Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai met with Kevin Durant over the weekend, and Durant reportedly reiterated his request to be traded away from the Nets. OK. But Durant also reportedly gave the Nets a second option: They can keep Durant, but they will have to fire head coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks. Tsai, having taken a day or so to think it over, has indicated that the Nets will stick with Nash and Marks.
For now, it appears that Tsai is calling Durant’s bluff: While they’re still exploring trade options, they’ve also got Durant under contract for three seasons, and will only contort themselves so much in order to make him happy.
Nets fans will certainly have feelings about this. Nash hasn’t exactly revolutionized the sport in his brief tenure as Brooklyn’s head coach, but Marks has done a fine job as the head of their basketball operation. It was Marks who guided the team out of the mess left over from the Billy King era, methodically rebuilding the roster while picking up picks and value contracts along the way, and ultimately securing as credentialed a superstar trio as has yet been assembled in what I guess we will call the superteam era. The Nets don’t have a whole lot to show for all this hard work—one 48-win season, and one lousy playoff series win—but it’s clear that Marks can wheel and deal with the best of them, and Nets fans don’t have to look too far back into history to be reminded of what can happen when your basketball operation is in the hands of someone who cannot.
However. Short of winning a championship, one way you know that you have a good basketball team is if it has someone like Kevin Durant on it. Hoarding draft picks is fun, I guess, and deftly managing the space between the salary cap and the luxury tax is I’m sure appreciated by the guy who signs the checks, but you win basketball games by having the best players, and there are as many as three humans on the planet who play basketball as well as Durant does. So the Nets have already done that part. And that it was managed by Marks, that it was made possible at all by a vision conceived and executed by Marks over a period of years, is now beside the point. The Nets right now, today, with or without Marks around to run the show, have Kevin Durant on their basketball team. They have Durant signed to their basketball team for three more years! For the next three seasons I could run the Brooklyn Nets, and they would have Kevin Durant on the team the entire time.
So Tsai would not be crazy to leap immediately at the opportunity to keep Kevin Durant, even if it meant shit-canning the person who is most responsible for their having him in the first place. The catch, to the extent that there is one, is that of Durant and Marks, only one of them can be flipped for a handful of useful players and draft picks. Marks can only be fired, and firing him will not guarantee that Durant is any happier a year from now. This, presumably, is why Marks is still working on satisfying Durant’s trade request, and why Marks is being allowed to continue working on Durant’s trade request: It’s just possible that even a trade for 75 percent of Durant’s value could stock the Nets up for the next five or six years, and allow them to completely overhaul the accursèd roster of last season without too much pain and suffering. And it’s the aptitude Marks showed in untangling the Nets from the mess of the last regime that makes him pretty much exactly the person you’d want navigating a transition of this scale. Solid front-office types are a lot more plentiful and come a lot cheaper than players of Durant’s pedigree, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easily replaced.
But what if a suitable Durant deal never comes together? The closer this drags to the start of training camp, the more remote the chance that a trade gets done. Marks has what’s left of the summer to work out a deal, and if a palatable offer hasn’t materialized, the Nets will have to make the best of starting another campaign with Durant on their roster. If Durant is still a Net toward the end of September, Tsai would be insane not to start doing whatever it takes to keep Durant invested for a title run, up to and possibly including jettisoning an unimpressive head coach and a general manager who can’t himself run out onto the court and do dunks.
Tsai is also a gazillionaire owner, which means he is accountable to no one, least of all to Twitter-using Nets fans. It behooves him to throw his support behind Marks today, but maybe not a month from now. If Durant is prepared to go Ben Simmons Mode and make himself indefinitely unavailable, maybe Tsai reverses course, makes the necessary blood sacrifice, and thumbs his nose at anyone who took him at his word. Point is, the stakes are different now than they will be before too long.
Most importantly, this is Kevin damn Durant we’re talking about. However annoying he is, however online-brained, however responsible he might be for Nash’s hiring in the first dang place, he is also one of the tiny handful of living basketball players who carry instant contention around in their pockets. While he is still an employee of the Nets, the Nets are a couple smart moves and a few lucky bounces from a championship. Teams spend decades thrashing around trying to obtain title odds like that. If Durant has indeed given Tsai a button he can push to keep and harness and maximize one of basketball’s most prized assets, and no better options present themselves, pushing that button is going to be pretty tempting.