Life is a complex tapestry that begins with a multitude of threads that, when pulled together, can form a beautiful design. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan all had a variety of threads leading them on the path to Brooklyn, but when they pulled those threads together on June 30 to make a joint decision to join the Nets, the end result seemed nothing short of miraculous.
For months, the conventional narrative had them joining forces with the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, the glamour location in the New York market despite their lack of recent success. Ever since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh became trendsetters by a forming a free-agent team and choosing their own franchise with Miami in 2010, the chosen destinations all seemed logical.
But the Nets always have been the poor stepchild in the New York market even when Jason Kidd led them to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002-03 when they were located in New Jersey. Nets over Knicks? How? Why? What were they thinking?
Durant offered the most simple, straightforward explanation in his one appearance at the Nets’ media day before training camp opened. “We know basketball pretty well, and it’s really easy to see what these guys brought to the table,” Durant said. “It’s not like I had to do any deep analysis of any player here. Just watching games and playing against them and seeing the continuity throughout the last couple of years, it was pretty easy to figure out what kind of team and what kind of organization this place is.”
The Nets’ 20-62 record in 2016-17 under general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson in their first year running the franchise was the NBA’s worst. They made a marginal improvement to 28 wins the following season, and last season, they made the quantum leap to 42-40 and sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs based on the young core group they developed.
The threads pulling Durant, Irving and Jordan together traced back to their time playing on the gold medal-winning U.S. national team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Durant and Jordan had been close since their days in AAU basketball, and Durant was part of the effort to recruit Jordan to the University of Texas (He wound up at Texas A&M, of all places). Jordan said he considers Durant “family.” Irving and Durant also bonded during that Olympic experience.
“That was the first time we thought, ‘Wow, this would be fun,’ “ Jordan told Newsday. “Just for my style of play, I feel like I complement those guys and they complement me.
“That was huge, and we all kept in touch. It was fun playing with those guys. When you play with All-Stars, champions, MVP-caliber players like those guys, you can’t help but boost your game. I felt like I played my best when I was with those guys and I wanted to at some point possibly do it again.”
Irving’s journey was more complex because he was part of a young Boston Celtics team many considered top Eastern Conference title contenders. Nine months ago, he even told a Boston crowd that he wanted to re-sign with the Celtics “if you’ll have me.”
But last season went haywire. There was a disconnect between Irving and his young co-stars, and he revealed the death of his grandfather had a profound impact on him that caused him to consider the notion of returning home near where he grew up in North Jersey rooting for the Kidd-led Nets.
Speaking of the moment he pledged loyalty to Boston, Irving said, “They loved me in Boston. I loved Boston fans. Then two weeks later, things just got really rocky for me. I went to my grandfather’s memorial on Oct. 23, and after he passed, basketball was the last thing on my mind. The joy I had for it was sucked away. I didn’t take the necessary steps to get therapy to deal with someone that close to me dying.
“Throughout the year, it started becoming more and more clear that my relationships within my home life have way higher precedence than the organization or anyone ... For me, it was about honing in on what was important, and that was coming back home.”
That was Irving’s state of mind entering free agency, and he found a receptive audience in Durant, who had some ties to the Nets’ organization. When he was in Oklahoma City, Durant worked with Nets conditioning coach Adam Harrington, and he also had a friendship with budding Nets star Caris LeVert because both had undergone foot operations with Dr. Martin O’Malley, who also performed the surgery after Durant tore his right Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the NBA Finals last June.
Durant said he studied Atkinson on YouTube and loved his style, and he liked the idea of playing on the East Coast near where he grew up in the Baltimore area. “Once I started getting comfortable how [Atkinson] coaches his craft, it started to make me feel at ease even though I never had a conversation with him,” Durant said. “I could just see it through YouTube and clips that he was pretty genuine about the game.
“Obviously, I talked with Kyrie and then watching the team and knowing Caris and all that stuff kind of combined at once. Obviously, being from the East Coast, it was something I was really excited about.”
Leaving the Golden State Warriors after three straight trips to the Finals, two titles and two Finals MVP awards was tough, but Durant said in another interview that he never really felt like an organic part of the Warriors’ core because he came from outside.
“Every day I wake up I’ve got to fight against that standard I set for myself,” Durant said. “I felt like it was time for a change, and I wanted to play for a new team. Simply put, I just did it. I didn’t really think about what I was leaving behind or what they accomplished. I put that up on the shelf already. When it was time to make a decision about my future, it was solely about me.”
Jordan started last season in Dallas but then was traded to the Knicks for the final two months of the season. Asked if Irving and Durant sounded him out about that environment, Jordan laughed and professed his love for Knicks coach David Fizdale.
But he added, “I don’t think it was a Nets versus Knicks thing. At the time, during free agency, this was the best spot for us.
“[The Nets] are gritty. It’s a grind game. The Garden was great. It’s an amazing place to play. You feel the energy when you walk in the arena. It’s the mecca. But here, I felt like they were doing something, building it from the ground up with players they drafted. Kenny and Sean had come in and developed and set a mindset. I wanted to be a part of something like that.”
Irving conducted a conference call with Durant and Jordan in the wee hours of the morning on June 30 when they finalized their decision. He has an appreciation of Nets history and knows their only titles came in the ABA with Julius Erving in 1974 and 1976, when they were located on Long Island.
“For me, it’s about the history and also the transition that’s made now being in Brooklyn and also being from Jersey,” Irving said. “It was like, ‘Okay, let me bring this New York/New Jersey style to the court. I don’t think we’ve seen an example of a player from around here be on the team as this example of the community on the floor ...That’s where I grew up, outside playing basketball and having that attitude to really prove people right that I’m the next one meant to take over the league for the next few years.”
That’s Irving’s dream, and now, it is shared by Durant and Jordan in the most unlikely NBA destination of Brooklyn. It starts now on the opposite side of the East River from where the Knicks live. Beautiful.