Dreams die hard when you are a Brooklyn Nets fan.
The fans I know went to bed Wednesday night praying they could keep Kevin Durant on their team for the rest of the season, clinging to the slim hope that the Slim Reaper would be convinced to stay around at least until the end of the year so the team could begin their rebound around him.
Then the harsh morning light seeped through the shades, and everyone woke up to the nightmare that Durant had been traded to the Phoenix Suns and the only thing left of a team once considered to be the greatest assemblage of talent ever is a bewildered-looking Ben Simmons standing among the wreckage of what could have been.
Not only did the Big Three officially become the Big Zero Thursday, by almost any fair assessment they became the biggest and most embarrassing flops in sports history.
How do you assemble a team with Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving but fail to ever get past the second round of the playoffs? How do you let your team’s famed culture get to the point in which all three of your big stars demand to be traded? And finally, how do you then trade them all away and end up with the team the Nets are going to put on the court for the rest of the season?
“It didn’t work,” Nets general manager Sean Marks said when asked Thursday to sum up the last 3 ½ years.
No, it certainly didn’t. Bad luck, bad decisions, bad trades and most of all, bad behavior from certain players led the Nets to where they are today – with no superstars and in rebuild mode.
The one thing you can’t fault Marks for is signing Durant and Irving in the summer of 2019. Durant made the Nets, a team that has been second choice in their own market for their entire existence, his first choice. The fact that someone of that stature would pick Brooklyn and Barclays Center over Manhattan and Madison Square Garden was such a stunning in-your-face move, Knicks then-president Steve Mills issued an infamous statement acknowledging that Knicks fans were disappointed.
Well, you can bet Knicks fans aren’t disappointed now. Sometime in the wee hours of Thursday morning, the Knicks became the most interesting NBA team in town. They also became the only team with a player in the All-Star Game as Julius Randle, their much-maligned consolation prize in 2019, is an Eastern Conference reserve.
No, it didn’t work. But it’s not because Durant wasn’t spectacular in Brooklyn when he was healthy enough to play. What can be questioned: his choice of best friends. Of all the players in the world that Durant could hitch himself to, why Irving. Why join forces with a player who has burnt bridges in every city he has played in?
The fact remains the two were a package deal and it’s Irving who pushed the move to Brooklyn. Maybe the Nets initially felt some indebtedness to him for that. Maybe they just figured, like Dallas now figures, that they would be the team to finally make Irving happy. Whatever the case, the Nets quickly let their star players change the culture they had been so proud to establish when Marks took over.
The Nets made it clear who was steering the ship when they fired Kenny Atkinson in favor of Steve Nash, a Hall of Fame player who had a relationship with Durant but no actual coaching experience. They made it clear when they swung for the bleachers and traded a bunch of popular young players for James Harden, an All-Star who had spent time working out with Irving and Durant the previous summer.
They practically hung a banner from the rafters saying they were no longer in control when they allowed unvaccinated Irving to come back to the team as a part-time player last season after saying they wouldn't. And then, most painfully as far as the Nets' long-term prospects are concerned, they caved quickly to Harden’s trade demands, sending him to Philadelphia for Simmons, a player whose contract now appears unloadable.
So maybe it should be no great surprise that Irving demanded a trade Friday when contracts weren’t going the way he wanted. It also should be no great surprise that many are looking at this team as a cautionary tale about what can happen when players compile their own super teams. It worked in Miami because, let’s face it, who’s going to push around Pat Riley.
“You know, we’ll go about building a little bit of a different way,” Marks said.
Right now, that seems to be the only choice.
The Big 3 of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden ended up not wearing Nets uniforms very long. Their games as Nets:
Kyrie Irving 143
Kevin Durant 129
James Harden 80