Well, I’ve put it off as long as I could but it’s time to touch on the end of the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving Era in Brooklyn. This is not exactly new territory and it seems that the consensus is that, while there is much blame to go around, the largest share lies with Kyrie and his frequent flair for controversy. I largely agree with that assessment but I thought we could do a quick examination of the end of this partnership, FAQ style, and hopefully touch on some issues that haven’t really been addressed.
Before turning to the FAQ let’s agree on the facts of the most recent timeline of Nets’ drama:
-On January 25, 2023, various outlets report that Irving wants an extension from the Nets with his agent telling Bleacher Report that: “The desire is to make Brooklyn home, with the right type of extension, which means the ball is in the Nets’ court to communicate now if their desire is the same.” Kyrie wanted a four-year $200 million(ish) maximum contract. The Nets were reluctant to offer that much given how much time Irving missed the last few years (for various reasons) and were in no rush to negotiate, thinking that Irving needed their help to do a sign-and-trade with another team after the season to get the same max money elsewhere (the team holding Kyrie’s contract at its expiration would hold Bird Rights to fully max out his next contract). The Nets figured Irving’s leverage was limited because he was unable to get a big contract last summer and hasn’t exactly raised his value since then.
-Faced with an impasse, Kyrie had two options: (a) he could’ve played out the season and tried to build value on the court by playing well (and without controversy) or (b) he could stir the pot and demand a trade and otherwise complain of nagging injuries to make the status quo untenable. Irving chose the latter route, demanding a trade on February 3, 2023.
-Two days later, Irving was traded to Dallas for a haul of win-now players (Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith) and draft picks (most notably the Mavs’ unprotected 2029 first-rounder). It wasn’t clear whether Durant would be traded because the roster seemed good enough to contend and Durant gave no indication as to whether he wanted a trade. Shortly after, the Nets traded KD to Phoenix for a pretty big haul and here we are.
Do we blame Kyrie for creating this new drama?
Last summer when the trade requests first bubbled up, I did a deep dive on the KD/Kyrie Nets and concluded that Kyrie was the main problem as he was constantly missing games and repeatedly creating controversy unnecessarily. Still, Irving was fully within his rights to demand that max extension and a trade. Both demands took a lot of chutzpah but were fair game in negotiations. Of course there was some subtext that Irving might make Brooklyn miserable if they didn’t trade him and that isn’t cool but is tacitly accepted gamesmanship in the NBA (within reason). So, it would be nice if Irving would’ve played out his option and tried a title run but Kyrie has never operated that way and he is not required to do so.
Should the Nets have just bit the bullet and pay Kyrie?
Hell no. The Nets have paid over $200 million in luxury taxes the prior two seasons and Irving barely played over that time. Irving is 30 and a smaller guard who is not likely to age well. On top of that, he’s not reliable. For the Nets to take on that salary, tax, and risk, they needed a much better team. Brooklyn was pretty good this year but not quite good enough to take those risks, in light of Kyrie’s previous history. The case for paying Kyrie was mostly because it would possibly placate Durant but the luxury tax and lack of deep title runs overshadowed that benefit.
If this Kyrie trade was inevitable, shouldn’t the Nets have just traded Irving last summer?
Perhaps but the offers weren’t there in the summer. The only interested team was the Lakers and they were allegedly offering Russell Westbrook’s gross contract and one first-round pick, which was not the most enticing return. The Nets were stuck with the narrow path of trying to play this season with Kyrie and hoping he performed or was tradeable for a better deal. Both those things happened but the process to get here was still exceedingly painful.
Was this a good move for Dallas?
I think the Mavs know that the Kyrie Experience will get weird but they obviously felt desperate enough to make an impact in the playoffs to keep Luka Doncic happy. The Mavs are currently 31-27 (2-1 since getting Irving) and are a good offensive team (7th), bad on defense (22nd) and slow paced (29th in pace). Irving might help the offense and pace but not the defense (Irving has rated negative on DBPM the last few years and is at -0.9 this season so far). In all, Irving certainly gives Dallas a puncher’s chance of getting deep in the playoffs but it’s also just as likely that Dallas flames out or, even worse, pisses off Doncic. In short, this is a gamble I wouldn’t have taken when factoring the risk-reward possibilities. (Yes, Dallas also let Jalen Brunson walk and he’s having a better year than Kyrie, is younger, and is super reliable. The Mavs now have to overpay Kyrie and give up significant assets to replace Brunson. Ouch).
How good a long term bet is Irving as a player?
