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In stare-down with the Nets, Kevin Durant bears the heaviest burden

Kevin Durant is walking a tightrope after publicly requesting a trade from the Brooklyn Nets. (John Minchillo/AP)
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There’s no question which party has the most to lose in the standoff between Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets.

Yes, Brooklyn’s world was turned upside down Thursday, when the most talented player in its franchise history asked out after just three years and with four seasons remaining on his contract. If the Nets trade Durant and Kyrie Irving as they traded a disgruntled James Harden in February, what’s left of their title window will shatter for good. The next half-decade will be spent sending what feels like an endless stream of draft picks to the Houston Rockets and rethinking a player-centric philosophy that alienated all three of its superstars. Reclaiming organizational credibility after such a sudden and total collapse will take an awfully long time.

Durant made the Nets a thing in 2019 when he teamed up with Irving, increasing their local television ratings, vaulting them up the merchandise rankings and elevating them into the title conversation. Without a doubt, his trade request, which came after a nightmare season defined by Irving’s refusal to get the coronavirus vaccine, could break the team.

But this inverted power dynamic — the franchise player lording over the franchise — is precisely why Durant can’t afford to get this summer power play wrong and why he will bear the heaviest burden until the situation is resolved.

NBA free agency winners and losers, non-Nets edition

Durant has appeared in 95 postseason wins since his 2007 arrival in the NBA; Brooklyn has won just 18 playoff games during that time period — seven in 2021. Durant has more NBA titles and more Finals appearances than the Nets, who were willing to cede power to him and Irving because they concluded, reasonably, it was their best chance to contend. The Nets will recede into the background as soon as they cut ties with their headliners, but the spotlight will follow Durant wherever he goes because he is a first-ballot Hall of Fame talent whose questionable career decisions have been catnip for critics.

Think back to 2016, when he set up shop in the Hamptons and made the polarizing choice to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors. That was an easy call on several levels: Durant joined a nearly unbeatable superteam, received his championship validation and built an off-court empire in Silicon Valley. Of course, his detractors thought it was all too easy and labeled him a bandwagoner and a betrayer for hopping onto a 73-win juggernaut that won the 2015 title without him and eliminated the Thunder from the 2016 playoffs. Left behind, Oklahoma City hasn’t been out of the first round since.

There was less backlash initially when Durant picked the Nets. He had just suffered a devastating Achilles’ injury in the Finals, and his cross-country move leveled the NBA’s competitive landscape. But the pushback picked up considerably when Brooklyn traded for Harden, who brazenly forced his way out of Houston with sharp-elbowed tactics.

For many, the Nets became easy to root against, just another big-market team seeking shortcuts and taking directions from its stars. Durant and Irving seemed to hold major sway on player signings, starting lineup configurations and the decision to part with Kenny Atkinson and hire Steve Nash as coach. Once Harden arrived, Nash openly admitted to deferring to his stars on playing time and injury management.

Unlike with Durant’s Warriors, the Nets’ ends never justified the means. They won just one playoff series in three years, with Irving’s anti-vaccine eligibility issues derailing last season and Harden responding by forcing a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. Durant must bear the blame for his misguided loyalty to Irving and for his inability to keep the trio on the same page when times got tough. While he played brilliantly throughout the 2021 playoffs, he came up short as a franchise pillar.

The accumulated baggage from Durant’s two previous free agency decisions hangs over his current predicament. Requesting a trade from Brooklyn two months after a humiliating first-round exit has resurrected the Warriors-era bandwagon accusations, especially because his desired trade targets, the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat, were No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences last season. Meanwhile, asking out less than a year after he signed a maximum contract extension worth nearly $200 million only underscored the transactional nature of his tenure in Brooklyn.

Durant, who has played 90 regular season games over the past three years and will turn 34 in September, is walking a tightrope. This summer represents his last, best chance to craft a rewarding next chapter for his career.

If he lands with the contending Suns, he will be set up by Chris Paul and in position to age gracefully with Devin Booker ready to pick up the slack. LeBron James justified his move to the Los Angeles Lakers with the 2020 title and Paul checked off an important legacy box by leading the Suns to the 2021 Finals. Durant could enjoy a similar reframing of his career with an extended run of no-nonsense postseason success in Phoenix.

NBA free agency, trade tracker

But the Nets aren’t obligated to trade him to the Suns, who look like a natural landing spot given their ability to part with Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges and multiple draft assets. If Brooklyn can’t get what it wants from Phoenix or Miami and pivots to seeking the best offer, as San Antonio did with Kawhi Leonard, Durant might need to brace for life on a non-contender. The Toronto Raptors landed Leonard in 2018 and are reportedly interested in Durant. They won the 2019 title with Leonard because they didn’t have to gut their rotation to get him, but would they have enough talent to compete with the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics if they are forced to trade multiple core pieces for Durant?

Durant must have a significant role in steering the trade, given his age, injury history, lengthy contract and indisputable need to win big. Three of his biggest rivals — James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry — have claimed the past three championships. The clock is ticking, and Durant’s best hope for boosting his standing among the NBA’s all-time greats is to win a title without the Warriors. Climbing to those heights requires a stable destination, not a bridge solution or a team he isn’t willing to fully embrace followed by another move in a year or two.

Brooklyn, for its part, must drive a hard bargain in trade talks, and its front office should be ecstatic at the inflated, pick-heavy hauls drawn last week by Dejounte Murray and Rudy Gobert. Time is on the Nets’ side to a degree; the Rockets benefited from a patient approach with Harden, and the New Orleans Pelicans did well after waiting until the summer of 2019 to ship Anthony Davis to the Lakers.

What Durant absolutely shouldn’t do is buckle and return to the Nets. Their lack of depth was exposed in the playoffs, and just this past week they lost Bruce Brown, Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond. More importantly, Irving has proved he lacks the reliability, on and off the court, to aid a deep postseason run. A negotiating U-turn from Durant might be welcomed by some Nets fans, but a trade request this monumental will leave scars and hurt feelings.

There’s only one reliable way out of this mess: Durant needs to change teams, then change the story by winning it all.

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