It should be noted that, by passing over the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks for the rising Nets, Irving avoided the two most cliche outcomes. His decision was surely aided by the opportunity to play with Kevin Durant, who reportedly agreed to sign a four-year, $164 million contract with Brooklyn on Sunday.
Irving’s side to this story — a franchise point guard, in his prime, who leaves behind ill feelings for a fresh start with the Nets — should sound familiar.
In 2001, the New Jersey Nets acquired Jason Kidd, then 28, in a deal with the Phoenix Suns. Already a four-time all-star, Kidd had a final season in Phoenix marred by a domestic violence arrest. In 2011, the Nets traded for two-time all-star Deron Williams. The then-26-year-old floor general had clashed with Jerry Sloan, the Utah Jazz’s legendary coach, and been deemed a flight risk if he were to hit free agency.
Irving’s two-year tenure in Boston opened with high hopes but ended in frustration. Following months of awkward attempts at establishing himself as a vocal leader, Irving’s hold on the Celtics slipped away during four straight playoff losses to the Milwaukee Bucks. As he failed to move the ball and clanked jumpers, Boston’s collective will crumbled. His “Who cares?” response to his poor play in the second-round series was the final straw, necessitating a divorce.
Now Irving gets a second chance to address the many unanswered questions that were first raised by his 2017 trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Celtics. Can he translate his flashy individual offensive game to team success? Can he win in the playoffs without LeBron James? Can he strike a mutually beneficial balance with Durant? Can he consistently lead a locker room with a personality that runs hot and cold?
As it turns out, the Kidd and Williams acquisitions offer helpful best-case and worst-case examples for the budding Irving era.
Kidd hit the ground running with the Nets, leading them to the NBA Finals in his first two seasons — still the franchise’s only two Finals trips since it joined the NBA in 1976 — and six straight playoff trips. The triple-double machine got the most out of wide-ranging supporting casts that included the likes of Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin and Vince Carter. The Nets gave him a nine-figure contract in 2003, hired him as their coach in 2013 and then retired his jersey later that same year.
Williams, meanwhile, might be politely described as a cautionary tale. While he turned a 2011-12 all-star campaign into a $100 million contract, Williams led the Nets to the second round of the playoffs just once in his four-plus seasons despite the franchise’s blockbuster deal for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. With his game eroded by knee problems and his popularity dwindling, he was paid to go away with a 2015 buyout agreement. Rather than following in Kidd’s footsteps as a franchise legend, Williams came to symbolize a bleak and regrettable chapter in Nets history.
Some approximation of either scenario is in play for Irving, who will reportedly be joined by Durant, center DeAndre Jordan and a young roster that is otherwise short on household names but high on intrigue.
The Nets could attempt to package their minor assets in pursuit of a third star and a run at the 2021 Finals once Durant returns from an Achilles’ injury that is expected to sideline him for the 2019-20 season. That type of unbridled optimism was impossible to muster as recently as last summer, when the Nets were still coping with the never-ending fallout from the Garnett/Pierce trade.
Yet it is also easy to picture this breaking badly. Both Irving and Durant faced questions about whether they were too distant from their teammates this season, and both found themselves in public disagreements when internal issues bubbled to the surface. Both also happen to be scintillating scorers, who must now prove they can mesh together on and off the court.
In addition to the personality questions, Irving has missed at least 10 games in seven of his eight NBA seasons. Irving’s lengthy injury history includes multiple season-ending surgeries, including a follow-up knee procedure that knocked him out of the 2018 playoffs. This is no small matter because Brooklyn will be counting on Irving to carry a heavy offensive burden next season and beyond regardless of what other moves it makes.
Durant brings his own health questions, too, and he isn’t expected to return to the court until he is 32. When or if he can return to full strength after the Achilles’ injury remains to be seen.
Will Irving, like Kidd, involve his teammates, get the best out of Durant and lift his entire franchise? Or will he, like Williams, falter in the face of outsize expectations and nagging injuries? Given his ugly exit from Boston and his splashy arrival in the Big Apple, Brooklyn’s mercurial new star won’t have the luxury of angling for middle ground.
This story only ends with boom-or-bust extremes.
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