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Kevin Durant and the Nets Are Back to Normal … For Now

NEW YORK—Seventeen players wearing Nets jerseys took turns at the podium on Monday, including two stars who the entire world expected to be elsewhere by now, and one wise veteran who frankly knew better.

“It’s the NBA,” Markieff Morris said of a dizzying summer that included Kevin Durant’s trade request, Kyrie Irving’s contract standoff and far too many subplots to list here. “There’s something every summer that's gonna have everybody out of their seats, on the edge of their seats.”

Morris just signed with Brooklyn a few weeks ago. But he’s logged 11 seasons in the NBA, with six other teams, including stops in Phoenix, Miami and Detroit, and a championship run with LeBron James and the Lakers in 2020. The man has seen some things.

“It’s just the NBA,” Morris said with a verbal shrug. “We got to be able to sell something in the summer.”

And, well, no league does drama quite like the NBA. Point taken, ‘Kieff. Though he was perhaps just a few percentage points too glib about it.

Durant did make that trade demand—a fact he publicly acknowledged on Monday for the first time. Half the league did try to pry him from the Nets. General manager Sean Marks did make attempts to trade him (“We were relatively close on several things,” Marks said). Irving did flirt with leaving after contract extension talks went sour (“There were options, but not many,” he said). And Durant did, as a desperation ploy in early August, ask the Nets to fire Marks and coach Steve Nash in lieu of a trade.

At any given moment this summer, you might reasonably have assumed the Nets were in a meltdown, done as a contender and doomed to a long, messy rebuild.

But there was Durant on Monday, wearing his black No. 7 Nets jersey, holding a Nets-labeled microphone, in front of a Nets banner, on the Nets’ practice court at Nets headquarters in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and declaring, “I’m committed to moving forward with this team.”

Irving followed him to the podium. A few hours later, Marks and Nash sat at the same table, with the same microphones, still holding their same job titles. And Durant seemed perfectly OK with all of it.

Sometimes in this league, the drama outpaces the reality (a lesson we should all perhaps retain for the next inevitable saga, though probably no one will). It’s not that the demands and requests and hurt feelings were invalid or imagined. It’s just that none of this conflict was quite as dire as portrayed, and the most logical outcome was always the one we saw: with everyone back at that podium for media day, making the best of an imperfect situation.

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Durant wasn’t going to find a better place to chase titles, especially if his new team had to surrender its best players in a trade. Irving wasn’t going to find the massive payday he sought, whether as a free agent or in a sign-and-trade deal. The Nets were never going to get fair value for either of them. So here they are, still.

Kevin Durant talks at Nets media day. 

Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports

As imperfect situations go, this one is actually quite promising, if you can put aside all the summer weirdness. In Durant, Irving and Ben Simmons, the Nets have arguably the best Big 3 in the league, with an abundance of scoring, playmaking and versatility. Their supporting cast includes two of the league’s best shooters, in Joe Harris and Seth Curry, and ample veteran grit in Morris, T.J. Warren, Royce O’Neale and Patty Mills.

On talent alone, the Nets should be a Finals contender—or at minimum, a 50-plus win team and a top-four finisher in the East. And yet … well, every discussion of the Nets demands a long series of “and yets” and caveats and pesky questions, such as:

Is Durant fully invested, after that summer trade demand? (And can he stay healthy?) Is Irving, playing on a one-year contract, truly committed? Now that New York’s vaccine mandate is over, will he play the full season, or will something else derail him (because something, it seems, always does)? Is Simmons fully engaged after taking an entire season off to rehab his back and his mental state? Will these three ball-dominant stars mesh their talents effectively? When things go awry (as they inevitably do in this league), will they all stick together or come apart at the seams? And can Nash—who’s been repeatedly undermined by his stars—still effectively lead them after one of the greatest players of all time demanded his ouster?

Those answers won’t be clear for weeks or months, and maybe not until the crucible of the playoffs next spring. But based on Monday’s surprisingly placid press conference, the Nets have reason for optimism.

Durant calmly explained the concerns that led to his trade demand, and just as coolly put those concerns aside for now.

“My whole thing was I want everybody to be held accountable for their habits as a basketball player every day,” Durant said. “I think a lot of that stuff was getting swept under the rug (last season), because ‘We're injured’ or ‘This guy’s not around.’ I thought we could have fought through that a little bit more and focused on the guys that were here a little bit more.”

He mentioned the Warriors, who persevered last spring without the injured Stephen Curry, then marched to the title. He mentioned the Mavericks, who persevered for a time in the playoffs without Luka Dončić. And he wondered why the Nets, a veteran, star-laden team, couldn’t do the same as they plummeted to seventh in the Eastern Conference, before falling to the Celtics in a first-round sweep.

Not mentioned by Durant: the extended absences by Irving, whose refusal of the coronavirus vaccine rendered him unavailable for much of the season; the midseason trade of James Harden, who was furious with Irving’s absences; or the unavailability of Simmons, who was acquired for Harden but never played a minute.

“I felt like we could have fought through a lot of the stuff that I felt that held us back,” Durant said. “And championship teams do that. … That's what rose some doubt in my mind, is that when adversity hit, can we keep pushing through it?”

He said as much to Nets officials when he demanded the trade. But longtime Durant observers know he can also be quick to change his mind, and that some storms just need to be ridden out. The team the Nets have now assembled seems to have allayed his concerns. And the lifting of the vaccine mandate means Irving should—should—be available all season.

“It is a year of growth, and a year of us looking in the mirror,” Durant said. “Like, we f----- up as a team, and that only makes us better. So I’m banking on that. I got faith in that. We got guys in this locker room that care. You got people in this organization that want to see this organization be one of the prominent ones in sports. … I got faith that moving forward that we all want the same thing.”

No one in the league disputes the Nets’ talent. And no one disputes they will be spectacularly compelling once again, one way or another.

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