It was sloppy. It was unnecessarily dramatic. But in the end, Kevin Durant returning to the Brooklyn Nets seemed inevitable.
Durant put his cards on the table every turn, but the Nets didn’t budge – a task made easier when the trade market for a player under contract for the next four years wasn’t as bountiful as it appeared on paper.
And he wasn’t about to be nuclear, meaning not showing up at the training ground to put the biggest shovel down.
“Kevin wasn’t made that way,” a general manager who knows Durant told Yahoo Sports. “He loves playing basketball above and beyond. i could see [the Nets] getting in front of this issue that they created.”
Whether it was the timing of Durant’s commercial demand, being so close to free agency, or Durant’s perceived volatility as a figure, the offerings for a player who could still very well be the best individual in the game weren’t overwhelming.
“Not at all,” another general manager told Yahoo Sports when asked if he was surprised by the result. “The price was too high to negotiate.”
The formula that has been followed in this recent NBA era has been contradicted, with the sole exception of LeBron James – the man who always keeps his options close to the calendar. But Durant, signing a four-year extension before the start of last season, gave up his influence at this point.
Usually players hold the bag long term and then find their way out, but this time it worked against Durant. Of course, the world was still in the midst of an economically crippling pandemic, so getting what’s on the table was a practical move, and he couldn’t expect everything to fail so miserably over the next 12 months.
But it wasn’t a surprise to see James Harden perform his act in another city, nor was it shocking for his teammate Kyrie Irving to kidnap “Mr. Unreliable” by Durant. Durant was the only one who didn’t see it happen, and he didn’t have the foresight to assess every step after that.
It was not a referendum on player empowerment, but rather on proper strategy and execution which will be Appendix A on what not to do for other players in similar situations.
The statement released by the Brooklyn Nets, with a quote from general manager Sean Marks as opposed to team owner Joe Tsai, was revealing. Reportedly, Durant wanted Marks and trainer Steve Nash when he met with Tsai a few weeks ago.
Marks, by saying, “Steve Nash and I, along with Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai…” before announcing that the Nets and Durant will move on, redefines the power structure, or at least the perception of it.
Make no mistake, it’s Tsai’s team and their money, and the Barclays Center needs to be full in October. But despite that subtlety, he’s letting everyone know that Marks is running the ship, even if it’s in “partnership” with Durant.
Even with that, the questions are just beginning for Marks, Nash and Durant. The mess has obscured so many of the problems the Nets face, and Durant’s methods have obscured the validity of his possible valid concerns.
No one has seen Ben Simmons play in a real basketball game in over a year, and the trend will be 18 months when the season ends, assuming he’s healthy enough in mind, body and soul to play.
Irving was spectacular as a part-time player last season, but when he was tasked with playing four games in eight days, his performances progressively worsened against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.
Durant, by the end, was exhausted.
No help on the floor.
No direction on the sideline.
No resistance from the front office, even though Durant was the one who applied the pressure and opened the door to chaos.
It might have been impossible for any coach to succeed or for any executive to execute short-term and long-term planning, given the circumstances.
It’s also understandable that Durant questions the future of the franchise he helped cultivate and, as crazy as it sounds, underestimates how difficult it was to develop and maintain the culture when he knew nothing different in Oklahoma City and Golden State.
But the Nets have yet to show they can build and coach a team with championship expectations and star power. The roster lacks athleticism, size and facilitation – aside from Simmons, if he’s right. But can it be trusted to erase all afflictions, and should it be?
No one in the East is likely to fear this team. Contenders got into the business of inquiring for the sake of inquiring, while understanding the stability and structure of the franchise often wins.
Miami, Boston and Milwaukee will all be strongly motivated to return to the finals, and Philadelphia always believes it has a chance.
Durant will be extremely motivated, once again, to regain the top spot on the basketball mountain. The trade offers the Nets have tacitly received have shown him that there are doubts about how long he can play at this level and, more importantly, asked how durable he is.
Never mind that he recovered from his first career-killing injury, that fracture of Jones’ foot he suffered before the start of the 2014-15 season with Oklahoma City. Or the second career killer, the ruptured Achilles tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals.
MCL’s injury in January of this year cost him valuable time, but he was arguably the MVP with the Nets at the top of the East, even with Irving being banned and Harden looking like a B-minus version of himself.
He was exhausted at the start of the playoffs from the load he had to carry back, and while it looks like he’ll be able to be the best version of himself, the rest of the squad will have to prove it.
Irving will be playing for his future in the NBA after the Nets refused to extend his contract and he was unable to find a business partner before his joining date.
And Simmons’ reputation in basketball is on the line, for several reasons. Even before his mental struggles took him out of last season, there were loud questions about his development and desire that he would have to answer on the court.
Then Durant returns, and the same cast of characters with the same doubts cast before he set the world on fire more than seven weeks ago.
Durant will have to face the music, but everyone else will have to dance too.