When superstar free-agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving teamed up to sign with the Nets in the summer of 2019, many viewed it as an "out-of-box" move because they shunned the Knicks and Madison Square Garden to sign with the Nets, who were three seasons into a building process under general manager Sean Marks and had just earned the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Almost two years later, the vision that best friends Irving and Durant shared slowly is coming into focus. Earlier this season, Marks hired Hall of Famer Steve Nash as a first-time head coach, traded for third superstar James Harden and then signed former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge in the buyout/free-agent market.
The Nets’ "Big 3" has played only seven games together and Durant and Harden are nursing injuries, but going into their Sunday afternoon game against the Bulls in Chicago, they are assured of at least being tied for first in the Eastern Conference with a 34-15 record after winning 20 of their past 23 games. And there’s a good chance the full cast will be healthy and available later in the coming week.
Asked if the Nets have exceeded his vision with all the talent they have assembled, Durant said, "Well, my vision was for us to come in and have championship habits every day with how we work and how we communicate with each other from the coaches to the players to the front office and how we build this family of fans in Brooklyn, in our borough. That’s what I was envisioning.
"The roster was going to come together the way it was going to come together, but I was more so envisioning the culture that we wanted to create, and I think we’re on the way to that."
When Durant’s reference to the culture the Nets have cultivated under Marks’ guidance was conveyed to Irving, it inspired a passionate soliloquy on the vision he brought to the process.
"I don’t know if everyone could have seen this vision a year ago or two years ago, or just when it was the birth of an idea of what a place would look like with some guys in our league that we’ve played against," Irving said. "We’ve played against each other so long, and then now in one place. It’s unreal, a little surreal because we’ve all accomplished so much individually.
"But when we looked at this thing, it was just a blank canvas, you know? We saw Brooklyn already had something great going . . . [but] when you talk about a culture, it doesn’t just happen overnight. You’ve got to make some major moves, and we made some major changes this year."
With a nod toward the turmoil in his past with the Cavaliers and Celtics as well as the feathers Durant ruffled when he left Oklahoma City to join Golden State and then left there after two NBA titles to join the Nets, Irving indicated he and Durant were willing to take the risk and responsibilities that come with starting over as leaders in a new place they could call their own.
"You know how the NBA culture goes," Irving said. "If a team doesn’t get along, they’ll make up a whole bunch of things. Here, we don’t want that bickering and all that nonsense in our locker room . . . We’ve got a few champions on the team, but now, we want to see others have that same championship-level mindset, mentality and then exemplify it.
"The culture that’s being built is that accountability, holding each other to that standard, and it’s never easy. You’ve got to get uncomfortable, and there are conversations that are uncomfortable and you’ve just got to be able to be resilient and persevere. So we build our culture, and it’ll define itself based on what we do as players and as a team successfully."
Since joining the Nets, Harden has played at an MVP level. Durant was brilliant early in the season before suffering a hamstring injury, and Irving arguably is playing his best basketball. First glimpses from Griffin and Aldridge suggest they have plenty left in their tanks. It’s an exciting prospect, but Irving said he’s trying to be patient and not think about their "superteam" potential.
"I’d rather just go out there and have everybody out there playing," Irving said. "We all want to be healthy for when we make that big run after May 16 [when the NBA playoffs begin]. So just use this time to throw bodies out there that we’ve newly acquired and just see how we fit.
"The most flexible teams in the league are usually the most successful because you’re able to just throw guys out there and still have a certain standard that you want to play at. I think we’re exemplifying that element of the game, filling in, playing hard and making the right plays for one another. It feels good for sure."