Inside demise of Nets’ dysfunctional superteam

When the Nets traded for James Harden just over two years ago, it was to form a superstar Big 3 unlike anything the NBA had ever seen. It was to win titles and create a superteam.

But after three sure Hall of Famers all forced their way out in just 12 tumultuous months, that superteam dream is dead. With Harden already gone a year earlier, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant followed him out the door a week ago.

How could what should have become New York’s first major champion in a decade turn into the biggest sporting disappointment this city has seen since the 1992 Mets, aka The Worst Team Money Could Buy? How did it go so wrong so quickly?

Mainly because it was never really right.

“It was wrong. It definitely … it was wrong. It wasn’t right,” Harden, now with Philadelphia, admitted. “It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right. So something good wasn’t coming out of this.”

The Big 3 era didn't amount to much success for the Nets.
The Big 3 era didn’t amount to much success for the Nets.
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Who exactly is to blame for this collapse?

Harden for demanding a trade a year ago this month? Irving, for rarely playing and his never-ending distractions? Or Durant for enabling his unreliable friend?

Or was it higher up, like fired coach Steve Nash’s inability to mold a team? Or the front office, Nets GM Sean Marks and team owner Joe Tsai, for leaning into player empowerment but empowering the wrong player?

The answer is any and all.

While Irving will take the lion’s share of the blame — missing two-thirds of last season because of his refusal to adhere to New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates starting the Nets’ downward slide — the fact is with a failure this comprehensive, there are slices of humble pie for everyone to choke down.

“It was three years of malfeasance,” one Eastern Conference GM told The Post.

Years of flags

Those three years started when the Nets pivoted away from their hard-won culture to chase Irving and Durant in 2019. The first red flag was giving an egregious four-year, $40 million contract to DeAndre Jordan just to mollify the pair.

Granted, it wasn’t just understandable to do whatever was needed to get Durant, it was downright necessary to have any designs on a title.

Defense wins games, but MVPs win rings. That’s why teams covet them.

Since 1990-91, a staggering 30 of the 32 NBA champs were led by a former, future or reigning MVP. The only exceptions were the 2003-04 Pistons and 2018-19 Raptors, both relying on team ethos, good fortune and great defense.

Not content to count on luck, the Nets relied on talent. They just chose the wrong talent to rely on.

On paper, the trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden had the potential to turn into a superteam.
On paper, the trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden had the potential to turn into a superteam.
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Back in 2019 The Post had reported that Brooklyn had initial qualms about turning over its franchise’s culture to the notoriously fickle Irving if it couldn’t get Durant along with him. It turns out the Nets weren’t nearly frightened enough.

Irving’s relationship with the Nets — more so the front office than his teammates — deteriorated over time. Now in Dallas, he admits he already was looking to bolt Brooklyn after his initial 2019-20 season.

“This was in the works like after Year 1,” said Irving. “I was unsure about whether I wanted to be in Brooklyn long term again because of things that were happening behind the scenes.”

Still, that didn’t stop Irving and Durant from recruiting Harden to Brooklyn. They played pickup together in the summer of 2020 in Los Angeles, with Harden forcing a trade from Houston in January 2021 purely to play alongside Irving and Durant.

“I was unsure about whether I wanted to be in Brooklyn long term again because of things that were happening behind the scenes.”

Kyrie Irving

But Brooklyn’s Big 3 was more theoretical than practical, playing just 16 games together thanks to Durant’s knee injury and Irving going AWOL two seasons ago and refusing to take the vaccine last season.

“There was a lot of things. A lot of dysfunction, clearly. There was a lot of internal things,” Harden said. “That was one of the reasons why I chose to make my decision. Now, fast-forward to today, I don’t look like the crazy one. I don’t look like the quitter or whatever the media want to call me.

“I knew what was going on, and I just decided I’m not built for this. I don’t want to deal with that. I want to play basketball and have fun and enjoy doing it. Fast-forward to today, they got a whole new roster.”

James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant only played 16 games together.
James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant only played 16 games together.
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In all, Irving made just 29 appearances last season. Sources have said that lack of availability vexed Harden, who FaceTimed with Tsai two days before last year’s trade deadline and told the ecommerce billionaire that he wanted out.

“The reason I made that decision to get out of my comfort zone — which was leave Houston and do everything I did to get out of there — was to come and play with KD and Kyrie,” said Harden. “That didn’t happen as much as I’d like to or probably the organization wanted to. It was something where I knew it wasn’t going to change.”

Harden realized he couldn’t change the dysfunction, so opted to change his location, demanding a trade.

