For the culture: KD, Kyrie and what comes next for the Nets

ByJackie MacMullan ESPN logo
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

BEHIND A HEAVILY fortified fence, menacing security dogs and multiple metal detectors, a trio of players blissfully trained together, ate together, played cards, puffed cigars and swapped dreams.

The luxury liner Silver Cloud, a 514-foot cruise ship, was docked at Pier Maua in Rio de Janeiro. In it resided Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan, members of the U.S. 2016 Olympic basketball team.

It was a union that was years in the making.

Durant and Jordan had struck up a relationship when Durant tried, in vain, to recruit the big man to Texas in 2007. "You know," Jordan grins, "when he lied to me and told me he was going to stick around." Jordan chose Texas A&M, but he and Durant remained close.

Jordan's confidant throughout the summer of 2015 was Durant -- the summer in which Jordan had verbally agreed to play for the Mavericks, but then backed out when the LA Clippers literally kept him cloistered in his Houston home until he re-upped. A year later, as KD agonized over leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, Jordan returned the favor. "From that point on," Jordan says, "our bond could not be broken."

Durant didn't know Irving nearly as well, but loved how he attacked the game. That summer in Rio, Irving had just led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA championship, over the Warriors.

"Kyrie and I didn't have the smoothest start,"' Durant says. "He was coming off a championship, a long season, and he was a little in and out of it in Rio.

"He was tired, not quite committed like the rest of us early on. I felt that, and I pushed back on him, not in a personal way but as teammates do. And that was the start of our little relationship.

"For him to allow me to do that, for him to take it in the right spirit, and for us to be able to talk through it, that only solidified our respect."

The cruise ship was the ideal incubator away from the bustle of the Olympic Village. The players had everything they needed on board, from beds specially designed to accommodate 7-foot frames, to gourmet food, a sauna, an open-air pool and private lounges for confidential conversations.

"We didn't just get to know each other, we got to know each other's friends," Irving says. "We had daily activities with one another. We started seeking each other out. Talking about everything. Being locked on a boat for a month brings out different parts in a lot of people."

There were endless conversations about basketball, including how LeBron James had orchestrated his own "friend group" in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that yielded two titles. One of the final nights on the Silver Cloud, as Ky, KD and DJ clinked glasses, Jordan recalls Irving saying, "Hey, this would be cool to do for real."

"I asked him, 'What you mean by that?'" Jordan says, "and Ky said, 'Let's all get on the same team and play together.'"

The Olympics ended with gold medals and fortified friendships. Durant and Jordan vacationed in Greece, then the three went their separate ways. Durant won two championships with the Warriors, Irving was traded to Boston, and Jordan finally joined the Mavericks for a brief and disastrous stint. The trio texted regularly through their individual turbulent journeys, fondly recalling their conversations on the Silver Cloud.

"The brotherhood was real," Irving says, "but circumstances kept us apart."

"There were times when you had to wonder, 'Is this ever going to really happen?"' Jordan says.

In the summer of 2019, with all three players set to be free agents, they connected again.

"We all agreed," Jordan says. "'We gotta do this.'"

BROOKLYN NETS HEAD coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks shared an analytics-based vision with an emphasis on pace, supported by an elite training staff, rooted in a player-first camaraderie that would be impervious to the toxic forces that historically pollute championship-caliber rosters.

But the losses mounted -- 116 in Atkinson's first two seasons.

"Some nights," Atkinson says, "I'd be sitting there with my wife, having a glass of wine, and saying to her, 'I don't know if we're going to get this done.' I had some big-time doubts."

Both Atkinson and Marks resisted turning to veterans with checkered pasts who would have bolstered the W's but detracted from the tenor of the mission. That left them with a revolving door of young players with a lengthy runway to accommodate their mistakes.

"We were the laughingstock of the NBA," Caris LeVert says. "Teams couldn't wait to play us. We were an automatic win."

But by 2019, something remarkable was unfolding in Brooklyn. Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie were flourishing under Brooklyn's regimented program. Marks had drafted Jarrett Allen, a great find at No. 22, in the 2017 draft. LeVert was suddenly receiving Twitter love from LeBron James, Chris Paul and Paul George regarding Brooklyn's progress.

The Nets had stunned everyone by winning 42 games and making the playoffs.

"I'd go out to L.A. to play in the summer," Dinwiddie says, "and guys would say to me, 'Y'all are playing hard. Good for you.' Like I was a little brother they could pat on the head or something. The message was, 'Y'all don't really matter.'

"But suddenly, we did."

Potential free agents took new notice of the rooftop lounge with a breathtaking view of the New York skyline. Atkinson's reputation as a players' coach blossomed. Word was he wouldn't just ask his players to take a charge, he'd actually demonstrate it in practice, absorbing contact from a 6-foot-10, 280-pound big man to prove his point.

