The past three seasons have been a debacle for the Brooklyn Nets.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant joined the Nets in 2019 — and James Harden in 2021 — with the idea they would contend for championships.
That hasn’t happened.
The Nets have two first-round losses and a second-round exit to show for it.
Harden is no longer with the team. Durant has requested a trade. And it’s unlikely Irving plays another game for the Nets, who are left to pick up the pieces left from an implosion that sets the organization back five seasons and exposes problems to the system NBA owners may try to fix in the next collective bargaining agreement.
Irving and Durant played just 57 games together over three seasons, with Durant missing 2019-20 while recovering from a ruptured Achilles sustained in the 2019 Finals when he was with Golden State.
Irving played in just 46% of Brooklyn’s games in three seasons due to a variety of reasons, including personal ones, injuries and his refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which made him ineligible to play in a majority of home games because of New York City’s mandate.
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Harden, who was acquired in January of 2021, had grown tired of the Nets after one year. He wanted out with one-plus seasons left on his contract and got his wish, going to Philadelphia for another player, Ben Simmons, who wanted out of his situation with the Sixers with four seasons left on his contract.
Last offseason, Durant signed a four-year, $194.2 million extension with Brooklyn with the first year of that extension starting in 2022-23. So before Durant even played one game into that extension, he wants out.
It’s easy to see why this bothers NBA owners.
Yes, teams have the ability to trade most players at any time, and yes, player empowerment has been around for some time, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver noted at All-Star Weekend in February.
“I think you’re dealing with situations where you have players with literally a unique skill on the planet, and that’s always going to give them leverage, and you have teams with leverage,” Silver said. “There may be tools that we can think of to create stronger incentives for players to comply with those agreements. But I don’t think there’s sort of some silver bullet here that we’re going to go in in collective bargaining and say now we’ve fixed this problem. These are human beings.”
Silver walks a fine line here. He is a players’ commissioner and his relationship with players has helped improved the game. He listens to their input. But he also works for the owners, a competitive group of individuals trying to win a championship.
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“As the commissioner of this league, we want our players to be happy,” he said. “We want them to find themselves in situations where they think they can be most productive. At the same time we want to run an orderly league, and so like a lot of things in life, we have to find the appropriate balance there.”
It has been suggested that owners may want to recoup money the earlier a player is into his contract and a trade request is honored. But who knows if owners could enact a punitive enough deterrent for players who are signing $200 million deals.
Nets owner Joe Tsai understands the ever-changing nature of the league and where players want to play. But when Durant signed that extension, there was a reasonable expectation that he’d play at least one season of the deal, even in an enhanced era of player empowerment.
(The Nets are not blameless either. They enabled Irving and chased a quick path to success, and there are consequences for that).
There is lasting collateral damage, too. Brooklyn ran off a solid coach in Kenny Atkinson, who had made progress in Brooklyn’s rebuild before Irving and Durant decided they wanted a new coach. Steve Nash, Atkinson’s replacement, has had his first foray into coaching sabotaged in two seasons.
The Nets trade first-round draft picks to create a Big 3 of Durant, Irving and Harden, and as of today, they don’t have a first-round pick in 2024 and 2026, and they have given up the most favorable of their 2023, 2025 and 2027 draft selections in pick swaps.
Of course, they will get first-round picks back in deals for Durant and Irving if that’s how it plays out.
But it puts the Nets back to where they were circa 2017 when they had young players and were trying to build through the draft, savvy free-agent signings and veterans who provided direction.
Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks took the job in 2016, and 6½ years later, he is starting all over.
The Nets can’t mess it up again.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nets’ plans for Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving blow up