By the time the Brooklyn Nets bowed out to the Philadelphia 76ers in five first-round playoff games in April, two things were clear.
(1) Their culture maximized the talent of their players, turning D’Angelo Russell into an All-Star and Spencer Dinwiddie into a high-level rotational piece and resuscitating Joe Harris’ fading career.
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(2) And well, their culture maximized the talent of their players. No developmental stone was left unturned in a season full of painstakingly individualized biometric data-mining under the tutelage of seven assistant coaches. The sense that everyone loved coming to work every day culminated in one total playoff win.
The Nets’ cultural bedrock was merely an audition. On June 30, 2019, they cashed it in for cold, hard stardom — with all of its spoils and trappings — by agreeing to four-year deals with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
In the modern age, winning free agency comes with a ledger of ironies that would make the FXX network blush:
Russell, the fulcrum of the Nets’ audition, is on the outside looking in, like the bearded lady P.T. Barnum traded in for Jenny Lind. (One assumes the fact that the Nets were instrumental in his development and at least somewhat responsible for the massive check he will surely sign elsewhere over the next few days will ease the sting.)
The Nets, under the leadership of general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, spent three years developing a culture to woo a set of players who will invariably cultivate a new one, despite the fact that they presumably came aboard because they liked what they saw. On the Posted Up with Chris Haynes podcast, Durant said he wouldn’t take any free-agency pitches, because the throes of the season reveal an organization’s mettle more than any PowerPoint could.
To win modern free agency is to trade the idyllic comfort of uncomplicated progress and sweat equity for some invariably hard bargains, to exchange potential for expectations, joy for responsibility and an invariable uptick in misery and stress, all in hopes of achieving the deeper, sustaining satisfaction that victory promises. The halcyon days of grassroots team-building leading to a championship are few and far between. Everyone is an asset. Just ask DeMar DeRozan.
So it is that the team that rested its reputation on player development will work to absorb two fully developed players.
The first — and possibly hardest — step is accepting the bargain and braving for new contingencies and compromises. You don’t lay the bedrock the Nets laid without seeing intrinsic value in the way you do things, but even the most fortified franchise has to accept that superstars mold franchises, not the other way around.
The Nets will have to cede some control to Irving’s and Durant’s whims while stopping short of allowing either player to swallow the organization whole. The balance is tricky, the product of varying strictness and malleability, resting on compromise, trust, humility, collective will and a gallon drum of emotional intelligence, playing a factor in every decision, from who creates the last shot to how many — if any — associates board the private plane. Hell, sometimes it means you sign DeAndre Jordan on the first day of free agency.
While Durant mends his torn Achilles, it’ll start with the relationship between Atkinson, an alleged point guard whisperer, and Irving, his uber-talented but mercurial new muse.
Russell and Atkinson built the kind of idyllic partnership that sustained a summer in the practice facility, an overhauled diet and game-day routine, countless crunch-time benchings and film-room admonishments, and turned Russell into an All-Star. But Irving is already an All-Star who likely doesn’t want or need to ride pine when the game is on the line. More importantly, he’s not a wide-eyed and bushy-tailed first-contract player. By their second and third contracts, even the most earnest players have the “Kumbaya” washed out of them. They’ve sat across their own team at the negotiation table. They’re hungry to make more money than their brothers in arms.
In the end, every relationship is a negotiation. Veterans demand more than rookie-scale players, and coaching them requires a wholly different skillset. Atkinson, whose coaching staff signed extensions prior to the playoffs, will have to prove he is equally adept at handling both. Maybe he can call up Brad Stevens and ask for a list of don’ts.
Maybe Irving himself can take away some lessons from his quixotic quest to find himself in Boston, which leads to another set of unknowns: What do Irving and Durant ultimately want?
In the end, Irving’s and Durant’s collective baggage is low-grade compared to their talents, and their love affair with the game is unmatched. They are compulsive about improvement, obsessively mastering minute details and chasing every lead, a trait they share with their new organization, where the practice facility in Industry City often has the feel of a lab experiment. It’s telling that they spurned the Knicks, who offered a bigger spotlight and would readily hand over the keys to the franchise, but offered none of the Nets’ stability. At the very least, that means they think they want what the Nets culture has to offer: a focus on basketball above all else. The coming years will reveal if that’s true.
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