Durant spent hours researching Marks, both as a player and a front-office apprentice in San Antonio and Miami. He was blown away by the attention to detail and the commitment to player-first directives. Jordan queried vets like Jared Dudley about their experiences in Brooklyn.

"Jared told me, 'They'll keep you in the gym all day, but you'll love what they're all about,'" Jordan says. "'They do things the right way.'"

Irving, whose relationship with the Celtics had soured, said he told Danny Ainge in his exit interview that he was moving on. He had already decided where he was headed: back home to Brooklyn and all the possibilities it offered -- not to the Knicks, which felt stagnant and stale.

"Come with me," he implored Durant and Jordan.

If you build it, they will come.

Now they are here, and with them comes a new challenge: How do the Brooklyn Nets, who haven't won anything, convince All-Stars and future Hall of Famers who have won multiple championships, to do things their way? More to the point: How do you convince these All-Stars, who have created their fair share of dysfunction in past locker rooms, to buy in?

"Very good question," Atkinson says. "That's the crux of what lies ahead."

THE NETS WERE delighted when their new power trio organized summer workouts for the team at a Los Angeles middle school in July and August. The aim was to develop chemistry and learn each other's tendencies on the court. It was going swimmingly until Brooklyn dispatched its performance team to Santa Monica for an annual two-day minicamp with the players, which involved, among other things, gathering biometric data through wearables. Irving, who has spent the past nine years working with his own performance specialist, Robin Pound, balked.

When the Nets gently urged him to participate, he didn't mince words: "I'm not doing it." It created an awkward moment, team sources say, for incumbent players who had benefited from the performance staff and ingrained that input into their routine.

"Look," Atkinson says. "These guys have won championships. They come from darn good pedigrees, and we've thrown some things at them that they've said, 'Hell no!'"

All three initially raised an eyebrow upon learning of Brooklyn's daily routine -- a two-hour time commitment that begins before practice even starts. Players receive a text informing them when their "table time" is scheduled. That includes 30 minutes with a massage therapist, physical therapist, or both, depending on what ails them that day. From there, players spend 30 minutes in the weight room, then move to the court for individual training.

"Our whole setup can be a bit rigid," Atkinson says. "We're like a college program, in some ways. We have this car wash of very specific things with very specific people.

"But I can already see it morphing into something it was not before. When Joe Harris was trying to make it in the league, he was saying, 'I'll do whatever you want.' Now we're dealing with veterans who are saying, 'OK, this is how you do it. But this is how I've always done it, and this has worked for me.'

"The challenge is, can we meld the two? No one gave us an award for mastering the culture code. We're still learning."

The trick is to carve out the necessary space for Durant, Irving and Jordan without compromising the core values upon which the Nets brand was established. It requires compromise, something that has never been Irving's strong suit. Marks preaches patience.

"We can't stop the train, and say, 'Whoa, whoa. They don't want to do this, so let's put on the brakes,'" Marks says, of the team's performance data-mining efforts. "We're doing something that requires building their trust -- and that takes time.

"They need to know the things we're doing are coming from a good place. It will never be used against them. It's not malicious. It's not, 'Hey, you did this, it's going to affect your contract.'"

Durant says that for most NBA veterans, their training regimen is sacred. It's what reinforces their greatness, and their commitment.

"It's going to have to be a give and take," Durant says. "At this point of our careers, we have routines. At the same time, I want to learn what they're about. We have to be willing to meet halfway."

Marks insists Irving's pushback on player performance was neither unexpected nor disruptive. (He also points out that Irving did attend and observe the sessions.) He says both Dudley and former Net DeMarre Carroll had their own reservations when they joined the team.

Skeptics of the "Nets Way" should consider Harris -- who went from an unreliable reserve his first season in Brooklyn to leading the league in 3-point shooting percentage last season. Those results led to a two-year, $16 million deal in 2018. Atkinson points to Harris as an example of a player being transformed by the Nets' culture.

"I was only 23 years old when I got here, and I hadn't done anything," Harris says. "Our big free-agent class that year was me, Jeremy Lin, Justin Hamilton, Anthony Bennett and Trevor Booker. Three years later, I'm the only guy left in the league."

"Joe sucked when he got here," Atkinson says. "He couldn't stop turning the ball over. No one was screaming back then, 'Oh, we knew within a couple of weeks that Joe Harris was an NBA player, let's give him $10 million.' If anyone says that, they're full of s---."

IN RETROSPECT, ATKINSON admits now, he overtrained the players, overworked his staff, didn't delegate properly and forgot to sleep in his first two seasons. And, yet, Durant says it was that maniacal approach that caught his eye. He was searching for a new challenge in his career, and he found the idea of helping to take the Nets to the next level infinitely appealing.

