Having superstar talent is the only surefire way to win a championship in the N.B.A. It has been nearly 20 years since a team won a championship without at least one superstar player, and usually it takes two.
So when Kyrie Irving, a virtuoso at point guard, and Kevin Durant, one of the smoothest scorers in the game, chose the Nets in free agency during the summer of 2019, they seemed to be sprinkling onto the Nets the sort of pixie dust necessary to turn a team into a real title contender. And so, for the past three and a half years, the Nets firmly set their sights on a championship that, they believed, the arrivals of Irving and Durant had put within reach.
But instead of taking incremental steps toward that goal, the Nets found that their path featured endless detours. They spent this era dealing with one distraction after another. They tried desperately to make the most of having two players as gifted as Durant and Irving, giving up draft picks and promising young players to acquire a third superstar and create one of the greatest collections of talent ever seen in the league. They changed coaches and even disciplinary philosophies in an attempt to make this work.
For the past few months, the Nets seemed to have found some semblance of stability. They were winning games, Irving seemed to be in a good place, and even Durant’s knee injury, while detrimental, wasn’t catastrophic.
But then their fragile peace fell apart again.
Irving requested a trade last week, and on Sunday the Nets agreed to a deal that will send him to the Dallas Mavericks, according to three people familiar with the deal who were not authorized to speak publicly because the trade is not official. In return, the Nets will receive two players, a distant first-round draft pick and multiple second-round picks. They never really got to enjoy the fruits of such a big free-agency score, and now their future is uncertain. In many ways, though, the team lived a murky in-between life, even with the two superstars who came to them four years ago.
Only three weeks ago, Irving was lauding the Nets’ cohesion. Reporters had asked him what would keep the Nets from struggling after Durant’s injury the way they did last year when Durant was out.
“I’m consistently in the lineup, that helps,” Irving said. He said the team didn’t have anyone who was “halfway in” and added: “And there’s just a primary focus on the big picture here.”
Irving seemed to be taking a shot at James Harden, who spent about a year with the Nets before asking for a trade.
The Nets acquired Harden from Houston through a four-team trade in January 2021 as part of their efforts to make the Durant and Irving experiment work. They gave up a king’s ransom to do it: The package included three first-round picks, four pick swaps and Jarrett Allen, a talented young center who has found success, including an All-Star selection, in Cleveland.
At first, the trade seemed like a no-brainer. They were all perennial All-Stars. Durant and Harden had won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award. Durant and Irving had won championships. Who could beat this team? At least one article declared that they might be the greatest basketball team ever assembled.
They took the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks to seven games in the conference semifinals in 2021 and seemed poised for domination in the 2021-22 season.
But Irving barely played in the 2021-22 season because of his decision not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Harden seemed irritated with Irving’s inconsistent availability, and once joked that he would inoculate Irving himself.
But in an interview with FoxSports.com in December, Harden mentioned two other reasons that made his time in Brooklyn difficult: He was never fully healthy, and he struggled with the organization.
“It was just, there was no structure,” Harden said. “And even superstars, they need structure. That’s what allows us to be the best players and leaders for our respective organizations.”
The Nets traded Harden in February 2022, and got back Ben Simmons, who, in his 37 games for the Nets, has struggled to contribute.
The Harden experiment had failed, and Irving was available only some of the time for most of the season. New York City’s private-sector vaccine mandate made him ineligible for home games until it was lifted, and the Nets did not let Irving play part time until they relented at midseason. The Boston Celtics swept the Nets out of the first round of the 2022 playoffs.
There was some irony to the Nets’ being eliminated by the Celtics. In 2013, the Nets gave up five players, three first-round picks and the option to swap another first-round pick for four players, including Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Their Nets teams didn’t make it past the conference semifinals, either.
After losing to the Celtics in 2022, Irving overestimated his power within the organization.
“When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe and Sean,” Irving said, referring to the team owner Joe Tsai and General Manager Sean Marks.
Marks was asked later if the Nets were committed to Irving.
“We’re looking for guys that want to come in here and be part of something bigger than themselves, play selfless, play team basketball, and be available,” Marks said. “That goes not only for Kyrie but for everybody here.”
The chaos was all too much for Durant, who asked for a trade in June and was given permission to seek one, but couldn’t find one to which the Nets would agree. He returned to the Nets, ready to move on.
Where Durant stands now is uncertain. He expected to be competing for championships. It’s possible that once he’s healthy he will lead the Nets to a strong finish this season. But it’s also fair to wonder, as teams around the league surely are, if Durant will try again to be traded.
If the Nets let it happen this time, it will fully end another star-laden era that never really got off the ground.