The days of the Big Three or super teams may be dead. And Kevin Durant may have dealt the fatal blow.
He asked for a trade from the Nets, completing what was a disastrous three years for the franchise after management and ownership believed they had purchased a championship by signing Durant and Kyrie Irving on the same day in 2019.
Durant missed the 2019-20 season recovering from a torn Achilles’ but the next season he nearly took the Nets to the Eastern Conference finals, Brooklyn losing in Game 7 to the Bucks.
Durant wasn’t the issue in Brooklyn. He lived up to expectations before that ghastly series with the Celtics in April, where he was blitzed and stymied by the Boston defense. The problems in Brooklyn were everywhere else.
For some reason, Durant attached himself to Irving, who lobbied for them to sign with the same team in the summer of 2019, just months after Irving committed to re-signing with the Celtics. Irving made that announcement at a season ticket-holders’ event at TD Garden, and then a few months later, he was imploring Durant to sign with him elsewhere prior to the 2019 All-Star Game in Charlotte, N.C.
Durant was all in. He signed with the Nets without even a free-agent visit. He wanted out of Golden State, realizing he’d never eclipse Stephen Curry in popularity and was tiring of Draymond Green’s chiding and grating personality. Durant thought Brooklyn would bring him his long-awaited opportunity to win a championship as the central figure.
He was bitter from the criticism he received after leaving the Thunder for Golden State, the team that knocked Oklahoma City out of the postseason in 2016. Durant wanted to lead the Nets to unprecedented heights, and he put faith in Irving that he would be up to the task.
Irving missed 62 games that opening season with a shoulder injury and he played 54 in 2020-21, reaching the conference semifinals with James Harden, who came over from the Rockets. The Nets were favored to win the title last year.
Yet, they never stood a chance. Irving refused vaccination, despite a New York mandate that prevented city employees from working without the shot. Although his all teammates were vaccinated, Irving declined several opportunities to rejoin them. The Nets initially did not allow Irving to play in road games but relented, causing dissension in the locker room.
General manager Sean Marks eventually cleared Irving to return, but the chaos was too much and the Nets were a shell of the team picked to win the East. Harden asked out and was dealt to Philadelphia. The Nets got Ben Simmons in return but he did not play a game, felled by back and mental health issues.
Irving played 29 games, leaving Durant on an island. Although Durant was open to going to another team with Irving, he seeks a fresh start. The perception of being tied to Irving was the root of most of his problems.
Irving opted into the final year of his contract, but he also wants out, he just wasn’t willing to relinquish $30 million to sign a mid-level exception contract with the Lakers. Durant just wanted to report to the arena every day, ball and go home. He brings no drama but certainly has been surrounded by much during the past few years.
Durant will turn 34 in September and is beginning the first year of a four-year, $195 million contract extension, and he has pristine market value.
More than half of the NBA teams reached out to the Nets to facilitate a deal for one of the game’s all-time great scorers.
So why does he want to leave Brooklyn? The Nets made the mistake of allowing Durant and Irving to make roster suggestions — such as encouraging the Nets to sign aging DeAndre Jordan to a $40 million deal although the Nets had rising center Jarrett Allen.
Although coach Steve Nash is considered one of the more affable figures in the NBA, he never quite had control of the team and the Nets never gained defensive cohesion. Durant tried being the franchise cornerstone but he couldn’t rely on Irving and Nash did not devise a game plan to combat the Celtics defense.
Even if Durant were to return with a healthy and engaged Irving, there is no guarantee the Nets could overcome the Bucks, 76ers or Celtics in the East. Durant, realizing this may be his final contract, had little confidence the Nets could reach his expectations.
Suns and Heat on Durant’s wish list
Durant listed the Suns and Heat as his preferred destinations and the Suns have the most assets to offer, but the Nets are most interested in Devin Booker, who just signed a maximum extension. The Suns aren’t sending their franchise player in a deal for a 34-year-old Durant.
