NBA free agency started with a bang Sunday afternoon, when news emerged that superstar Kevin Durant would be leaving the Golden State Warriors to sign a four-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets. The move comes days after it became clear that fellow star Kyrie Irving would be ditching the Boston Celtics to sign with Brooklyn, which just reached the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The agreements mark an enormous shift for the Nets, a franchise that was in the doldrums for years after being on the losing end of what many, in hindsight, called one of the worst trades in NBA history. And perhaps more important on a macro level, the Durant deal decreases the likelihood of the Warriors — who figured to be hobbled this coming season regardless — remaining as dominant as they once were. There’s a good chance the league could be wide open this coming season — and beyond, perhaps, if Kawhi Leonard doesn’t decide to sign with the Lakers.
Yet it’s still difficult to size up what, exactly, this move means for the Nets in the immediate future because of the prognosis for Durant, who may not play at all this coming season after rupturing his Achilles during Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Achilles injuries are often devastating for NBA players, and we simply don’t know how the 30-year-old Durant, a near 7-footer with a skill set we’ve never seen, recovers from his. But even if Durant isn’t the force he once was when he returns, this signing puts the Nets in a conversation for a title they likely would not have been in otherwise.
Irving figures to be a better and more consistent player than D’Angelo Russell. But his presence alone (or with players like DeAndre Jordan and Garrett Temple, who are also likely to sign with the Nets, per reports) likely won’t be enough to make Brooklyn the favorites to win the East in 2020 — not unless Kawhi Leonard leaves Toronto (which is a possibility), Jimmy Butler leaves Philadelphia (another possibility), and the 60-win, Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Milwaukee Bucks somehow take a considerable step back. Durant coming back before the end of the season might give Brooklyn that chance, but given what just happened earlier this month, that risk doesn’t really seem worth it for either side.
Once he is healthy and ready to play, though, look out. The Nets had already developed a nearly ideal canvas for star players like Irving and Durant to add their creative paint to. Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie both had moments in which they shone during the team’s first-round loss to Philadelphia. Joe Harris was not only the 3-point champion at All-Star weekend but also led the NBA in 3-point percentage, at 47 percent. While Jarrett Allen is undersized as a center, he’s shown a fearlessness that bodes well at the rim, and Brooklyn found creative ways to maximize his talent there, by using sets that were essentially one-man zone schemes. The club once found itself on the receiving end of more missed calls than any other NBA team in clutch scenarios, but now has bonafide stars who figure to get the benefit of the doubt in late-game spots.
Irving and Durant join a team that’s been praised for its strategy, both from a front-office standpoint and on the court. Without all the draft picks they sent away in that fateful deal for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Nets general manager Sean Marks gambled on solid young players who were discarded by their original franchises. Some, like Dinwiddie, were simply found in free agency. Others came over in trades, when opposing clubs decided they wanted to dump talent to free up cap space or to lower their luxury-tax bills. Brooklyn saw this as an opportunity to rummage for potential treasure, while also collecting future picks to make up for the ones it lost in the Celtics deal.
On the court, the strategy was just as wise. Under coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets began utilizing a Moreyball-style shot chart, prioritizing looks around the rim and from deep, while largely eschewing midrange jumpers. On defense, they have done the exact opposite, luring opponents into some of the most inefficient shots in the game. It all played a big part in making the Nets competitive again and building them into a playoff team. And for all the talk surrounding the possibility of Durant and Irving joining the Knicks, this was one area in which they simply couldn’t compete with their rivals across the East River.
But the Nets have added the finishing touches on what, until now, was simply a strong base.
Brooklyn just pulled off whatever a four-year-long episode of “Fixer Upper” would look like. The Nets took a house that essentially no one would have wanted, tore it down to the studs, and now, with Irving and Durant, could be the hottest ticket in town. They were last in attendance in 2018-19, but that — and perhaps the NBA landscape as a whole — figures to change. That’s the power of signing a player like Kevin Durant, even if he doesn’t return quite as dominant as he was prior to the Achilles injury.