- In a surprise twist to tip off NBA free agency, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are headed to the Nets. While the potential for glory is obvious, their arrival doesn't guarantee success.
Brooklyn’s best–laid plans are bearing fruit. Five years after their disastrous trade with the Celtics left them for dead, the Nets have fully remade their roster in dramatic fashion, with Sean Marks cashing in on his carefully crafted flexibility by signing Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. The acquisitions are an incredible coup for Brooklyn, who is seemingly stealing stars from under the Knicks’ nose. They also come with a not insignificant amount of risk.
Let’s start with the positives. Irving alone would have been a surefire upgrade over D’Angelo Russell and likely made the Nets a consistent playoff participant. In the duo of Kyrie and KD, Brooklyn is getting two of the best free agents on the market, two of the best players in the NBA, and two stars with championship experience—with the added bonus of getting guys who hit huge shots during those said championships. When Irving and KD are at their best, the Nets will be incredibly difficult to beat, and Marks has already proven he can be creative when putting together a roster under absurd constraints—imagine what he can do with two bone fide superstars in the starting lineup.
While the potential for glory is obvious, the risks of this pairing are arguably equal. Irving is the most mercurial superstar in the league, and Durant is perhaps second. Irving has now left two seemingly plum situations in Cleveland and Boston, while KD is leaving the team that won 73 games the season before he joined and just finished its fifth-straight trip to the Finals. That doesn’t mean Irving or Durant are bad people—they should do what they want!—but for the Nets, it means keeping both players happy won’t simply be about winning.
Irving already had a bit of a falling out with LeBron, and he wasn’t exactly beloved in Boston’s locker room. It’s fair to wonder how he will mesh with Durant and the Nets’ younger players. The same to some degree can be said about KD—who had his own issues creep up with the Warriors last season, whether it was his tiff with Draymond Green or public rebuttals to Steve Kerr. Again, neither of these guys are bad teammates or cancers or any hot takey stuff like that, but pairing them up and creating an environment for success will be more complicated than simply rolling out the ball.
There’s also the matter of Durant’s Achilles. By himself, Irving doesn’t make the Nets a title contender. In fact, Brooklyn with Irving is probably still a slightly worse team than say, the Celtics with Kemba Walker and Al Horford. (DeAndre Jordan, the third man in this free-agent trio, doesn’t exactly move the needle. He probably shouldn’t play more than Jarrett Allen.) Brooklyn is still going to have a very good team next season, but they will need a healthy Durant to be a contender two years from now.
And there is some level of uncertainty as to what Durant will look like post-Achilles rehab. By the time he returns, he will be 31 years old, with both a good amount of miles on his body, and a couple serious injuries. Will he still be a top-three player in the league at that point? What about Irving’s own knees, which have given him problems at times?
Of course, focusing on risk and thinking about the problems is ultimately a lame lens to look through at these signings. The Nets just signed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. In one fell swoop, Brooklyn added a virtuoso finisher who hit one of the biggest threes in Finals history, as well as a two-time Finals MVP who is arguably the most unstoppable scorer of all time. Those two players are going to be on the same team, for a franchise that had to kickstart this current rebuild without any of its own first-round picks.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment that Marks even put the Nets in a position to be a landing spot for superstars given what he had to start with. He took bad contracts to acquire draft picks, turned those picks into contributors like Allen, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie. Then he also made sure to clear the books to have the space for Irving and Durant. It’s one of the rare instances in which careful planning has come to fruition in the way imagined years out, and it’s probably the greatest free agency coup since Pat Riley signed LeBron and Chris Bosh to play with Dwyane Wade.
The Nets almost certainly won’t be title contenders next season. And it won’t be an easy road back for Durant, which means Brooklyn isn’t guaranteed success as a result of this summer. And yet it was still an obvious decision for Marks. It’s a gamble, but if you’re going to bet, the way to do it is on stars of this caliber.