Kevin Durant is lone man standing amid Nets mess, and it's time to hit reset before things get uglier
Kyrie Irving got his wish and escape from Brooklyn, 360 days after James Harden disrupted his way out of the borough.
To bring it full circle, the last man standing shouldn’t be. Kevin Durant should be next to complete the extermination of the experiment gone wrong that began with so much potential but also the probability of combustibility.
What’s probable has now finally occurred, with Irving being Dallas’ problem. On one side, the musical chairs in the Western Conference just got interesting — maybe — with that sneaky caveat labeled “defense” keeping the Mavericks from leaping to the front of the line.
On Brooklyn’s side, it feels like the deck chairs are being rearranged. Getting Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith along with draft capital isn’t nothing, but it doesn’t put Brooklyn in position to even dream about competing with Milwaukee and Boston for supremacy in the East.
And it probably doesn’t put Durant at ease for the present or his future — even though this is the fourth time Irving has wrecked a team with title aspirations.
Durant doesn’t want it all on his shoulders, and it’s hard to see this Brooklyn experience inspiring confidence in the front office. He asked for a trade last summer, but didn’t go nuclear.
He didn’t act up or act out, Durant respects the game far too much to perform the way his former teammates did in order to show management they meant business.
But Durant’s respect for the game is enough for other teams in the West to put their chips in the center of the table to offer the Nets something substantial. The dirty secret is, for what the Mavericks acquired in the shot-making Irving provides, they gave up a huge part of their identity in Finney-Smith — a rugged worker on the defensive end.
With that, Dallas didn’t put itself in a spot to run away and hide from the rest of the West. Seeing Luka Doncic with Irving and Christian Wood on defense feels like a festival for opponents and exhaustion for the other two poor saps who have to cover for three turnstiles — while knowing they’re not touching the ball on offense.
It’s still a lot of muck to be sifted through in the next coming months, and it feels things are more wide open than they’ve ever been — as in the mid-to-late ’90s when Phoenix, Houston and Seattle were battling for a trip to June.
Getting Durant would be the game changer of all game changers, if Brooklyn is willing to admit it doesn’t have enough to be more than second-round fodder at best. While acquiring Irving doesn’t elevate Dallas to certain conference finalist standing, losing Irving takes away Brooklyn’s slim chance at making things interesting. Putting Durant as the lone super scorer puts too much weight on him and he’ll have to perform a Houdini act when he returns just to keep the Nets afloat.
And we saw where that led to last season, a first-round sweep to Boston, with Durant being downright exhausted by Game 3.
It’s easy to point the finger at Durant, to say he deserves to lay in this bed because the Nets wouldn’t have acquired Irving or accepted his antics over the past three years, getting minimal return, if not for Durant’s blessing.
Same goes for Brooklyn stripping itself of valuable depth to acquire Harden, which was almost just as disastrous when he saw there was no reasoning with Irving after Irving’s refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine derailed the season last year.
If Durant wanted out over the summer, what has transpired recently that would truly make him want to stay? He’s under contract and the Nets don’t have to do anything. But they didn’t have to do anything with the aforementioned Irving and Harden.
Numbers are inflated across the board this season, but Durant is shooting 56% from the field (a career high) and leading the league in free-throw percentage. He’s also worked his way back to being a damn good defensive player, especially one-on-one.
The recent MCL injury is a concern, but just like last season it was something freakish — Miami’s Jimmy Butler accidentally landing on the back of Durant’s leg.
Bringing in Durant, assuming reasonable cost, doesn’t disrupt a team’s system. The beauty in his game is the fact he can exist outside of any system, anywhere. It didn’t seem like Oklahoma City had a system and in Golden State, Stephen Curry was the system.
Durant was still Durant and will be no matter where he goes, should he choose to exit and Brooklyn obliges.
Phoenix has long been considered a Durant suitor if he reinstituted his trade demand. Despite Devin Booker being on the mend and the Suns going 8-2 in the last 10 games, it’s hard to see them doing real damage being so heavily dependent on a soon-to-be 38-year-old Chris Paul.
How about the reeling champions, the Warriors? Any trade would certainly require some salary-cap gymnastics and possibly a third team, but Durant is worth it. Denver, Memphis and Sacramento occupy the top three spots in the West and while all have had exceptional seasons to date, this isn’t the West of recent vintage — even with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic reigning terror on everyone, everywhere.
Usually, you’d say wait until the offseason to make a run for Durant, and perhaps that’s what happens. Perhaps general manager Sean Marks and the Nets want to regroup, see what happens with this reworked roster and become a more rugged team, but can they morph in a short period of time, 52 games in already?
Just maybe there’s a slim chance this isn’t a total disaster for the Nets, but this might be the best chance at a return for Durant.
The opportunity seems ripe out West and Durant could be ready to go again. It’s hard to see the Nets trading him in-conference, and nobody would blame them for sending him to a different time zone.
Even Denver should place a call, given Durant’s ability to form-fit around anybody. Can you picture him on the other end of some Jokic cross-court passes and cuts? It would be illegal to watch those two work.
It’s a level of fantasy, of course, all conjecture in the moment. Durant hasn’t said anything publicly and hasn’t gone to the Twitter machine to put out questionable emojis to send the rest of the NBA world into a frenzy.
Durant is the one Net whose trade request was stalled out. But might it be best for all involved to hit the reset button before this gets any uglier?