The Brooklyn Nets' season ended unceremoniously Sunday night in a first-round sweep at the hands of the NBA defending champion Toronto Raptors. In other circumstances, this could be construed as a disappointment. Instead, Brooklyn's demise was met with a collective shrug, because the team was horribly short-handed.
And it was always about next year anyway.
The most critical members of this franchise's future didn't even make the trip to Orlando, Florida. Kevin Durant missed all of 2019-20 recovering from an Achilles tendon injury that he incurred during last year's NBA Finals. His new trusted sidekick, Kyrie Irving, logged 20 games, made some pointed suggestions about the future of the roster (more on that later) and then missed the rest of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder. DeAndre Jordan, the third spoke of their union (hatched on a luxury cruise liner docked in Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics) opted out after contracting COVID-19.
Spencer Dinwiddie, who epitomizes the success of the carefully crafted culture that both general manager Sean Marks and former coach Kenny Atkinson so ardently constructed, also contracted COVID-19 and had to pass. Wilson Chandler, who logged meaningful minutes for the Nets on the defensive side of the ball, opted out of playing in Orlando due to "family and health reasons." Sharpshooter Joe Harris just recently left the bubble for a family matter.
This was not the desired blueprint, obviously. Marks surely would have preferred to have a longer look at a collection of players that might (or might not) constitute the nucleus of the team going forward. In particular, it would have been helpful for Irving to have had an extended run with some of the younger players such as Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert to see what fit and what didn't. Marks will have a multitude of decisions to make in the weeks and months ahead to put the finishing touches on a team that plans on vying for supremacy in the Eastern Conference -- and beyond.
Here's what we know with certainty: There will be no collective shrugs if the Nets face early elimination next season. A searing and unwavering spotlight will be centered squarely on Durant and Irving, chronicling their every move and every utterance. Make no mistake, KD and Kyrie are on the clock. The success or failure of this franchise, which is firmly on a championship-or-bust path, will fall squarely on their shoulders.
Neither player has reacted well to intense scrutiny in the past. The first order of business is for them to develop some callouses. When the Nets were just a bunch of scrappy overachievers, nobody was auditing their day-to-day maneuvers. As Marks & Co. have discovered, that is no longer the case. In January, Irving made waves when he declared the team didn't possess the full complement of talent required to win it all. "It's pretty glaring that we need one more piece, two more pieces that will complement myself, KD, DJ [Jordan], GT [Garrett Temple], Spencer, Caris, and we'll see how that evolves," Irving said at the time.
His omission of Allen, Harris and Taurean Prince immediately raised eyebrows. Was it merely an oversight or a pointed message to the front office? Speculation ran rampant.
Harris, another successful Atkinson reclamation project and the team's most reliable 3-point threat (a .426 career 3-point percentage) is a free agent. Marks already has announced Harris is "priority No. 1." While the Nets have $136 million committed to the cap for 2020-21, team owner Joe Tsai is on record saying he is willing to pay the luxury tax in pursuit of a championship. Harris, who was on the books at a bargain price of $7.6 million this season, could well be in line to double his salary.
Will the Nets stand pat and bank on either LeVert or Dinwiddie blossoming into a legitimate third star alongside Durant and Irving? Or will they package some of their young talent (with LeVert as a centerpiece) and go hunting for a bigger, more established and more expensive fish? Brooklyn already has been linked to Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal, who, when asked about it by this reporter in May, said he would love to "grind out winning" with the Wizards but admitted the Nets' purported interest was a sign of respect. "When you hear that Kyrie and KD want you, s---, that's amazing," Beal said.
Stars, not scrappy overachievers, win championships. The underdog culture that Marks and Atkinson crafted is officially moot. That's why the Nets willingly added the 31-year-old Jordan to the mix at the behest of Durant and Irving. It was a no-brainer package deal that the organization believes can help the Nets win it all.
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It's no longer breaking news when basketball superstars demand (and are granted) input into decisions made by their front office; that's today's NBA, where player empowerment rules. When Atkinson and the Nets mutually parted ways 62 games into the season, multiple reports suggested both Durant and Irving had a hand in ending Atkinson's tenure. For one thing, said team sources, it rankled them that Atkinson was bringing their "brother" Jordan off the bench, favoring the 21-year Allen in his starting five.
Not coincidentally, in interim coach Jacque Vaughn's first game, he elevated Jordan into the starting lineup in Allen's place. Vaughn has earned the respect of both the players and the organization. In fact, sources say, Marks is seriously considering Vaughn for the permanent job. Yet, league sources say Durant and Irving are interested in a higher profile head coach, along the lines of Tyronn Lue or Gregg Popovich, who are among the candidates who have been linked to the opening.
You can be sure both players will offer their opinions on who should be the next coach. Marks, who understands all too well how this works, will undoubtedly listen.
In the meantime, there are a few other thorny matters to consider. First and foremost, there's the health of the sidelined superstars. A ruptured Achilles is a gnarly injury that takes time, both mentally and physically, to recover from. And there's no guarantee Durant will regain his full mobility, agility and lift. He -- and his team -- will need to exhibit patience. Since Irving left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, he has undergone two knee surgeries and a shoulder surgery on his shooting arm. In his nine NBA years, Irving has played an average of 58.6 games a season. In order for the Nets to meet their lofty goals, both players need to be on the floor. A lot.
Then there's the matter of chemistry. If the Nets stay with what they have, are there enough basketballs for Durant, Irving, Dinwiddie and LeVert, all of whom flourish with the ball in their hands? It is, most will argue, a puzzle many teams would love to solve. Still, as we've seen countless times throughout the history of the NBA, talent alone isn't enough. Players have to fit -- and sometimes even compromise.
What if LeVert, who averaged nearly 19 points a game and 4.5 assists this season, and Dinwiddie, who was considered for an All-star slot, are asked to come off the bench next season? How will that affect their psyche and that of the team's?
The Brooklyn Nets have been waiting a basketball lifetime for a chance to be in the conversation. KD and Kyrie have planted them there.
But next season, talk will be cheap. Brooklyn and its top dogs will need to perform and produce. The glare of the spotlight is unrelenting, and so will be the criticism, unless the no longer scrappy but suddenly favored Nets do one simple thing: win.