And while talks between Marks and Philadelphia counterpart Daryl Morey ground to a halt, sources told The Post that Tsai personally called 76ers owner Josh Harris. But he wasn’t the only one talking to the upper level of Sixers management.

Quiet Kevin

Durant has been loyal to a fault, never openly critiquing Irving’s lack of availability. And he’s insisted he has stayed in his lane and not interfered with Brooklyn’s dealings. But he’s not mute — just behind the scenes.

“I’m not KD’s boss,” Marks once said. “We’re partners in this.”

Durant tried to get Nash fired over the summer. And when the Nets parted ways with the inexperienced coach early this season, Durant is said to have wanted the team to hire Ime Udoka (who’d been suspended a month earlier by Boston for inappropriate treatment of female employees). The Udoka pursuit was an issue, with several high-ranking women in BSE — the Nets’ parent company — expressing discontent.

And sources told The Post that Durant personally spoke with the upper echelons of 76ers management amid the Harden-Ben Simmons trade talks.

Kevin Durant spoke with the 76ers management amid the Harden-Ben Simmons trade talks.
Kevin Durant spoke with the 76ers management amid the Harden-Ben Simmons trade talks.
Charles Wenzelberg

While Harden’s time in Brooklyn had clearly run it’s course, many around the league would say the trade return is the problem.

“It wasn’t the first Harden trade that was the problem; it was the second,” the Eastern Conference GM said. “Taking back Simmons was the killer.”

Clearly so, Simmons struggling and benched despite a huge contract that is among the most onerous in the entire league. Brooklyn had other trade partners for Harden, and may have chosen the wrong one — or at least the wrong pieces.

The Sixers had been shopping Simmons, and had engaged with Sacramento about Tyrese Haliburton. But when they asked for De’Aaron Fox as well, talks broke down. Haliburton got dealt to Indiana, for whom the 22-year-old just earned his first All-Star berth. The executive cited that as a lost opportunity for Brooklyn, suggesting a three-way deal looping the Kings into the mix would’ve been better.

“If I was the Nets, I would’ve rather had Haliburton,” the GM said. “Simmons could be the worst contract in the league.”

Simmons — just halfway through a five-year, $177 million contract — didn’t play a second last season, and has played poorly this season. He’s lost his starting job and seen his minutes slashed precipitously.

“If I was the Nets, I would’ve rather had Haliburton. Simmons could be the worst contract in the league.”

Eastern Conference GM

With Harden traded and Simmons not producing like a star, Durant was left with just the unreliable Irving as a running mate in a fluid situation.

Turns out that fluid was gas, and Irving threw a match on it.

Feeling disrespected by the Nets — who’d temporarily banned him from road games last season while unvaccinated, and suspended him this season for promoting an anti-Semitic movie — Irving rejected a three-year deal that had protections in the final season. He and agent Shetellia Riley Irving bided their time until his solid play gave them leverage.

Irving demanded a trade on Feb. 3, and was dealt two days later.

“When things start to change and you’re not given transparency and honesty from people in the front office or people around you — I don’t know what person feels comfortable or confident in that type of environment,” said Irving.

End of an error

From that point, the Durant move became a fait accompli.

Durant requested a trade in the summer, but was convinced to stay by Tsai and Marks. But now he had no interest in being the last star standing, and told the Nets as much last Monday, the day after the Irving deal. He and agent Rich Kleiman told Marks he wanted a move to Phoenix.

Outgoing Suns owner Robert Sarver had refused to include Mikal Bridges in trade packages for Durant last summer. But incoming owner Mat Ishbia — who’d been mentored by Tsai, according to ESPN — had his takeover accelerated and rubber-stamped the deal. And drove a stake through the Nets’ title window.

“I’m just glad that he got out of there,” said Irving.

Across 72 hours, Kyrie Irving was traded to the Mavericks and Kevin Durant was traded to the Suns.
Across 72 hours, Kyrie Irving was traded to the Mavericks and Kevin Durant was traded to the Suns.
Charles Wenzelberg

Brooklyn essentially brought back Bridges, Cam Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith for Durant and Irving, along with five first-round picks, another first-round swap and four seconds.

Sources told The Post that multiple teams offered two firsts for Finney-Smith, and HoopsHype reported they rejected Memphis’ offer of four firsts for Bridges.

The Nets have assets, but few playmakers and no closers.

Sixers coach Doc Rivers — the beneficiary of one of those closers — likened them to his 2018-19 Clippers team that went 48-34, the year after the final deconstruction of their Jordan-Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-J.J. Redick core.

“They remind me of my team with the Clippers when we had lost everybody and still made the playoffs,” said Rivers. “We always laughed we’re good until the last minute-and-a half. And that’s when closers close.”

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