‘Everything that exists in your life does so because of two things: something you did or something you didn’t do.”
That is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein. He may have had more pressing matters on his mind, but this one seems apt right now when considering what he’d think if he flipped to the sports pages and tried to make sense of the saga of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and things gone wrong.
The Nets are paying the price for something they did, dealing with the fallout from courting unmistakable talent that came in a package that was long on skill, short on character.
For Kyrie Irving, there is no need to reiterate the litany of oddities that blew up the team. James Harden had his own issues, but he at least grasped enough of the dysfunction to force his way out. Kevin Durant has been praised for his good behavior, but considering the Nets began his run in Brooklyn by paying him for a year of physical rehabilitation and he wound up asking out, leaving the team in a lurch, it’s hard to admire him as a true believer.
And the Knicks are quietly sitting in the wings thinking “everything that exists in our life does so because of something we didn’t do.’’
The Knicks were ready to go all-in for Irving and Durant three years ago, but Steve Mills, the team president at the time, and his front office could not even get a sit-down with the duo, who had tied themselves together.
It was a gut punch when it was announced that the two were heading across the river to Brooklyn, painful enough that the Knicks issued a news release in Mills’ name that read, “While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight’s news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through both the draft and targeted free agents.”
There is a quote about a Knicks great when he was serving as the general manager of the Nets. An agent, talking about Willis Reed, said: “Willis’ problem is that he’s a great judge of talent and a terrible judge of character. He expects everyone to play as hard as he did.”
And that might sum up the problems the Nets ran into and the issues that the Knicks dodged.
Patience, which is the credo of Knicks president Leon Rose, might have been something Mills could have requested because history has served him well. All he had to do was wait out the three-year experiment that Brooklyn endured and his words of being “upbeat and confident in our plans” would have rung far truer.
Here’s the thing, though. Mills lost his job after failing to bring a star aboard after dealing away Kristaps Porzingis didn’t return the promised star power.
Sure, there were some highlights. Julius Randle was signed when the Knicks failed on Durant, Irving and an assortment of other stars they were chasing, and he provided a season of second-team All-NBA production before struggling last season amid troubles that pale compared to what Irving brought on himself. The earlier failures did net the Knicks a No. 3 overall pick, and Mills and company selected RJ Barrett, who now is the centerpiece of the Knicks’ future.
None of this is an endorsement for Mills to return to the helm, but instead to point out that the best-laid plans sometimes are best unhatched. The path that Mills took didn’t exactly work out, either, as demonstrated by his firing shortly after Durant and Irving passed on MSG. Chasing stars clearly doesn’t always work.
It’s worth considering right now as the Knicks find themselves in an odd spot in their build — rebuild? — under Rose’s leadership.
With Tom Thibodeau leading the charge, the Knicks went 41-31 in the first season this group was in place, mostly with pieces left over from the previous regime.
Much of the credit deservedly went to the coach and the veteran pickup of Derrick Rose in midseason (for Dennis Smith Jr., who was supposed to be the centerpiece along with a pair of draft picks in the deal Mills made to offload Porzingis).
This past season, it all fell apart. Some problems were predictable — they no longer were able to dodge COVID-19 shutdowns, as they had the year before; there were regressions from key players, and the injured Rose sat out most of the season — and some were baffling.
But the front office pivoted and went all-in for Jalen Brunson this past week, clearing cap space at the expense of useful veterans and a handful of draft picks — including their lottery pick — to have room to pay him $104 million over four years. Brunson is a solid NBA guard, something the Knicks desperately needed. But are they contenders now? Hardly. And did they surrender useful assets to chase a star?
You can look at it this way: forget the money. The Knicks were paying the salary to someone. Is Brunson worth more as an asset than the No. 11 pick, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel and a handful of second-rounders? Is Cam Reddish worth more as an asset than the first-round pick the Knicks surrendered to bring him on board?
There seem to be two paths right now in the NBA — chasing stars or building around “the process,” piling up draft picks and using them to hit on some and get homegrown, low-cost pieces. But the Knicks right now are in some middle ground. They have paid the luxury tax 10 times since it was implemented in 2002 but have stabilized and avoided that in recent seasons. They could hit it again soon if they come to terms on an extension for Barrett and they remain lurking to pool assets for a star again.
Are they better off now than if they had landed those players the Nets now are trying to unload? Emotionally, sure, but the Nets did win a playoff series in that time — it’s disappointing that that’s all it was, but it’s still more than the Knicks have to show — and they likely will get a huge return for Durant at least.
So was it worth it for the Nets? Would the headaches be worth it for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, where the spotlight glare is much brighter? It’s hard to say, but winning is the goal, and which way to get there and how to stay remains to be seen.