The tail to the greatest failure in NBA history might have taken place in the middle of the night, but even darkness can’t hide the indignity of what the Brooklyn Nets will wake up to on Thursday.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that this would be how the end of the Kevin Durant era would look in Brooklyn. He’d already asked for a trade once, and with his running mate Kyrie Irving spiraling into conspiracy and eventually careening to a new destination, there probably wasn’t much reason for him to stay.
But with Durant now headed to the Phoenix Suns and the Nets pivoting to an entirely new franchise paradigm, it is worth tallying up what the last four seasons have wrought. For a team that managed to get three all-time talents on the same roster with Durant, Irving and James Harden, it’s an almost inconceivable scale of disaster that to be left with only Ben Simmons standing amid the rubble.
Ounces Irving requested a trade last week – a move born out of Brooklyn’s justifiable hesitation to give him a long-term deal – the superteam experiment was over. The only real question was whether the Nets would have enough time before the trade deadline to put a deal together for Durant or whether that piece of business would need to take place in the offseason.
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From a purely transactional standpoint, the Nets haven’t done too badly. Now loaded up on future first-round draft picks, they have a lane to spin off even more assets and go into a complete rebuild like Oklahoma City. Or, having acquired a lot of functional wing players over the last week in Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith and Cam Johnson to go along with what remains on the roster, they can tweak around the edges and try to stay competitive. Given the options, it could have been worse.
But that obscures the bigger picture of the opportunity wasted in Brooklyn. The Durant-Irving-Harden triumvirate didn’t just fail to win a championship, its entire legacy is one postseason series win and eventually being sold for pieces like a company that went belly up.
Whatever the extenuating circumstances – and injuries certainly accounted for some (but not all) of the issues over the years – there has never been a team that promised more and delivered less.
And now it’s gone.
It’s remarkable to think that just a month ago, the Nets might have been considered the favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Durant was playing incredible basketball, Irving was determined to avoid any controversy and the supporting pieces around those two stars had gotten comfortable in their roles.
Had Durant not suffered an MCL sprain on Jan. 8, perhaps this all goes differently. Maybe Irving could have been convinced to just play it out to the end of the season, see if this team could make a deep playoff run and count on good behavior earning him a new deal after the season.
Then again, that probably would have been asking too much. In retrospect, the Nets should have pulled the plug on this team after the controversy in October when Irving promoted an antisemitic film, was suspended and later apologized.
After that incident, which punctuated just how unreliable Irving is over the long haul, it was going to be impossible for Nets owner Joe Tsai to commit to give Irving the maximum contract he wanted. Which meant the relationship, and this team, was ultimately going nowhere.
As it turned out, the fate of the Brooklyn Nets was to get one more tease of championship potential, only to have the rug pulled out from under them for a final time. and as a result, the entire NBA has been reshaped for the stretch run
With a motivated Irving in Dallas, the Mavericks have hope that a second superstar being paired with Luka Doncic will be enough to get them to the Finals. And assuming everyone comes back healthy after the All-Star Game, a Phoenix team that sits at 30-26 will look like much more imposing championship contender with Durant and Devin Booker around Chris Paul.
At minimum, it makes the Western Conference a fascinating place.
With yet another injury sidelining Steph Curry, the Warriors are going to struggle to get into the top six and avoid the play-in tournament but nobody will want to see them if they’re healthy.
With hours to go before the trade deadline, we’ll see if Memphis, Denver or even the LA Clippers can make a big move move that keeps them ahead of the pack. Throw in Zion Williamson getting healthy and Minnesota figuring out its chemistry down the stretch and there are almost an infinite number of variables in how the West playoffs might shake out.
Pending more possible moves Thursday, the East seems more ossified – and the Nets, even at 32-22, are not going to be a part of it.
There’s almost no precedent for this. How does a team that was firmly in the championship mix in January suddenly punt on its season and its long-term ambitions in February and get left holding a bag of draft picks and Ben Simmons?
Even in the most pessimistic scenario you could have imagined when Irving and Durant signed with the Nets in 2019, this is at least five levels worse. And they didn’t even get more than a glimpse of greatness for all their trouble.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kevin Durant trades to Suns punctuates massive failure by Nets