The Brooklyn Nets have had a tumultuous 2022.
From trading James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers for Ben Simmons in February, Kevin Durant's trade demand in late June and, most recently, the firing of coach Steve Nash and Kyrie Irving's suspension—it's been quite the downward spiral for a team that was a Durant toe away from an Eastern Conference Finals berth in 2021.
Can the franchise course correct, or is it time to start stripping the roster down for parts for a substantiative rebuild?
All About KD
At 34, after a torn Achilles' tendon, Durant is still one of the NBA's best players. Through 11 games this season, he's averaging 31 points per game while shooting 51.8 percent from the field. He remains a generational scorer and the Nets' most important player.
Durant is also under contract for three additional seasons (through 2025-26), so why would Brooklyn consider letting him go via trade?
They may not. Period.
But we're not far removed from Durant trying to force a trade over the offseason, reportedly pushing for the firing of general manager Sean Marks and Nash, per Shams Charania of The Athletic. Durant eventually relented, and Nash's departure came more organically.
But the Nets (4-7) may be bracing for round two if the losses continue to mount. Durant wants to win, and if he doesn't believe that's going to happen in Brooklyn, he may try to force relocation again. Given the length of his contract, some around the league remain skeptical he'll have the leverage until he gets closer to the end of his deal.
The number of teams that would want Durant is much larger than the list of franchises that can easily match his $44.1 million salary and have enough young stars, prospects and picks to appease the Nets. Would the Boston Celtics offer Jaylen Brown? Are the Toronto Raptors willing to talk about Scottie Barnes?
How eager would Brooklyn be to send Durant to the rival New York Knicks, even if New York included several of their many draft picks? Would the Golden State Warriors be willing to go back to Durant, offering prospects like James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody? Can the Miami Heat even get to a viable offer that doesn't include Bam Adebayo?
There's also a point where the Nets may realize they are at a dead end with their current core, and it's time to start anew. If an opportunity like any of the above comes up, that time could be sooner than later.
For now, however, the franchise will stay the course while searching for a replacement for interim head coach Jacque Vaughn.
Coach Hire an Indicator
If the Nets hire Ime Udoka (he's reportedly the favorite, h/t Charania), it's not to supervise a rebuilding team. As a coach, Udoka has a strong reputation after his rookie run taking the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals and his long tenure in the league as an assistant.
Beyond coaching, Udoka's reputation took a hit following his suspension by the Celtics for a violation of team policies that included "crude language in his dialogue with a female subordinate prior to the start of an improper workplace relationship with the woman," per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
It makes sense for the Nets to hire the best available coach to revitalize the 2022-23 campaign and keep Durant invested in Brooklyn. But it’s also extremely tactless, given Udoka’s actions in Boston. It’s troubling enough behavior that Tsai has felt some pushback on Udoka, per Marc Stein.
Marc Stein @TheSteinLine
League sources say there have been some "strong voices" urging Joe Tsai to back off the Nets' intent to hire suspended Celtics coach Ime Udoka as Steve Nash's successor given the considerable turmoil Brooklyn has already faced this season.<br><br>More to come: <a href="https://t.co/LGN9cVpMwn">https://t.co/LGN9cVpMwn</a>
Some around the league speculate that commissioner Adam Silver is pressuring the Nets to rethink the Udoka hire.
If the decision is to bring in a win-now coach to align with Durant, then the Nets would be more of a buyer than a seller at the trade deadline. The franchise could be pivoting into a post-KD future if the next coach is less of an established name.
The Irving Problem
Per Charania, the Nets have an extensive list of steps for Irving to follow to return to play.
Shams Charania @ShamsCharania
Sources: Nets have delivered Kyrie Irving six items he must complete to return to team: <br><br>- Apologize/condemn movie<br>- $500K donation to anti-hate causes<br>- Sensitivity training<br>- Antisemitic training<br>- Meet with ADL, Jewish leaders<br>- Meet with Joe Tsai to demonstrate understanding
Irving may follow them quickly—especially after he reportedly had a "productive" meeting with Silver on Tuesday, per Charania—and help Brooklyn return to playoff form. But that may be a reach.
Stein cited "growing pessimism in various corners of the league that Kyrie will ever play for the Nets again."
