Lichtenstein: Nets Pull Off Historic Transformation With Durant, Irving Signings

Steve Lichtenstein
July 01, 2019 - 11:57 am

For years the embodiment of the NBA’s wasteland, Brooklyn officially became a desirable free-agent destination with Sunday’s stunning reports that forward Kevin Durant and point guard Kyrie Irving agreed to contract terms with the Nets.

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June 30, 2019 -- a date Nets fans will never forget. Now we know last season was no fluke -- Brooklyn’s got a winning team.

Durant and Irving, two of the top players in the game at their respective positions, will instantly become the best free agents this often-woebegone franchise has ever signed, easily supplanting either Armen Gilliam or Ed Davis, depending on your cup of tea.

Think about where this team was even two years ago, coming off a dreadful 20-62 season with no hope in sight. They had plenty of salary-cap space that offseason, too. However, the idea that any top free agent would even consider Brooklyn then was laughable. Nets general manager Sean Marks used the cap room as a dumping ground for other teams’ gross contracts, as immortalized in a classic "Game of Zones" episode on Bleacher Report

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving talk at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Some of Marks’ deals worked wonders such as when DeMarre Carroll plus draft picks became Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa. Others (Allen Crabbe), not as well.

Ironically, it was another one of these maneuvers -- the trade that sent the Nets’ all-time leading scorer, Brook Lopez, and a late first-round pick to the Lakers in exchange for point guard D’Angelo Russell and the anvil that was the remaining three seasons of useless center Timofey Mozgov’s contract -- that set the stage for Sunday’s coup of New York City.

For it was Russell’s development that greatly helped put the Nets back on the league map last season. DLo’s All-Star campaign led Brooklyn to a 42-40 mark and an unexpected playoff berth as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

Everything about Brooklyn suddenly drew notice last season. There was the Nets’ culture, particularly the way their performance team managed their players’ well-being and the way the coaching staff led by Kenny Atkinson emphasized player skill development. There was also the style of play that was conducive to the modern game. And, of course, there was young talent -- Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Kurucs, all of whom came to Brooklyn as non-lottery draft picks or as free-agent pickups out of the G League.

Related: 'Boomer And Gio': What NBA Free Agency Says About Knicks, Nets

It had to be those factors that enticed Durant and Irving to turn down tens of millions of dollars and another year of contract term from their previous employers in Golden State and Boston, respectively. Not to mention the supposed lure of playing for the Nets’ rivals in Manhattan.

This was Marks’ plan all along, even after the horrific Achilles rupture Durant suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals that will likely keep him out this entire upcoming season. The weeks leading up to Sunday were all designed to maximize cap space for these two free agents. The Crabbe dump on Atlanta, which cost the Nets two lottery-protected first-rounders (and returned wing Taurean Prince) and the subsequent trading down out of the 27th overall selection in the last month's draft’s were necessary cap-saving maneuvers. First-rounders require guaranteed holds when calculating cap space in the new league year.

With Durant and Irving committed, however, filling out the roster becomes a whole lot easier. The two reportedly took less money than the max so the Nets could sign backup big DeAndre Jordan, Durant’s close friend, to a four-year, $40 million contract. Reserve guard Garrett Temple also reportedly agreed to terms on a two-year, $10 million deal, presumably using an exception.

Unfortunately, there had to be some casualties in order for Marks to create the cap space necessary to sign the “big fish.” Russell was one of as many as nine Nets from the year-end 15-man roster who will not return in September. DLo, a restricted free agent, was dealt to Golden State alongside reserves Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier in a sign-and-trade as part of the Durant acquisition.

For those disappointed that DLo won’t be able to write his final chapters in Brooklyn, let’s also remember where he was when he came here. He was derided by then-Lakers president Magic Johnson on his way out the door. He was labeled immature, a bit of a ball hog, a one-dimensional player who lacked leadership skills. 

But with a dogged work ethic under the close supervision of the Nets’ basketball staff, including some tough love from Atkinson, Russell started to display the traits that made him the second overall pick in the 2015 draft. He got paid. Both parties benefited from this partnership, even if it was short-lived.

As I stated a few weeks ago, Irving is simply better. His ability to handle the ball under pressure and score from anywhere on the court will be amplified come playoff time -- assuming the Nets make it after this season.

Marks surely isn’t done tinkering, but the Nets will still have a giant hole at power forward without Durant, who figures to be a stretch four given the Nets' roster. And it’s not like Marks is going to find a satisfactory replacement at the vet minimum. At best, maybe Jared Dudley takes it. Only if he wants to keep playing here as much as he tweets about it, that is.

Even if the Nets punt in 2019-20, they’ll have their lottery pick plus another late first-rounder courtesy of the Sixers (via the Clippers). They can extend LeVert and Harris and then go for it all in 2021.

A Marks’ staple at his media events was his assertion that he wouldn’t “skip steps” in the Nets’ rebuild. Considering where the Nets came from, his transformational moves on Sunday were one heck of a leap.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.