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Seconds after free agency began Sunday evening, Kevin Durant made official what had been reported an hour earlier after gaining momentum for the past week: He and Kyrie Irving will, in fact, team up in New York, as had been rumored for the better part of a year.
The curveball is the team. As first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the two superstars will be joining the Brooklyn Nets, not the New York Knicks.
It was the counterintuitive choice based on all the noise that’s been circulating around the NBA for the last year. But it was ultimately the one that made the most sense for the next chapter Durant wants to write.
Durant had been linked to the Knicks for most of this past season. For months, Golden State Warriors staffers had operated under the assumption that he was gone this summer. The notion that he would be suiting up at Madison Square Garden next year appeared to be as much of a foregone conclusion in behind-the-scenes league circles as LeBron James’ imminent signing with the Los Angeles Lakers was thought to be during the 2017-18 campaign.
In a perfect world, Durant would make historic MSG—the Mecca—home by lifting a franchise from the dead. The Knicks would resurface as the focus of the basketball world, and KD would position himself to earn a championship unlike any he captured in Golden State.
But the devastating ruptured Achilles tendon Durant suffered in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals changed everything. Any team signing him this summer was now making a move for the 2020-21 season rather than building an instant contender.
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Despite suffering the worst injury a basketball player can endure, Durant’s pedigree is enough to make a max contract worth the gamble. The Warriors, by all accounts, were prepared to offer him a five-year, $221 million deal, and the Nets got it done for the most money they could put on the table: four years and $162 million.
Durant would be one of the greatest players in the history of the sport if he retired today. Even at age 30 and coming off an Achilles injury, he has more than earned the benefit of the doubt that his days as a high-level performer won’t be over.
But according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Knicks owner James Dolan wasn’t willing to go there, which only underscores the difference between the two New York organizations. That he, or someone close to him, felt the need to put that information out there is a staggering misread of the room. If the Knicks thought that explanation would make them appear prudent, or that it would provide cover for Durant choosing an objectively better situation across town, it actually had the opposite effect.
If the Knicks passed up the chance to sign arguably the best player of his generation, even with legitimate injury concerns, it only validated every gripe the team’s fans have had about Dolan for the past two decades.
This isn’t the first time the Knicks and Nets have competed for A-list free agents. Both were in the running for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010, and both ultimately struck out. In subsequent years, both franchises mortgaged their futures in win-now moves—the Knicks by trading a cadre of young players and picks for Carmelo Anthony, and the Nets by trading their next half-decade of first-round picks for past-their-prime Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
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Neither franchise has managed to contend after those moves, one 54-win Knicks season in 2012-13 notwithstanding. Both have felt the long-term effects of those shortsighted endeavors for years.
This time, the Nets won out with the one thing that has eluded the Knicks in that time: competence.
Brooklyn doesn’t have the iconic arena, the world-famous brand or the mystique. What it does have is a strong roster of role players who have gotten better each year while on cheap contracts, a creative front office and a well-regarded coaching staff led by Kenny Atkinson.
The Nets’ situation offered the best of both worlds for Durant. They’re set up to compete without him—maybe not for a title, but certainly to build on a breakthrough 2018-19 campaign in which they made the playoffs for the first time in four years. Irving is an upgrade over departing point guard D’Angelo Russell, who was an All-Star in his own right. His addition, along with the improvement of youngsters Caris LeVert, Rodions Kurucs and Jarrett Allen, should put them squarely in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack.
That was supposed to be their progression anyway. The jump from fringe playoff team to legitimate title contender is not one that typically happens overnight, and letting Durant spend the full year rehabbing his injury will give them cover to progress organically.
In 2018-19, the Nets were eliminated in five games by the Philadelphia 76ers after years in the lottery. The logical next step will be to win a playoff series, which they’re capable of doing with the players they’ll have on the floor next season.
For Durant, that’s crucial, as his third chapter will also be his first post-Achilles chapter. If he is even 80 percent of his former self when he returns in the 2020-21 season, it will dovetail nicely with what would have been the Nets’ ideal timeline for contending anyway.
It’s not often a team gets to have it both ways, but Brooklyn is set up nicely with Durant and Irving in the fold.
Had Durant joined the Knicks without a second star in tow, he would have been playing with a group of largely unproven youngsters including Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, Frank Ntilikina and this year’s No. 3 overall pick, RJ Barrett. It would have been a far less appealing on-court situation, especially when combined with the dysfunction that has plagued the Knicks’ organization for years.
If Durant is going to leave a dynasty, it has to be worth his while on the court. The mystique of Madison Square Garden alone wasn’t going to cut it.
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Durant joined the historically great Warriors in 2016 while seeking rings, and he got two of them in three years. With that he thought would come validation, but he and his Golden State teammates quickly became widely reviled for “ruining” the NBA. Fans would never love him the way they did Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who were draft picks made by the franchise and were on board for the dynasty’s first title in 2015.
This season, considering the tensions between Durant and Green and the near-constant speculation about his future, felt like the logical conclusion of that run even before Durant’s significant injury. The controversial handling of Durant’s quad injury in the second round of the playoffs, which led many to question whether the Warriors cleared his Finals return prematurely, didn’t help matters, either.
Durant could have re-upped with the Warriors, rehabbed on their dime for a year and attempted to salvage what looked to be a dynasty on its last legs. With Klay Thompson also out for the foreseeable future rehabbing a torn ACL, Golden State isn’t expected to contend next season. But every great run has to come to an end, and at times, this Warriors team felt like the 2003-04 Lakers, 1997-98 Bulls or 2013-14 Heat. By moving on now, Durant can start fresh as he attempts to overcome the biggest hurdle of his career.
In Brooklyn, he now has the opportunity to write his own final chapter.
The Nets team he’s joining is a good one, but it’s not a 73-win juggernaut. No one will accuse him of frontrunning if he wins a title with them. They don’t have the Knicks’ name-brand recognition, but if he brings a title to Brooklyn, Durant can build that from the ground up for a Nets team that has struggled to gain a foothold in New York.
And this time, it will be his team. There’s no confusion about that, as there was when he joined the Warriors. If he was frustrated by the lack of personal credit he got in Golden State, he’ll get plenty by winning in Brooklyn. Any hardware he picks up in his third stop will mean more because he did it on his terms.
Durant and Irving joining the Nets was not the outcome anyone expected. But for the NBA, and for the third act of Durant’s story, the chance to build his own empire in Brooklyn could be the most compelling one.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.