Whatever the result, if Irving's $36.9 million comes off the books following the current campaign, Brooklyn does not project to have cap space in July. The most the team might have is the non-taxpayer mid-level exception which projects to start at $11.4 million.
Any significant improvements around Durant may need to come via trade, be it by the February 10 deadline or after the season around the draft and free agency.
Is there any market for Irving? That's unclear, but initial queries in NBA circles were highly pessimistic.
"He's toxic right now," one executive said.
The Los Angeles Lakers had made overtures to the Nets earlier in the summer, but Brooklyn wasn't open to moving Irving at that time. Now, it appears to be too late.
Draft Picks Problematic
The more significant issue, should the Nets decide it's time to get out of Durant and rebuild, is that the franchise owes several first-round picks still to the Houston Rockets for Harden.
If Victor Wenbamyama is the runaway No. 1 selection in 2023, Houston has swap rights with the Nets. Even if Brooklyn gets the top selection and the Rockets are No. 2, the Nets are not getting Wenbanyama.
At least Houston is among the worst teams in the league; a swap may not be terrible, outside of losing a shot at a potential franchise pillar. Scoot Henderson of the G League Ignite is a tremendous consolation prize.
The Rockets also have swap rights in 2025 and 2027. And Houston will get the Nets' 2024 and 2026 first-round picks outright. A shortage of draft currency may be all the motivation Brooklyn needs to avoid rebuilding.
But then, that's not dissimilar to the Nets that Marks oversaw in 2016, a few years after the 2013 trade with the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and others. That deal decimated the Nets, but Marks showed impressive skill in turning "nothing" into a playoff team by 2018-19.
That upstart team fell in five games to the Sixers in the 2019 playoffs, winning one more game in the process than two of three postseason runs in the Durant/Irving era (to be fair, Durant was still recovering from the Achilles injury through 2019-20).
Simmons and the Rest
The Nets are not devoid of talent. The team has several solid veterans like Royce O'Neale, Joe Harris and Seth Curry (working his way back from an ankle injury). Younger prospects like Nic Claxton and Cam Thomas are developing well.
The elephant in the room is Ben Simmons, who the Nets got in return for Harden from the 76ers. He's struggled to get and stay healthy since the Nets acquired him in February.
"Simmons doesn't have much trade value right now," one executive said. "He hasn't been healthy, and when he has, he hasn't looked very good. He's certainly not producing up to his compensation."
Simmons is owed $78.2 million for two additional seasons, so he may be challenging to move. If the Nets decide to trade Durant, they should try handcuffing Simmons as a requirement.
The Nets would probably want to get out of Irving's salary, but that should be a lower priority, given his deal expires after the season. If Brooklyn clears Durant and Simmons via trade, the franchise may have significant financial flexibility, with Irving coming off in July.
The list of teams capable of taking on that kind of money is short (Durant and Simmons combine to earn $79.5 million this season), but the Lakers can theoretically get there by offering Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn. Would L.A. include its 2027 and 2029 first-round picks to facilitate that kind of blockbuster to salvage their season?
All three of those Lakers' contracts are expiring, which could open $71-81 million in cap space for the Nets next summer, depending on which players the team chooses to retain (like Westbrook, O'Neale, etc.).
Carry On or Start Over?
Do the Nets have the means to give Durant enough of a supporting cast to truly compete? Will he stay happy if Irving does not return from his suspension?
The Nets may not find the kind of return the Utah Jazz got for Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell (lots and lots of first-round picks). Few teams outside the Knicks have a treasure chest of firsts to offer.
Still, Brooklyn may be able to replenish some of what is owed to Houston while adding on a couple of younger high-quality prospects and perhaps also shed Simmons in the process.
The coaching hire will be a tell, especially if the Nets bring on Udoka. Then, a trade might be geared toward winning instead of a rebuild.
If the roster is intact, healthy and engaged, perhaps a Udoka can turn this team into more of a playoff force in the East. Whether the team gets that opportunity remains up in the air, especially with the Irving situation still unresolved.
As long as Durant believes in what the team is doing, Brooklyn may try to carry on, but it doesn't seem like a leap for Durant to return to his summer stance in a quest for a new home.