The news broke around 3 p.m. ET on Thursday, Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant has requested a trade. It sent shock waves throughout the NBA hours before the official start of free agency and everyone was scrambling for intel on where maybe the league’s best player might wind up.
Brooklyn Nets GM Sean Marks is working with Kevin Durant and his business manager Rich Kleiman on finding a trade for the franchise star, Kleiman tells ESPN.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2022
While stunning, it’s not completely out of nowhere and on the surface it seems like Durant is fleeing a sinking ship, but perhaps this is the ultimate cunning play by Durant to ensure his future is no longer linked to Kyrie Irving.
Back in 2019 when Durant and Irving joined the Nets as free agents, this was seen as a major victory for a franchise floundering in obscurity and always playing second fiddle to the New York Knicks. Then-head coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks were establishing a culture of team-first, hard-nosed young players that had a camaraderie on and off the floor.
Legendary basketball reporter and writer Jackie MacMullan, then of ESPN, detailed an experience in the summer of 2019 involving Irving that signified trouble and a change in that culture.
The Nets were delighted when their new power trio organized summer workouts for the team at a Los Angeles middle school in July and August. The aim was to develop chemistry and learn each other’s tendencies on the court. It was going swimmingly until Brooklyn dispatched its performance team to Santa Monica for an annual two-day minicamp with the players, which involved, among other things, gathering biometric data through wearables. Irving, who has spent the past nine years working with his own performance specialist, Robin Pound, balked.
When the Nets gently urged him to participate, he didn’t mince words: “I’m not doing it.” It created an awkward moment, team sources say, for incumbent players who had benefited from the performance staff and ingrained that input into their routine.
“Look,” Atkinson says. “These guys have won championships. They come from darn good pedigrees, and we’ve thrown some things at them that they’ve said, ‘Hell no!'”
The 2019-20 season was always going to be a wash as Durant was recovering from his Achilles injury. But the two-time Finals MVP could watch how his BFF Irving blended with the talent on the roster and how Atkinson would handle coaching elite talent.
Irving played in only 20 games that season as he dealt with a shoulder injury. He was balking at the Nets training staff and their recommended course of rehab.
Things reached a boiling point when Atkinson refused to play a washed-up DeAndre Jordan (friend of Durant and Irving) over the team’s budding 21-year-old center Jarrett Allen. Marks sided with his stars and Atkinson was out.
The 2020-21 season saw the return of Durant to the court, and he played like the best player in the world. Still, when word got out that his friend and former teammate James Harden wanted out of Houston, Durant signaled to Marks that the team needed to do whatever it took to get Harden to Brooklyn.
The Nets traded away all of the remaining players from the Atkinson regime, except Joe Harris, and control of their draft for the next seven seasons to land Harden. In the few games Durant, Harden and Irving played they were magical. The best offense in the history of basketball.
The trio played one playoff series healthy against the Boston Celtics and looked like they would steamroll the Eastern Conference on the way to the NBA Finals. But Harden tore his hamstrings in the next round and Irving injured his ankle, leaving Durant as the lone man to deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Another year, another failed title run, but the hope was all they needed was health and they’d win it all.
Of course, then came the NYC COVID-19 vaccination requirement and Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated. The cloud of his selfish decision hung over the team all season and caused Harden to force his way out of town.
All the while, Durant is witnessing this amazing vision he had for what would take place in Brooklyn crumble like a house of cards.
The one thing you can say about Durant is he’s all about hoop. When he’s available he wants to play all 48 minutes. The same can’t be said for Irving, who in three seasons in Brooklyn has played in a total of 103 games.
It’s easy to understand why Marks and owner Joe Tsai refused to offer Irving a maximum extension. Why would they give him $250 million for four years when they don’t know if or when he’ll decide to show up.
Durant has to see what is right in front of him. Once Irving decided to opt in, Durant had to know another year of this wasn’t sustainable.
With Irving now on an expiring deal, the Nets can trade him to any team looking to create cap space for next offseason. They’ll take on the headache that is Irving. They might even pay him to not show up.
That would open the door for Durant to stay in Brooklyn.
His public demand for a trade squares him with his boy Irving. But the difference is Durant is under contract for four years and the Nets are not obligated to move him. If they do move a 10-time All-NBA player, two-time Finals MVP and league MVP they want a haul of players and assets back in return.
Who has that type of bounty to give up and still remain competitive?
Pay attention to what happens the next week to 10 days. If the Nets unload Irving first and don’t find a suitable trade package for Durant, “Easy Money Sniper” will be back in a Nets uniform next season.