Phoenix general manager James Jones would be more inclined to package defensive ace Mikal Bridges, sharpshooter Cameron Johnson and draft picks. Restricted free agent Deandre Ayton is likely headed out of Phoenix but a sign-and-trade deal for Durant would hard-cap the Nets and they just re-signed center Nic Claxton to an extension.
The Heat would have to load their package with draft picks and could not include All-Star center Bam Adebayo because he signed the rookie max extension and the league’s CBA does not allow teams to acquire multiple rookie max players through trade. Simmons was acquired from the 76ers in a trade after signing a max extension in 2019.
The Heat could package the $29 million contract of Kyle Lowry along with Tyler Herro and several draft picks to pull off a deal. But that likely wouldn’t be sufficient. The Heat have ways to create salary cap space and could include a third team, such as the Pacers or others looking to cash in on draft picks, to work out a deal.
Durant’s trade demand reduced the free-agent frenzy because interested teams were appraising their assets for a potential deal. The Nets do not have to trade Durant. The organization could bank on a change of heart by Durant as the season approaches, especially if Irving remains on the roster.
But it seems management and ownership want to conclude this hugely disappointing period. The Nets never reached the conference finals with their two superstars, and the Irving-Durant pair never fulfilled their potential or anything close to those bright ideas they discussed prior to that All-Star Game.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
Spurs are unloading to rebuild and reload
The Spurs just traded their best player to the Hawks in a package for draft picks. That doesn’t sound like the Spurs are ramping up for a run in the Western Conference with 73-year-old coach Gregg Popovich.
With All-Star Dejounte Murray gone, the Spurs could be one of the worst teams in recent memory with Doug McDermott, Keldon Johnson, Josh Richardson, and Jakob Poeltl as their top four players, along with three first-round picks from this year’s draft.
Popovich apparently has no plans to retire and is excited about the rebuilding plan. And the Spurs could make a rapid resurgence with enough salary cap space for two maximum contracts next season and a load of young talent.
The biggest obstacle is attracting free-agent talent. The Spurs just traded their best player and play in one of the most obscure markets in the NBA. And while Popovich is a future Hall of Fame coach and has won five championships, the Spurs haven’t been a real contender since Kawhi Leonard departed in 2018.
The club named former 76ers coach Brett Brown to Popovich’s staff. Brown, the former BU product, was a San Antonio assistant coach for six seasons before joining the 76ers. Brown could become the heir apparent to Popovich and he’s definitely experienced in rebuilding plans.
Brown should have received more credit for the 76ers’ ascension from “The Process” as the they reached the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2019, losing on Leonard’s last-second shot in Game 7. Brown joins a staff that possesses a rising coaching prospect in Mitch Johnson, the son of former SuperSonics standout Johnny Johnson.
And there is another factor in the Spurs deciding to rebuild. The top prospect for the 2023 NBA Draft is Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot-3-inch, 18-year-old gem who has played professionally in France for the past three years. Because of the draft lottery, there is no guarantee the Spurs would get the No. 1 overall pick even with the league’s worst record, but it’s apparent they are gearing for Wembanyama.
They drafted Malaki Branham, Jeremy Sochan and Blake Wesley in the first round and all three could turn into cornerstones along with Keldon Johnson, and former first-round pick Devin Vassell, giving San Antonio hope for the future.
And it was the right time to rebuild. The Spurs had finished short of the playoffs for the past three seasons and were middling in the Western Conference and not even an improving Murray was going to help them get to the next level.
The Western Conference has turned powerful with the Timberwolves making a win-now move in acquiring Rudy Gobert from the Jazz for five first-round picks. The Grizzlies re-signed Tyus Jones and will enter next season as one of the favorites to push the Warriors.
The Spurs’ last major free-agent acquisition was LaMarcus Aldridge in 2016 and he spent nearly five seasons there before asking to be released. With the opportunities to sign free agents limited because of market and location, the Spurs decided to rack up draft picks — including one from the Celtics in the Derrick White deal — and build up.
