Last summer, free agency was abuzz with anticipation and excitement about where two of the biggest superstars in the NBA were going to end up, completely reshaping the league for the next few years to come. Determining where Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant were going to land individually, was already quite exhilarating to begin with. But when the Brooklyn Nets inked both Irving and Durant to 4-year contracts well over $125 million each, NBA fans across social media erupted with all sorts of reactions, thoughts and predictions as a team that went 42-40 the year before, all of a sudden emerged as potential finals contender (Spotrac).
This is not the first time such a historic deal has sent shock waves across the NBA. The monumental impact of basketball icons joining forces on a team to win a championship, is an ongoing phenomenon that has been popularized more and more over the last decade. It all began in 2007 when the Boston Celtics decided to trade for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to join Paul Pierce, forming the first assembled Big 3 in NBA history and capping it off by winning Boston’s first championship since 1985-86. Miami soon followed suit with their own big three, then Cleveland, and lastly, Golden State. Fast forward to the summer of 2019, superstar tandems have now become the latest, free agent trend: Russell Westbrook joined James Harden in Houston, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard teamed up back in their hometown with the Clippers, LeBron James and Anthony Davis paired up with the Lakers, and of course, there’s Brooklyn’s very own signing of Irving and Durant.
The “Big 3” or “Big 2” formula, has proven to be quite effective and at times, unstoppable. However, for a team to reach the title or even win a championship, a lot of pieces have to fall into place in order for that to come to fruition. Just like many other team sports, basketball has so many important roles that need to be fulfilled in order for a team to win games. Some roles are similar, but none are the same. As a result, usually one or two of the biggest stars that consist of the Big 2 or 3 (who are generally known for their scoring), completely adjust and evolve their skillset into an entirely different role for the greater goal of their team: winning a championship. This was visible with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen on the Celtics, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with Miami, Kevin Love on Cleveland, and even Steph Curry on Golden State. And although the Brooklyn Nets are considered immediate title contenders with the arrival of both Durant and Irving, it makes you wonder if the bar is being set a little too high considering how many big, looming questions remain unanswered heading into next season.
First and foremost, the biggest question the Nets have to figure out is how to make it work with Irving playing alongside Durant. Anyone who’s watched Irving play, knows all too well just how much he needs the ball in his hands to unleash his lethal scoring ability. But anyone who’s watched Durant play, understands that he’s one of the best players to have ever graced the NBA and needs to own the main scoring role, no matter what team he plays for. Essentially, the essence of the dilemma is that Irving doesn’t gravitate to that crucial role of facilitation as a point guard, despite passing the ball quite well. And when you team up with another big offensive talent, someone’s pride and scoring role has to give way in order to create the proper balance to win a championship, and that’s not going to be Durant. If you recall, when Irving was in Cleveland, both LeBron James and Kevin Love catered their playing style around him. Love transformed into a stretch forward and LeBron shifted his approach towards being more of a playmaker by upping his activity with not only rebounding but passing and defense as well. Despite the fact that LeBron was still the main scoring option, Kyrie did have a lot of room to play the way he wanted to without compromising his style much. Although KD can adapt his playing style like LeBron did, there’s just no way he’s going to ease the grip on the best skill he brings to the table as a scorer. As a result, Kyrie and KD are going to have to not only mutually establish what roles they need to own, but will also need to develop a strong, healthy chemistry as well. And achieving that in their first season together remains to be their greatest test yet.
Secondly, Durant is coming off a ruptured right Achilles tendon injury that he suffered in Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors. Despite being such a huge setback to come back from, several NBA stars have bounced back remarkably well from these kind of nightmare injuries. Take Paul George for example: He fractured his tibia and fibula in August of 2014 yet has continued to be one of the league’s most elite scorers. In 2017, Bulls shooting guard Zach LaVine tore his ACL with the Timberwolves, and ever since, has made great strides to turn into the baller he has become today, dropping 25 points a game this year. This bodes really well for Durant who will have over a year of rest and conditioning under his belt to prep him for his return. But the biggest question mark for him will be how he responds to this injury. Setbacks of this caliber deal a massive hit towards ones’ confidence and regaining that back, takes time. And to lead the Nets to the finals on his first year back from this kind of injury, is a mighty expectation for Durant, even for someone who’s as legendary as he is. In addition, Durant is joining a whole different system and support structure than what he had in Golden State for three years. With Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson all being already so close knit, it wasn’t hard for them to shift their roles collectively in order to mold around Durant’s style of play. In Brooklyn however, it’s not nearly as easy or smooth of a fit. And the incorporation of two scoring machines into a lineup that contains a lot of youngsters, changes everything.
Lastly, the Nets don’t know who’s going to be their new Head Coach. Whether they stick with Jacque Vaughn or not, it’s going to be a transition nonetheless that may take more than a year to click. Players not only subjectively gravitate towards certain types of leadership but also can take time to build a strong relationship with their coach. Although it doesn’t come across as that important, coaches do have an impact on how players execute on the floor, and after the departure of Kenny Atkinson, the Nets have yet another big hole to fill.
At the end of it all, so much has to go right for the Nets to win a Championship in 2021. To say that they’ll make the NBA Finals, is also really optimistic. The Nets have been dealt a handful of lofty, new challenges that aren’t easy to overcome, beginning with both Irving and Durant. And to execute all of that in one season, is just unlikely. Every Nets fan should be excited and amped up to see where this special tandem will lead their franchise. But it would be unfair of them to expect the Brooklyn Nets to make the finals next season when there’s just so much uncertainty still up in the air.