Artificial Greatness

Over the past four years, the Brooklyn Nets’ ambitions to build a superteam have finally come to an end, with both Irving and Durant out the door.

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The Brooklyn Nets went from being championship contenders, with a superteam built around Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, to rebuilders in just three years. A team with three generational talents, two of which were former MVPs, should have been impossible to defeat, yet their inability to win a championship will be the defining characteristic of this Nets team.

The Durant, Harden, and Irving trio will go down in history as the biggest failure and “what if?” team in the NBA, failing to even qualify for the Conference Finals once. As surprising as it seems, their failure can be broken down into a few simple factors. The trio was on the Nets for a total of 126 games––just over a calendar year—and somehow only managed to have 16 games where they all participated. They won 13 out of 16 of those games, boasting an 81.25 percent win rate when they all played. Unfortunately, their time together on the court was constantly plagued by one issue or another. Primarily, this was the result of unfortunate injuries, but Irving’s COVID-19 fiasco also impacted his availability and caused a sharp divide between Harden and Irving. In response, the Nets chose to stick with their original duo of Durant and Irving and sent Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers. Though the Nets lost a part of their core, the duo of Durant and Irving was nothing to scoff at either, and with the addition of Ben Simmons, they looked to have the same aspirations as they had previously. However, Simmons and Irving grew notorious for their off-court drama, proving to be a contributing factor in the subsequent collapse. Simmons didn’t play a single game in the season he was traded, and the Nets were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics. Durant then requested a trade over the summer, but the drama eventually simmered down after he rescinded his request. This was just the beginning of what was a growing divide between the management and the players. Though head coach Steve Nash was handpicked by Durant, it was clear that he had little respect in or control over the locker room. Ironically, the front office’s decision to cater to the players is what ended up hurting them the most. Though the Nets had big players, the lack of a support system from coaches and role players was on full display every time Durant or Irving were unavailable. “There was no structure, and even superstars, they need structure,” Harden said regarding his time in Brooklyn.

The start of the 2022-2023 season foreshadowed a similar season to those prior.  After posting a link to an anti-semitic documentary, Irving was suspended for eight games, yet again being unavailable to start the season. Following the suspension, Irving and Durant managed to power through a remarkable winning streak and were the number-one seed in the league heading into the new year. Then, Durant sustained an MCL sprain on January 8, reaggravating the injury issues that had long plagued the Nets. However, the team was able to win without Durant, and they looked as though they had the depth to make a championship run this year. 

Midway through a strong run, Irving requested a trade on February 5 after being denied a contract extension the week prior. In the span of three days, the Nets’ title hopes vanished, as Irving was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, and Durant followed suit to join the Phoenix Suns. The trade deadline in February marked the end of the dream that Irving and Durant brought, with no success to show for it. “I’m just glad that he got out of there,” Irving said about Durant after hearing about the blockbuster trade.

While the Nets never grew to their full potential, it was all a matter of small issues that culminated in the failed cohesion of the team. “It was a lot of ups and downs. We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish as far as winning a championship, but I [enjoyed] the grind. It was a special four years of my career,” said Durant in his Phoenix Suns introduction. At the end of the day, the Nets always had too much drama and never enough basketball to live up to the lofty expectations that everyone had of them. We never got to see the full potential of the Durant and Irving duo. Over the four years they played together, they only managed to play 87 out of a potential 280 games—the true tragedy of this fiasco. Whether it was injuries or controversy, there were always issues thwarting any built-up momentum.

With that said, the team has a strong young core that will be exciting to watch. With head coach Jacque Vaughn, the Nets will be a solid team, providing an amazing opportunity for younger players like Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson to prove themselves. The Nets have an abundance of capable players with superstar potential but are being suppressed by their roles and playing time. The team is now much better than it should have been after trading away three generational talents. With the acquisitions of Bridges, Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Dorian Finney-Smith, the Nets have a prime roster to build team culture for the future rather than trying to artificially create greatness.