NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

That sound you hear is Knicks fans throwing up all over themselves.
 
Not only did Kevin Durant spurn the New York Knicks in free agency, but he decided to join their neighbors across the river in Brooklyn. And he took Kyrie Irving with him. Oh, and New York trading for known KD pal DeAndre Jordan last year to get the inside track on signing the two-time Finals MVP? That didn’t seem to matter, either; Jordan’s going to Brooklyn, too.

According to reports, Durant will be signing a four-year, $161 million deal and Irving will ink a four-year, $141 million contract of his own. Jordan, meanwhile, will be signed to the room exception at about $10 million over two years.
 
This is a stunning recovery by the Brooklyn Nets after finishing with the NBA’s worst record as recently as the 2016-17 season. Must be nice to be in the NBA’s largest market.
 
We can talk all day about the appealing culture that general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson incubated over the last three years. That certainly factored into Durant and Kyrie’s decision. But let’s be real: There’s little chance that a 42-40 team lands Durant and Irving if it hailed from Memphis.
  
Now, let’s get to the ironic part: Two of the best players in the league and one of the best free-agent hauls in years might not have much impact on the 2019-20 season. The more impactful transaction would have been if Irving re-joined LeBron James alongside Anthony Davis in L.A., but by joining the Nets, it’s not clear whether Irving is any closer to a championship in Brooklyn than he would be in Boston next season. Instead, for the second time in three summers, Irving has abruptly bolted from a winning situation. With a healthy Durant in 2020-21, the Nets figure to be a championship contender, but a lot can change in Irving’s world. It was only nine months ago that Irving told a crowd of Celtics season ticket holder that he wanted to be in Boston long term.
 
“I shared it with some of my teammates as well as the organization and everyone else in Boston, if you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing next year,” Irving proclaimed in October.
 
But after numerous reports of locker room infighting and turmoil, Irving obviously changed his thinking. Now, he’ll try to find what he seeks in Brooklyn. Maybe he just wanted to play basketball with his friends in Durant and Jordan. That’s a perfectly valid reason to switch jobs, no matter the workplace. Teaming up with buddies would be a crystallization of the player empowerment era that began with the Miami big three in 2010.
 
When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up in Miami, the Heat won two championships in four tries. This Brooklyn trio is a far cry from the Heatles. The LeBron of the group, Durant, is rehabbing a torn Achilles. Prime Wade was a better all-around player and a more established leader than Irving. Jordan is a fine role player, but Bosh averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds before taking his talents to South Beach.
 
Yes, Brooklyn should be doing a victory lap. They just got Durant and Irving! But there are reasons to feel a little nervous about Irving being one of the faces of your franchise. With Irving’s defensive shortcomings, you better have an elite defender like Al Horford to man the back line. When Irving and Horford played together in Boston, the Celtics outscored opponents by 8.0 points per 100 possessions, according to pbpstats.com. But with Irving playing without Horford, that edge fell to only plus-2.7 points per 100 possessions, with both sides of the ball being less powerful. 
 
Jordan, who turns 31 years old in late July, is not that elite defensive presence anymore. In Dallas last season, he was routinely out of position and struggled to keep Dallas afloat defensively. Between stints in Dallas and New York, Jordan finished 18th among centers in defensive real plus-minus. 

There’s a very real chance that Brooklyn never contends for a title. It all hinges on Durant’s recovery from an Achilles tear, which has ended careers before. Irving will be turning 29 years old by the time Durant is likely to be ready in 2020-21. Say it takes Durant another full season to establish himself as an MVP-caliber player. In that scenario, Irving will be 30 years old and Durant will be 33 by the time the 2022 playoffs begin. 
 
Maybe Durant returns to elite status right away, like Dominique Wilkins did. That’s one data point. So is Isiah Thomas, who retired at the age of 32. Kobe Bryant was a shell of himself after his tear at the age of 34. Though Durant at 30 years old is no spring chicken, the four-time scoring champ has to hope his relative youth leads to a better outcome than Bryant.
 
As I reported earlier this year with Cousins, the biggest factor in Achilles rehabilitation is weight loss. That shouldn’t be a huge factor with Durant considering he’s already so slender. There’s not much weight to lose on that frame. But as SNY’s Ian Begley noted recently, the Nets have a strong performance and medical staff, which helped Caris LaVert miraculously return to the floor this season after a gruesome ankle injury. Durant should be in good hands.
 
Durant and Irving spent much of last season downplaying any talk of them joining up in New York, but Sunday’s news lends credence to reporter questions and informed speculation from the media. Frustration on Durant’s end reached a boiling point in February when he went on an impromptu media strike ahead of his free agency. Durant then singled out The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss in a postgame monologue after Strauss had reported that belief among league insiders saw Durant leaving to New York as a free agent.

We can’t know how this plays out if Durant doesn’t tear his Achilles. According to an ESPN report, the Knicks weren’t prepared to offer a max contract to a player coming off an Achilles tear. Instead, Durant chooses the Nets. 

Humans are free to change their mind and that’s precisely why reporters ask these questions. It was always fair to question Irving’s intentions especially after his October proclamation. An annoyed Irving told Boston reporters to “ask me on July 1” about his free agency but to illustrate how quickly this happened, Irving didn’t even wait until July before word came out he was committed to leaving Boston. Irving changed his mind. He won’t be the first, and won’t be the last. Irving and Durant’s partnership will only fuel more media inquiry and speculation down the line. 
 
Even with Sunday’s bombshell news, Brooklyn doesn’t necessarily have a clearer picture going forward. But with the superstar talent on board, the horizon still looks brighter, for now. Irving is committed for the time being. That can change quickly. Just ask Boston and Cleveland.

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