Putting aside all the hype/controversy, Irving is still a great player but how good does he project to be going forward? Here are his advanced stats from the last few years:
2018-19 w/Boston: 2,214 minutes, 24.3 PER, .197 WS48, 7.2 BPM (6.0 OBPM, 1.1 DBPM)
2019-20 w/Brooklyn: 658 minutes, 26.2 PER, .210 WS48, 7.7 BPM (6.7 OBPM, 0.9 DBPM)
2020-21 w/Brooklyn: 1,886 minutes, 24.4 PER, .189 WS48, 5.5 BPM (5.7 OBPM, -0.2 DBPM)
2021-22 w/Brooklyn: 1,091 minutes, 21.4 PER, .147 WS48, 3.0 BPM (4.2 OBPM, -1.2 DBPM)
2022-23 w/Brooklyn & Dallas: 1,592 minutes, 22.0 PER, .152 WS48, 3.7 BPM (4.6 OBPM, -0.9 DBPM)
Between injuries, mental health breaks, and vaccine stuff it is possible that the above numbers are buggy but the general trend shows that he’s really good but exiting his prime years. This is backed up by his Basketball-Reference.com shooting dating that shows he’s been getting to the rim much less the last two years (12.2% versus 23% for his career) and he has set a career high in three-point frequency each of the last two years. Of Irving’s comparable players (guys like Derek Harper, Rod Strickland, Mookie Blaylock, and Stephon Marbury), most of them had only one or two years left near their age-30 production. Granted, players are playing longer these days but decline is coming soon for Kyrie and a four-year deal covering ages 31 to 34 seems a bit scary to the team handing it out.
What about KD’s future prospects?
He’s great and ostensibly has had the same production levels since2017-18. He’s doing it differently now (he now shoots much more from the mid-range) but he’s still great. His main problem is injuries, as he basically misses 30+ games most years. I have no idea how KD will age but his closest comp, Kevin Garnett, was great thru age-36 before turning into a role player.
Moreover, the older players who are in KD’s ballpark, in terms of production, all aged incredibly well too. Durant has the fourth best BPM of any 34-year old. Check the top five:
Stephen Curry 2022-23: 8.2
LeBron James 2018-19: 8.0
Karl Malone 1997-98: 7.3
Kevin Durant 2022-23: 7.0
Michael Jordan 1997-98: 6.9
Pretty good company. MJ retired after that season but Malone played at the same level for three more years and was still an All-Star at age-38. LBJ, of course, is still pretty good now (6.6 BPM this season at age-38). Interesting side note is that Malone and LBJ’s teams got much worse over the next few years despite their production. Still, Durant is a good bet to stay great thru the remaining years of his time with Phoenix if he can stay moderately healthy.
Does Durant make Phoenix the favorite to win a title this year?
Among the favorites for sure. The Suns are 31-27 and 17th in offense. They shoot well from three but are the worst two-point percentage team in the NBA. I imagine getting the best scorer in the NBA will help. KD’s impact is limited a bit by the depth surrendered to bring him to town (Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson) but the Suns are a serious title contender now and they weren’t before.
As a quick side note, I found it fun how varied the opinions were on the KD trade. Most experts thought he would help but there is great variation on whether the Nets’ return was too much or not enough. I thought the return was pretty steep but the trade was rational for both teams.
Should the Nets have just kept KD and reevaluated in the summer?
A good case could be made for that course if Durant was on board and it appears, based on the return for the Irving trade, that keeping KD was possible. Either Durant told the Nets he wanted a deal or the Nets felt the Suns deal was too good to turn down (it was likely a combination of the two).
How would you sum up the KD/Kyrie Era in Brooklyn?
Snake bit failure. It was definitely worth the try and it wasn’t the same kind of abject failure as the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett gambit. In that case, the stars just weren’t good enough to be a title contender. Here, the Nets were sabotaged by bad luck and Kyrie-being-Kyrie. The Nets made some mistakes for sure, in particular, trading everything for James Harden and then flipping Harden for the ghost of Ben Simmons. We will also never know what attempts were made to get Kyrie more on board but, presumably, the Nets tried.
They Kyrie experience is best summed up by a recent interview in Dallas where he stated that his leaving Brooklyn: “was in the works like after Year 1. I was unsure about whether I wanted to be in Brooklyn long-term again because of things that were happening behind the scenes.” Okay, but one week ago Irving’s agent (who is also his stepmother) specifically said Irving was happy and wanted to stay in New York. It seems that his main problem was the lack of a new contract and this interview is a disingenuous post hoc rationalization. I understand Kyrie was just going through high stakes negotiations and he had reason to be angry that the Nets wouldn’t pay up but at least be honest about the situation. It was about money, which is totally reasonable but, again, don’t give excuses that seem palpably false.
Putting KD/Kyrie in Nets historical context
In the end, after all the crap, the KD/Kyrie Era yielded one good season (and two good partial seasons). For what it’s worth, the 2020-21 Nets are likely the best Nets team of the franchise’s NBA years. The 2002-03 team had a slightly higher SRS (4.42 to 4.24) but the 2020-21 team had a better winning percentage (48-24 versus 49-33) and that was with KD and Harden playing only about half the year (Kyrie also missed 17 games). No doubt Nets fans will remember 2002-03 with Jason Kidd more fondly but 2020-21 was the best team they’ve had so far.
The KD squad has made some marks on Nets history. Harden’s 2020-21 half season marks as highest BPM in Nets’ history and KD has three of the next four (Vince Carter 2004-05 is also in the mix). Without the ABA, the All-Time Nets starting lineup is Jason Kidd, Harden, VC, KD, and the always interesting Derrick Coleman (yes, Kyrie has an argument but he’s clearly not as good as Kidd or Harden). KD’s presence was definitely felt in Brooklyn, even if the experience was largely unhappy for fans.