Can the Brooklyn Nets and Kevin Durant Maintain the Peace?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusFeatured Columnist IAugust 29, 2022

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 25: Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts during Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Boston Celtics at Barclays Center on April 25, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Boston Celtics defeated the Brooklyn Nets 116-112. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Kevin Durant (Elsa/Getty Images)

Now that the Brooklyn Nets and Kevin Durant are moving "forward with [their] partnership," how long can the team keep the peace? Can Kevin Durant come to camp like nothing happened after reportedly only wanting to stay if the team fired Steve Nash and Sean Marks, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic?

Credit to Nets governor Joe Tsai, who didn't fire his coach or general manager, didn't trade either of his star players and somehow forged detente. But that uneasy partnership has a precise expiration date, timed with Kyrie Irving's expiring $36.9 million contract.

Things may blow up well before Irving's free agency in July. Whatever the path, the Nets have some difficult decisions ahead, especially if Durant is willing to turn up the heat several notches.

Brooklyn has time on its side, but should things turn ugly again, does the franchise have the stomach?

Durant's Lack of Leverage

Elite players have a significant influence on their destinies in the NBA. Elite players forcing trades goes back decades, including historical greats like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Typically, All-Stars gain the most control near the end of their contracts.

That's where Durant's push fell short. He's under contract with the Nets for four seasons at $197.7 million. The Nets have no obligation to trade him. He can't walk as a free agent in July.

Durant couldn't pick his next team like superstars of old because Brooklyn didn't like the offers, and he didn't have the leverage to push it through anyway.

In recent years, NBA teams have been tested by players pushing for relocation with two years left, like James Harden (from the Houston Rockets to the Nets) or Paul George (from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Los Angeles Clippers). Still, neither applied to Durant with four years remaining.

Instead, he tried to embrace the Ben Simmons approach with the Philadelphia 76ers. Simmons also had four years left heading into the 2021-22 campaign. Philadelphia initially called his bluff, but then Simmons didn't show for training camp—and when he finally did, he didn't suitably participate. The Sixers withheld payment, traded Simmons to the Nets and ultimately settled ahead of looming arbitration.

The current reconciliation would suggest that Durant wasn't willing to take it that far. He may take more of a scorched-earth approach (like Simmons in Philadelphia) to go out on his terms.

The Importance of Irving

Durant and Irving decided together to join the Nets in 2019. The two still carry a strong bond, and Brooklyn refusing to give Irving a suitable contract extension (relative to Irving's expectations) contributed to Durant's dissatisfaction with the organization.

The Nets have the power to give Irving four additional years starting at $44.3 million (nearly $200 million). The team similarly extended Durant last August; why wouldn't Irving get the same respect?

The answer may appear obvious to those who saw Irving sit out much of the season, refusing vaccination for COVID-19. From a team point of view, he didn't prioritize the Nets. But from Irving's and, per multiple sources, Durant's perspective, Brooklyn isn't fully invested in what the duo brings to the table.

It's a sticky topic. Perhaps there's a compromise in an extension that pleases everyone. Still, after the vitriol of the offseason, Irving may wait until July when he can sign for a projected max of $46.6 million. The Nets would be able to pay up to $270 million over five years; another franchise could do $200 million over four.

Whether Irving can get anywhere close to that from any team in the NBA is unclear, but that possibility may drive his decision to wait.

If the Nets prioritize Durant over the life of his contract, Irving may be a requirement for Durant's total investment. That's an unenviable position, but it may be the reality with which Brooklyn must come to terms.

Awkward Status Quo

The Rudy Gobert trade from the Utah Jazz to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a handful of first-round picks ruined the Durant market for the Nets. They weren't going to find a comparable offer this offseason, especially when Durant's trade demand came on July 1, the official start of free agency (never mind that most offseason decisions were decided by then).

The Nets can maintain peace by reinvesting in Irving or changing the coach or front office per Durant's demand. More realistically, the team will keep an awkward status quo, hoping still to compete at the highest level this season.

Failing that, the team can look to find deals at the deadline or into the following offseason. If the Boston Celtics are willing to part with Jaylen Brown in August, he's probably still available to Brooklyn in February.

Shams Charania @ShamsCharania

Sources: The Boston Celtics have offered a Jaylen Brown package to the Nets for Kevin Durant, which Brooklyn turned down and countered.<br><br>Full details on a potential Celtics-Nets mega-deal to be had, latest on Donovan Mitchell and more at the Inside Pass: <a href="https://t.co/Gkyfkhg5A1">https://t.co/Gkyfkhg5A1</a>

Again, Durant has four years left on his deal. The Nets have the leverage for another couple of seasons unless Durant is willing to go full-bore Simmons scorched earth.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.