When the Barclays Center opened as the Brooklyn Nets’ new home in 2012, the team wasn’t shy about its ambition to take over New York. Then-owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian industrial magnate, brought in superstars Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to invigorate the team. A banner of the owner and Jay-Z (who, despite popular perception, owned only a small part of the team) with the words “The Blueprint to Greatness” loomed provocatively over Madison Square Garden. In an interview I did with him as part of a cover story for this magazine, Prokhorov called Knicks owner Jim Dolan “that little man.” The Nets saw an opportunity: Brooklyn was booming, Jay-Z was the most powerful artist on the planet, and the Knicks were bloated, shambolic, and pathetic. “Shame on us if we do not leverage this,” then-Nets CEO Brett Yormark told me at the time.
Since then, the Nets have certainly made more of a splash than they ever did in their former home of East Rutherford, New Jersey — where they reached two consecutive NBA Finals in the 2000s without anyone really noticing. But again and again over the last decade, the team has proven to be just as dysfunctional as their Manhattan quasi-rivals. Now, the Nets’ mercurial star, Kyrie Irving, says he might not want to exercise his $36.9 million player option by June 29, which would mean his departure (perhaps to … the Knicks!). Irving may just be posturing with his demand for a contract extension from the team. And given his recent track record — Irving missed most of last season because of his refusal to get vaccinated, a decision that helped push James Harden off the team and steer the Nets into the ditch once the playoffs started — it’s unlikely any other team would give him a better deal. Still, the new round of drama is the latest chapter in a frustrating story. Since coming to Brooklyn, the Nets have led the NBA in hype, drama, and tumult but have yet to reach the conference finals even once. They’ve out-Knicks’d the Knicks.
The original Brooklyn Nets sin was their utterly disastrous 2013 trade with the Celtics, which brought an elderly Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn for five players and first-round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018. Those picks, and the financial flexibility they provided the Celtics, essentially built the Boston team that just reached the NBA Finals, and which seems destined for more success. Meanwhile, the Nets predictably imploded, and quickly had to reconstruct their entire organization without any first-round picks to do so. Ownership then resolved to make smarter front-office moves with a renewed focus on locker-room culture. For a very short time, that worked. (It helped that Prokhorov left in 2019, selling his share to then-junior partner Joe Tsai.) The 2018-19 Nets, coached by Kenny Atkinson to a surprise playoff appearance, were one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA, and the most likable in Nets history. They were thought to be a model for how a franchise could bring itself back from the brink by using smarts, restraint, and common sense.
The problem: Atkinson and the Nets did such a good job that Kevin Durant noticed. In the middle of his free-agency run, he decided he’d rather be a part of what Brooklyn was doing than try to resurrect the Knicks. Durant then convinced Irving to become his sidekick superstar. During Irving’s first season, when Durant was still rehabbing, a team that had been 42-40 the previous year … got worse, going 35-37 and ultimately prompting the team to fire Atkinson, considered one of the top young coaches in the game, reportedly with Durant’s and Irving’s blessing. (He was last seen winning a title as an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors.) With the return of a healthy Durant, the 2020-21 season was supposed to be better. Playoff expectations were set even higher when the team traded for Harden, a third superstar, midseason. But then Irving got hurt, and an inspired Bucks team beat the Nets in the playoffs despite Durant’s best efforts.
That set the stage for this debacle of a season. Thanks to Irving’s anti-vaxx stance, the three superstars only played a handful of times together before Harden asked for a trade to Philadelphia. In return, the Nets got another pseudo-superstar, Ben Simmons, who still hasn’t actually played a game for them. The Nets, so heralded before the season, were destroyed by Boston in a first-round playoff sweep. The idea of bringing in two (then three) superstars, just adding water, and watching the championships grow, grow, grow fell apart — partly because of injuries, partly because of Irving’s vaccine hesitation, and partly because the team hired an inexperienced coach in Steve Nash, who reportedly let those stars (especially Irving) push him around. Not shockingly, the whole thing turned out to be a lot harder than everybody thought.
Now Irving might want out of there, just like he wanted out of Cleveland and Boston before. Durant thought he was entering a stable situation, but soon he might be the only top-tier guy left standing, looking around and wondering what the hell happened. He remains one of the best players on the planet. But the Nets look as far from an NBA title as they have in quite a while.
And, for what it’s worth: New Yorkers are still way more into the Knicks.