For five years, the big buzzword around the Nets has been culture.
The narrative was that the Nets were building the right kind of culture, that they were scouring the world for underrated gems they could turn into NBA starters. They were teaching guys to play the right way, to grow together as a team and to buy into the culture.
Well, here’s the truth about teams that talk a lot about culture: They usually don’t have a lot of superstars. Culture is basically what they have to sell to their fans. (See current Knicks team.) When you don’t have big names to market, you have to peddle attitude and commitment and other intangibles. What choice do you have?
With Wednesday’s seismic trade that brought James Harden to the Nets to play alongside Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, they now have as many superstars as any other NBA team. It doesn’t mean the Nets have abandoned the team’s culture. It just means that it has evolved and that they don’t have to talk about it all the time.
This is a stars-laden league and, almost always, stars trump culture. Culture alone will never produce a combined average of 80 points per game, but Durant, Irving and Harden can.
"The minute we are stagnant or anybody for that matter in any industry says our culture is fixed and it’s done, that’s going to be the demise," Nets general manager Sean Marks said on a Zoom call with the media on Thursday. "Other teams and other franchises and other industries will catch up to you. And I think for us our goal ultimately is to put out a championship contender and have some sustainable success."
Bringing Harden to the Nets has been in the works for a while. It’s not, as some have put out there, something they decided to do because they were worried that Irving was not going to return to the team anytime soon.
In fact, Marks said he talked to Durant and Irving before making the trade and that both are in. He also added that Irving, who has missed five straight games for personal reasons, "is excited to get back with his teammates as soon as possible."
He added that the Nets are waiting to hear from the league about a ruling regarding health and safety protocols. During his absence, Irving was seen on social media attending a birthday party without a mask.
The faster Irving gets back, the faster the Nets can get a read on how this star-driven culture is going to work out.
"Whenever you are mixing personalities, I think we’ve got to wait and see how this all fits on the floor and so forth," Marks said. "I think these guys have given us all the right answers. They say they want to play together, they can see this fitting.
"They’re at a time in their careers — I don’t want to speak for each one of them because I let them have their own voice and their narrative around this — but I think they understand that there’s without a doubt going to be some nights where one or two need to sacrifice for the other, and so forth. But I think they’re all looking for a common goal."
The Nets believe they have a championship contender and they believe that their big three has bought into it. Yes, there will be egos to soothe, shots to give up and petty jealousies to work around. And there will be drama, plenty of drama.
But all that will be a lot more interesting than watching a culture-first group of players get eliminated in the first or second round.