BROOKLYN — The discussion began months ago. Before the playoffs. Before the trade deadline. Before all the rumors and the Zapruder hallway film. Long before things went haywire in Boston. Long before things got awkward in Oakland.
Maybe in New York. Or Brooklyn. Perhaps in Boston, if things went well in Irving's second season with the Celtics. The city was TBD. The goal was clear.
Durant and Irving were going to play together, somewhere, in 2019. That's what they resolved over a series of conversations before this season even began, according to knowledgeable sources.
On Sunday night, that vision became a reality, with Durant and Irving each agreeing to terms with the Brooklyn Nets—putting a big, bold exclamation point on one of the most spectacular franchise revivals in NBA history.
Three years ago, the Nets were left for dead—a team with minimal talent, no draft picks and no hope. Today, they're the envy of the league, with two superstars, a promising young cast and a newfound image: as an NBA glamour franchise. A destination.
Two of the NBA's best players—one, a two-time Finals MVP, the other a six-time All-Star—chose the Nets. In the same night. And chose them over the New York Knicks, their more storied and glamorous rivals, who also pursued the two stars.
This would have been unfathomable during the Nets' long, mostly inglorious era in the swamps of New Jersey, and inconceivable just a few years ago, after the franchise put itself in a death spiral with a series of ill-fated win-now moves.
It took general manager Sean Marks just three seasons to rebuild the roster, revamp the culture, crash the playoffs and make the Nets feel as hip as their brownstone-lined neighborhood.
The Durant-Irving coup validates everything Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson have built. It's not only a win for the Nets but a victory for everything they've come to represent: methodical, thoughtful roster construction; prudent salary-cap management; an emphasis on character and selfless play and player development.
In short, the Nets earned this.
And now, the necessary caveats…
Durant will likely miss the entire 2019-20 season while recovering from a torn Achilles. There's no guarantee he'll be the same player when he returns, probably in the fall of 2020, at age 32.
How will the moody Irving and the hypersensitive Durant—both of whom love having the ball in their hands—mesh once they're on the court together? The answer, along with Durant's health, might determine how we ultimately judge this blockbuster moment.
As one rival GM said of the pairing: "Good, as long as Kyrie doesn't (screw up) things."
"Will be interesting to see how Kenny integrates them into offense," texted a scout. "Both like a lot of isolations."
And, of course, Irving might have an entire season as the Nets' sole star before Durant returns. There's considerable risk baked into this transformative moment.
But presumably the two friends will figure it out, because this is what they wanted. This is what they plotted out together, over the course of countless conversations and many months.
Durant had grown weary of the perpetual drama in Golden State, even while leading the Warriors to two straight championships. What some found refreshing about the Warriors—their big personalities, their outspokenness on both on- and off-court issues—Durant found distracting. He wanted a team that placed basketball above all else.
And he wanted to escape the draining debate about whether the Warriors were Stephen Curry's team or his. At times, Durant felt taken for granted as the Warriors worked to reemphasize their pre-Durant "beautiful game" of constant movement—at the expense of Durant's isolation play.
Irving, who forced a trade from Cleveland to Boston two years ago, also yearned for change. He never did mesh with the Celtics' young core, or connect with coach Brad Stevens.
Initially, Irving and Durant discussed joining forces with the Knicks. Irving, who was raised in New Jersey, liked the idea of playing close to home. Durant, who was launching a media company in New York, liked the potential synergy, as well as the chance to be closer to his family in Maryland.
But that plan quickly lost steam as the Knicks lost their way. New York won just 17 games with a haphazard roster and a collection of underachieving young prospects. The Nets, meanwhile, were exceeding all expectations, eventually winning 42 games and capturing the sixth seed in the East.
Simply put, the Nets had the superior roster, the more proven front office, the better infrastructure to support two superstars. Irving and Durant both recognized it by midseason, according to knowledgeable sources.
"The Nets guys had already proven themselves," one source said.
And neither Irving nor Durant were eager to wear the "savior" mantle that's thrust upon every star player, coach or executive who lands at Madison Square Garden, from Stephon Marbury, Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas to Carmelo Anthony, Mike D'Antoni and Donnie Walsh.
It's different in Brooklyn, where the Nets generally operate below the radar, with less scrutiny and more measured expectations. The stars were impressed by Marks, a San Antonio Spurs disciple who favors a low-key, no-nonsense, egoless management style.
By the time the playoffs arrived, the outline of a plan was set. Although rival executives widely believed Irving and Durant were headed for the Knicks, the two stars had in fact veered away from that idea months ago, the source said.
Once Irving locked on Brooklyn, Durant was almost certain to join him. He never considered going to the Knicks alone.
The Knicks put out word Sunday night, through an ESPN report, that they were hesitant to offer Durant a full max deal ($164 million over four years)—providing an alibi for missing on their top target.
But a knowledgeable source told B/R there is "zero chance" that contract terms were the reason for Durant turning the Knicks down. He simply had already decided to join Irving in Brooklyn. (And if the Knicks did balk at handing Durant a max deal, they were simply foolish.)
The Knicks needed the counter-spin to distract from their abject failure.
Team officials had spent months priming fans for a blockbuster summer—first by shipping their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, to Dallas in a cap-clearing trade in February, and then by repeatedly raising expectations with public comments.
"From what I've heard, I think we're going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agency," owner James L. Dolan said in an ESPN radio interview in March. Dolan also said, "We hear from people, from players, from representatives about who wants to come."
Team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry added more fuel in an April letter to season ticket holders, boasting, "We have created a tremendous amount of financial flexibility, which has put us in a position to potentially sign up to two max free agents."
Both privately and in discussions with other teams, Knicks officials projected extreme confidence about signing Durant and Irving, further stoking the league-wide belief that the marriage was a fait accompli.
On Sunday, the Knicks' two most coveted stars signed with their crosstown rivals. And they whiffed on the other stars, too. Kemba Walker chose the Celtics. Jimmy Butler chose the Miami Heat.
So the Knicks instead binged on second- and third-tier players, committing $135 million to add a former lottery pick (Julius Randle), a semi-promising young forward (Bobby Portis), a mid-career shooter (Reggie Bullock) and an aging journeyman (Taj Gibson).
There's a lesson to be learned here, in this era of player empowerment: The stars are doing their due diligence. They're seeking substance over style, valuing a sturdy foundation over vague promises.
Irving and Durant surveyed the rosters and saw a Nets team with proven young talent in Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris, and plenty of room to grow. They’ll be further bolstered by DeAndre Jordan, who is leaving the Knicks to join his pal Durant in Brooklyn.
The Knicks offered only question marks: Was Kevin Knox's awful rookie season an aberration or a warning sign? Will Dennis Smith Jr. or Frank Ntilikina ever become reliable point guards? Can Mitchell Robinson anchor an NBA defense or is he just a stat-stuffing shot blocker who put up big numbers for a losing team?
The Knicks, as they have for decades, banked on their fading mystique and the allure of the Garden, gunning for the quick fix while skipping over all the difficult steps it takes to build a team. The Nets, with no mystique to speak of, just quietly worked to create something worthwhile.
Durant will be the best player in Nets history the moment he puts pen to paper after the NBA moratorium lifts on Saturday. Irving will be their best point guard since Jason Kidd.
After years of haplessness, of false starts and false prophets, a new NBA power is rising at last in New York—but on the other side of the East River. A dream fulfilled. A vision only Durant and Irving could see.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.
Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
Andre Iguodala joined Howard Beck hours before his trade to Memphis to discuss why nothing surprises him in free agency, why it's nearly impossible for superstars to please fans now and why no one should underestimate the Lakers front office. All on The Full 48.