, we made a group decision, and we went forward to play the games.”
Irving said he can relate to political unrest in China and Hong Kong but added that he is even more focused on social issues affecting people of color in America. “I can understand why protesters come to the game,” Irving said. “America was built on protesting, built on slavery, but things happen all across the world and we’re just taking notice when social media puts it right in front of everyone’s faces,” Irving said.
“If you’re not thinking with a selfless attitude, you can get yourself caught up in a few things politically that really impact a certain group of people in an area of the world.”
That last comment hinted that Morey left himself exposed as the flashpoint of the controversy that erupted. As he spoke, Irving was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Protect kids, not guns.”
Responding to a question about the importance of politics in his life, Irving said, “It’s more than just political values. It’s just me as a human being and as a soul here, learning about my history, knowing about traditions of government all across the world, global crises that have happened all the time. You just want world peace for people. As humanity, you want people just to live freely, and that’s what I stand by.”
As the China trip recedes, the focus on political questions likely will give way to basketball questions and how the Nets develop with Irving as the centerpiece this season. The answers to on-court questions might not come easily, either.
“I just think you take time to develop chemistry off the floor,” Irving said. “Nothing really can be accelerated. When you try to think of ways to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as you can, I don’t think it’s always the best recipe, especially when we’re building a great team culture here. Brooklyn has done a great job of building with their pieces they have from the ground up. Now, we’re at a certain level where we have talent in here, but now we’ve got to make it work together. We’ve just got to keep being patient.”
Backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie recently noted the Nets now have a core that goes 10-12 players deep that likely can expect to be together the next three or four seasons. “Time is on our side, and I think the commitment the other guys made before me and KD got here and DJ or even Caris [LeVert] getting his extension, I think they were committed for the long-term,” Irving said. “This is home for me regardless, so when you get a chance to put on a Brooklyn uniform and have guys you are going to be with four-plus years or so, you’re just really grateful and you want to settle into it.”
The transition figures to be bumpy to start, but that doesn’t mean the future is any less promising.