Lessons from the controversial Brooklyn Nets season

THE KYRIE IRVING OPENING the act in Brooklyn was marred only by slick footing. It was the last possession in his regular season opener — Oct. 23, 2019 — against the Minnesota Timberwolves. With 50 points already in the bank and the crowd roaring with anticipation, Irving dribbled past Josh Okogie with the game hanging in the balance, before sliding and performing an aerial cartwheel, falling but maintaining his dribble. He immediately came back up and nearly dumped a lopsided winning fadeaway at the buzzer.

The Nets lost the season opener, but the electricity went through the Barclays Center. Brooklyn had its first bona fide star in his first suit for the Nets, one that would record point totals of 50, 39, 37 and 33 in its first 11 games before being sidelined by a shoulder impact.

Still, talent comes at a cost, especially with Irving. League sources say executives, coaches and players who were present during Irving’s time in Cleveland and Boston shared negative information with the Nets – his lack of response and his callousness with coaches, his lack of self-awareness with his teammates, his constant disregard for attacking game plans, his disinterest in playing without the ball. But the Nets, according to multiple sources, knew bringing Irving on board was the price of doing business: No Irving, no Kevin Durant.

Certainly, the Nets would acquire an otherworldly talent to partner with Durant. For all of Irving’s temperamental behavior, his production, shot creation and finishing ability have been among the best in the league (11th in points per chance among 40 players with at least 7,500 shot attempts since 2013-14 , when Second Spectrum started tracking).

But the Nets team he and Durant joined was a paragon of cohesion — a team of defrocks, inferior draft picks and recovering drafts that had outgrown and embraced an effort to build from the ground up.

Over the next year, several of the stalwarts of that culture would be dealt with to acquire James Harden to form a super team.

By the time Harden grumbled out of Brooklyn, as he had in Brooklyn, the mood at the Sunset Park facility was very different — and the league took notice. Several high-profile league executives say strategizing around big-name star hunting no longer has the same appeal as it once did. They watched players like the Celtics in the Kyrie era, and now the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and – for now – the LA Clippers think they could absorb superstars into their existing structures, only to be disappointed. by the results.

An unintended consequence of bringing in players like Durant and Irving is that an upstart core often hears a pointed message that management doesn’t fully believe in what’s being built, despite years of evangelism from the value of culture. Although an organization may believe that incoming superstars will adapt to the team culture that preceded them, superstars often do not adapt to cultures; they replace them.

“Building a great team is something that very, very few organizations can do,” said a senior league executive. “And we’re finding that even fewer can achieve that because superstars aren’t enough – it’s got to be the right superstars in the right culture. What this current era of NBA basketball shows us is that going all-in – whether it’s with a space cap or all your loot – to go and acquire two or three of the best talented players in the league and have an underperforming infrastructure or a complete lack of roster depth, you’re not doing anything favorable for your organization.”

No team is a more compelling study than the Nets, who are still looking for a sustained breakthrough as they shake off a playoff berth in the play-in tournament. The Lakers didn’t even get that far.

This post-season offers a referendum – is the superteam era over?