"I felt they kind of ground it out from the bottom, and I liked that," Durant says.

And so at 6:02 p.m. ET on June 30, Kevin Durant announced via Instagram that he'd be joining the Nets. And within minutes of that, Brooklyn's metrics shifted. Ticket revenue increased 72%, the team doubled its Instagram followers and its online merchandise site enjoyed a whopping sales increase of 953%. It was a welcome trend for a team that finished last in attendance last season.

Still, while excitement continues to build around the Nets, the fan base seemingly remains in a holding pattern. On opening night, with Durant in street clothes and likely to miss this season due to the Achilles injury he suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals, there was nowhere near a full house to greet Irving and Jordan.

Irving put on an electric show, pouring in 50 points on 34 shots, but the Nets lost. Last season D'Angelo Russell, Irving's predecessor in Brooklyn, averaged 18.7 shots a game, while Dinwiddie (12.2), LeVert (12.1) and Harris (9.8) divvied up the rest. Such high-volume offense for one player will be an adjustment.

But Brooklyn's players speak glowingly of Irving's leadership and temperament. Dinwiddie spent a week with him and his family in Hawaii in July. LeVert says Irving drops a little basketball gem in his lap nearly every day, whether it's how to cross over to shake off defenders, or the concentration and repetition required to finish in traffic.

Yet Irving's infamous mood swings, confirmed by his ex-teammates, which followed him from Cleveland to Boston to Brooklyn, are the unspoken concern that makes Nets officials queasy. When Irving lapses into these funks, he often shuts down, unwilling to communicate with the coaching staff, front office and, sometimes, even his teammates. Nets team sources say one such episode occurred during Brooklyn's trip to China, leaving everyone scratching their heads as to what precipitated it. There's hope that Durant will be able to coax his friend into a better frame of mind. But when presented with that scenario, KD says he will be hands off.

"I look at Kyrie as somebody who is an artist," Durant says. "You have to leave him alone. You know what he'll bring to the table every night because he cares so much about the game.

"Now, it might not be how other people want him to care about it. He has his way of doing things. I respect who he is and what he does. He has all the intangibles you want in a teammate and a great player. So, how he gets to the point to be ready for 7:30 every night, I'm supporting him 100 percent."

Irving, for his part, sees this move as a new chapter, a chance to build on the foundation he and his friends established back in Rio. He yearns to play alongside people he knows he can trust.

"We have the ultimate confidence in our ability to develop our relationship off the floor, to be able to protect each other as brothers and engage in family time and other things that we missed out during years we were other places," Irving says.

Marks says he will continue the dialogue with Irving, who has already shown up for table time and the weight-training sessions, as the season progresses. "I want him to know we're coming from a good place," Marks says. "If players get the feeling that we're using them or have an ulterior motive, it's going to fail. ... We're taking the stance of 'How can we help you?'"

There has already been leeway to allow Irving to march to his own drum. The Nets are willing to look past moments like the photo shoot at the Pearl TV Tower in China, when Irving refused to remove his hat and instructed them to photoshop it out. They will focus more on the bigger issue of sharing the ball and maintaining good team chemistry.

"I don't think any of us plan on telling these guys how things are done," Harris says. "You won't find a ton of egos around here. Our thing is to play unselfish and play together.

"I'm sure Kyrie will have some 'days' and so will we. As long as the accountability is in place, we'll all ride with it."

While Brooklyn expects to compete for a playoff spot again this season, the long view is squarely fixated on Durant and his ability to elevate the Nets to championship contender. The prevailing opinion among Nets staffers is that he will be the strongest and most persuasive voice, one that is in lockstep with their vision for the team.

Presumably, there will be no empty seats when KD makes his debut. He's been at the facility nearly every day, rehabbing and chirping with teammates, offering input, letting his presence be felt. The Nets have not required his attendance; Durant made that determination all on his own.

"He goes out and takes a couple of set shots -- not jumpers -- and the whole gym stops," Marks says. "You can hear a pin drop. That's great for our guys, because they sense this guy is waiting in the wings. We're not waiting for him, but man, it's kind of a cool feeling to know he's coming."

Durant says his goal is to share the experiences he's encountered in Oklahoma City and Golden State with the young players who want what he has: a ring. "Obviously leaving Golden State, I'm not expecting anything better than that," he says. "I see this situation as, 'All right, I'm coming to a young organization that has championship aspirations but doesn't quite know what that feels like.'"

The conviction that Durant, Irving and Jordan instilled in each other on a cruise ship in Rio has transformed them into the new core of the Brooklyn Nets. The challenge is incorporating that core into an existing culture -- one cemented when wins were scarce, but togetherness never was.

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