In the summer of 2019, the Brooklyn Nets had one of the greatest recruitment periods any team could reasonably wish for.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant – two of the greatest offensive players in basketball today and possibly ever when all is said and done – made the seemingly collective decision to go to Brooklyn in free agency.
The Brooklyn Nets had an insane roster on paper with James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin DurantGetty
If that wasn’t enough, in January 2021, the Nets added another offensive juggernaut in James Harden in a four-team deal which involved the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers, sending Rodions Kurucs, Dante Exum, Victor Oladipo, four first-round draft picks and four first-round pick swaps to the Rockets.
In the summer of 2022, Durant has officially asked for a trade, Irving wants out of Brooklyn and Harden was traded months ago. The ‘big three’ in Brooklyn didn’t work.
Durant signed a four-year deal with the Nets that guaranteed him just over $194 million. Irving was earning close to $35 million a year and just opted into another year with Brooklyn at $36.5 million meaning over the four years of his deal, Irving would make nearly $136.5 million.
Harden signed a $171 million deal with the Houston Rockets in 2019, so when Brooklyn executed the trade two years later, they took on that contract.
The shooting guard was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers back in February, meaning the City of Brotherly Love was the third team to take on that mammoth contract. Harden had a player option worth over $47 million for one season for the 2022/23 campaign, but the 32 year old turned that down so the Sixers could be more flexible with their cap space.
Speaking of which – back to Brooklyn. In 2021, the NBA cap space for each NBA franchise was $109.14 million. Just over 68 percent of the team’s salary went on Durant, Irving and Harden.
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The intricacies of the salary cap in the NBA would take a long time to explain. You can sign people to mid-level exception contracts, draft picks get certain allocations, if you retain the bird rights of a player (meaning they’ve played for the franchise for a longer period of time) then you can stretch the purse strings for them farther than anyone else can.
But when players are earning big paydays like this, most of the roster will be made up of a veteran’s minimum deal, which is in and around $1 million.
More than that, if a franchise chooses to, they can go over the salary cap up to around $136.5 million, but you have to pay a penalty for every dollar you go over the cap to that point – that’s called luxury tax. In 2021, Brooklyn was paying an estimated $101 million extra in luxury tax.
Brooklyn mortgaged their future on this superstar trio. They gave up draft picks and stretched themselves to the limits financially, but it seemed doomed from the start.
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were the first two to move to the Nets
Halfway through the first season of Durant and Irving on the east coast, the league was shut down due to COVID. And Irving was playing along anyway, because Durant had to sit out his entire debut season with the Nets because of a ruptured achilles he suffered playing in the NBA Finals with the Golden State Warriors the previous summer.
In the 2021-22 season where Harden arrived half-way through, Injuries limited Brooklyn’s trio to just eight games together in the regular season. The trio showed what they could be capable of in a scintillating series with the Boston Celtics in the playoffs. After beating Boston, Irving and Harden went down injured and Durant was unable to do it on his own and they fell in game seven to eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks.
This season, it was all championship mode. The Nets were able to attract powerful veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Goran Dragic for minimal fees alongside impressive role players like Seth Curry, Joe Harris and Patty Mills all because they seemed destined to make a strong run at the title. Bookmakers made them favourites as a result.
Then it all fell apart. COVID-19 vaccination mandates in the city of New York threw a curve ball the Nets didn’t see coming.
Irving was against getting vaccinated and that conflicted with New York laws for sportsGETTY
Because Irving refused to get vaccinated, he wasn’t able to play any games in New York as that had become the requirement. Therefore, 41 home games and a pair of trips to Madison Square Garden to play the New York Knicks were off the table.
Because of Irving’s stance, the Nets decided to keep him off their roster and it’s believed Harden wasn’t happy with the organisation’s or Kyrie’s actions. There was also reports that Harden was out of shape and had gained some weight, something Durant was said to be upset about.
Harden never lived up to expectations in Brooklyn despite respectable numbersGETTY
So not only had the Nets lost Irving in a way they couldn’t have foreseen, but the situation drove Harden to want to seek pastures new. The Nets granted his wish and, in fairness, got Ben Simmons back in return.
By the time they’d made the trade, Irving was allowed to play with the team again because, surprise surprise, things weren’t going so well. The Nets were 29-26 when the trade was made on February 10 and sat in the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Far, far from the rampant pre-season expectations.
Harden left, Durant had a knee injury and Irving could only play half the games. Problem was with the Simmons trade, he was already recovering from a herniated disc. So while they acquired an All-Star player, Simmons has yet to even suit up for them. He wasn’t the injection their faltering season needed.
The Nets were swept in the playoffs twice with their superstar playersGETTY
Durant returned to the lineup for the playoffs and the New York mandate was lifted, meaning Irving could play in every game. Still, the Nets were swept in the first round by eventual finalists, the Boston Celtics.
The Nets won a single playoff series in the three years of Irving and Durant. They were swept twice. The prime trio had one playoff appearance together. The experiement had failed.
Irving told Brooklyn he wanted a max contract and the franchise flatly said no. As a result, Irving has opted into the final year of his deal, pushing the onus on the Nets to trade him away. He said it was to honour his commitment to Durant, but KD himself has asked to renege on his commitment to the Nets.
An expensive experiment that all parties seem desperate to move on from.
The dream partnership never materialisedGETTY