The Thunder have taken a similar path, loading up on draft picks while playing prospects, and it’s a risky proposition. They added two lottery picks — including No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren — and they are poised to become more competitive. There is no guarantee the Thunder will return to the glory days when they won with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but rebuilding through the draft is best way for smaller-market teams to return to contention.
Chet Holmgren’s gifts, frame are unique
Holmgren is the Durant-like No. 2 pick expected to make an instant impact for the Thunder because of his offensive prowess. The 7-footer is a small forward but he’ll have to bulk up to compete with bigger players. The hope is he becomes so offensively gifted that weight won’t matter — like Durant.
“On defense, I can use my length and my quickness to cover a lot of ground and take up space,” he said. “There’s more space to take up, obviously, but I feel like I can still take up a great deal of space on defense, both vertically and horizontally, sliding my feet as well as protecting the rim.
“And on offense, OKC plays a very five-out style of basketball. There’s a lot of space, especially in the paint to get to the basket or draw two defenders or drive and kick, find guys who are open. A lot more space, and it opens up.”
There will be doubts about Holmgren’s size until he proves he can play productively with his slight frame. The NBA-ready Paolo Banchero was the first overall pick to the Magic, leaving the Thunder with the choice of Holmgren or Auburn’s Jabari Smith. Smith was taken third by the Rockets, and he could be more NBA-ready than Holmgren.
But Holmgren, a Minneapolis native and all 195 pounds of him, said he’s accustomed to the scrutiny.
“Yeah, I have a lot of motivations myself,” he said. “I’m very intrinsically motivated. I wake up every day with a plan on how to make myself a better person, better basketball player. I put so much effort into executing that that it doesn’t really leave room to put effort into things that, one, I can’t control, and two, don’t help make me better. I tune a lot of that stuff out. I do see it here and there, but at the end of the day, I put no effort toward it.”
He’ll get plenty of opportunity and patience in Oklahoma City.
“I think and what I saw, speaking to personnel in the organization, and on my visit, they have a great organization as well as a great vision going forward,” he said. “I’d say compiling the draft picks and all that is part of vision. Taking it one step at a time is important, especially for myself.
“You know, over time, that vision should pay off.”
There’s a reason the Celtics didn’t include Sam Hauser in the deal for Malcolm Brogdon. The Celtics have plans for the sharpshooter and they will spend the summer developing Hauser as a shooter who can help off the bench. The Celtics suffered last season because of their lack of bench shooting and they picked up Nik Stauskas to help but coach Ime Udoka did not trust Stauskas to play meaningful minutes and he was a nonfactor in the playoff run … The Hornets brought back Steve Clifford as coach — although Dawn Staley would have been a more daring and astute choice — and the franchise will try to move forward with a more defensive-minded approach. Clifford has named former UConn and NBA standout Donyell Marshall to his coaching staff. Marshall will begin his responsibility on the summer league roster … There are some unhappy folks in the Bay Area as the Warriors allowed Gary Payton II to sign a three-year, $28 million contract with the Trail Blazers, a deal the Celtics could have matched if they wanted to fall deeper into the luxury tax. Payton was a popular figure in Oakland as the son of Oakland native and Hall of Famer Gary Payton Sr. The Warriors also lost Otto Porter Jr. to Toronto and Juan Toscano-Anderson, an Oakland native who became a contributor after playing in the G-League, to the Lakers … The Magic decided to bring back two of their free agents in Gary Harris and Mo Bamba. Harris came over from the Nuggets in the trade for Aaron Gordon and became a stabilizer on defense. Bamba, the former fifth overall pick, has yet to tap into his potential but he has improved, becoming more of a rim protector and 3-point shooter. With Banchero and Jonathan Isaac, the Magic will be one of the bigger teams in the NBA. Isaac hasn’t played in more than two years because of a torn ACL sustained in the NBA bubble … Former Harvard standout Noah Kirkwood, who went undrafted, will play for the Nets’ summer league team. Kirkwood, a 6-7 guard, led the Crimson in scoring at 17.2 points per game and averaged 5.7 rebounds. Kirkwood, a native of Ontario, played four seasons for Harvard and was a first-team All-Ivy League selection.