On June 19th, 2021, the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks were battling for the first spot in the Eastern Conference Finals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. With a win, the Bucks would return to the Conference Finals for the second time in three seasons; for the Nets, it would be their first appearance in 18 years.
With Milwaukee up by two with six seconds remaining in the fourth, Jeff Green threw the ball to Kevin Durant, who hit one of the biggest shots of his career, forcing the game into overtime.
The crowd at the Barclay’s Center went wild. Legendary broadcaster Marv Albert used his iconic “YES!” line to depict the moment. It felt like Brooklyn had another chance at advancing even though James Harden (whom the Nets traded a king’s ransom to get) was playing hobbled, and Kyrie Irving was out.
Despite the Nets’ new lease on life after Durant’s shot, Brooklyn struggled to score in overtime when it counted most and lost 115-111.
Milwaukee went on to win the championship, the highest basketball moment in franchise history in over 50 years. The Nets, not realizing it, had also hit a high moment in their franchise: The highest moment of the Kevin Durant Brooklyn Nets experience.
In his two-and-a-half healthy seasons as a Net, the Slim Reaper’s basketball life had constant twists and turns, surprising subplots, and glimpses of offensive brilliance that very few teams have ever eclipsed.
I don’t think the Nets accomplished as much as they could have during the Durant era, but it’s fair to say that signing both him and Kyrie Irving on June 30th, 2019, was the right decision. The Nets’ shortcomings were not purely a display of bad management and chemistry. They were an example of how hard it is to win a title.
“There’s only a few teams every season that get to earnestly compete for a championship, and the Brooklyn Nets were one of them,” said Nets Daily Writer Lucas Kaplan. “Having Kevin Durant in the borough is hardly a regret.”
Leading up to Durant’s signing, Nets General Manager Sean Marks’s team building was impressive. He took over a team with limited draft assets because of the Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry trade in 2013 that set the franchise back many years.
Brooklyn had become a team with a good culture filled with players that would complement superstars nicely. Players like Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie were sharp finds in free agency. Draft picks like Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert exemplified how, despite limited draft assets, the team was able to identify young talent. The team’s vibes appeared to be “immaculate,” to use some modern slang, and there are literal videos of the 2018-2019 Nets Bench Celebrations with millions of views on YouTube.
Durant and Irving’s desire to come to Brooklyn was an elucidation of how you can build a great basketball culture lacking trade assets as the second team in your city. For months leading up to KD’s free agency, the New York Knicks were the New York team expected to get Durant, but over an hour before free agency started, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that he planned to sign with Brooklyn.
Kevin Durant is planning to sign with the Brooklyn Nets, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 30, 2019
“The NBA is built on superstar talent and there really isn’t any other way to win the championship than to have 1-2 (minimum) of the very best players in the game,” said Doug Norrie, Locked on Nets Host. “When given a chance to get guys like Kevin Durant specifically, especially at his age (Durant was 30 when Brooklyn signed him), you basically have to do it.”
The team was unstoppable on offense when James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving were all in the lineup. They won 13 of 16 contests together, and in Game 4 of the first round of the 2021 Eastern Conference playoffs, the trio combined for a staggering 104 points, tying an NBA record for the most points by three teammates in a playoff game.
The Kyrie Irving vaccine drama, the multiple trade requests by the Brooklyn Stars, and all the other chaos should not take away from the talent they possessed.
“In trading for James Harden, they (Brooklyn) built one of the most dominant offenses in the history of the modern NBA,” Kaplan said. “The Harden trade was a slam dunk, though the dissolution of the team somehow makes that a controversial statement now.”
Brooklyn finished the 2021-2022 regular season strong with just Durant and Irving and had a stellar start to the 2022-2023 campaign. More than halfway into games last season, the squad had the second-best record in the East, sitting at 27-15. Per Land of Basketball, their 12-game win streak from December 7th to January 4th was the second-longest win streak of the entire season for any team in the league.
When Kyrie Irving requested a trade around a year ago, the end felt near in Brooklyn. Days later, Durant and Irving were traded, Irving to Dallas, and Durant to Phoenix. The Kevin Durant experiment was over.
“It was never about a failure to produce. It was about everything else, which never seemed to stay steady enough for the production to last over a whole season,” said Kaplan.
The sudden departures of Irving and Durant were nothing surprising, considering how frequently there was chaos revolving around the team.
“There were so many points of frustration along the way that while disappointing, it wasn’t all that surprising,” Norrie said about the Irving and Durant trades.
Reporting on the process that led the Nets to work with only the Suns on a Kevin Durant trade: pic.twitter.com/nHBdBCjyWN— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) February 9, 2023
As he returns to Brooklyn tonight for the first time since being traded, it’s important to remember how difficult winning a championship is. In a league with stringent financial rules, impulsive owners, and the highest level of talent across the league ever, there are no more consensus favorites. The new CBA has made it nearly impossible for another team to replicate what the Golden State Warriors did in the late 2010s.
Superstars will always be what leads teams to titles, and that will never change. It’s no coincidence that from the 2011-2012 to the 2018-2019 season, every single NBA Finals team had at least one of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry. If the best player’s team won every time, the history books would look very different. That being said, great players are needed to win championships.
The Suns have one of those guys, still playing elite basketball, even for his standards. While his situation may change from year to year or season to season, through the downtimes, it’s important to remember that employing Kevin Durant on your basketball team gives your team no ceiling.
First-round picks are valuable but are unrealized. Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson were great role players and starters, but no one is Kevin Durant except for the man himself. Whether Phoenix wins a title or not, there should be no regret in trading for him, just like the Nets should have no regrets about signing him, even if his tenure didn’t go as they would have liked or planned.