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Rockets appear headed to win zero-sum game with Nets

The situation in Brooklyn is bad. Perhaps “historically, comically, unfathomably bad”.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets
Is the writing on the wall for these Nets?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Wishing ill on anyone else never feels right. It’s just bad karma.

With that said, when you make an agreement with someone that makes their misfortune directly proportional to your good fortune, it changes the moral calculus. Only a true zen master would hope for someone else to thrive at their own expense.

I think. Maybe I’m rationalizing. I have definitely, unequivocally been celebrating the potential downfall of the Brooklyn Nets.

Are The Brooklyn Nets Doomed?

It’s safe to assume you’ve heard the rumors. Just to be safe, let’s recap.

The Nets were a little apprehensive to offer Kyrie Irving a long-term contract. It’s hard to blame them. By now, Irving’s commitment to the game of basketball can be justifiably questioned. Why would the Nets make a long-term commitment to him as a basketball player?

Now, it’s been reported that Kyrie Irving has officially gone to Nets management and received permission to work out a sign and trade.

The rumor mill also suggests that Durant could consider requesting a trade if the Nets don’t retain Irving. This puts the Nets between a rock and a hard place.

Kevin Durant is 33. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where, in a few years, his play has substantially declined. In that event, the Nets probably won’t want to have Irving eating up a max contract slot as a part-time player anyway.

Alternatively, this club is in an inopportune position to trigger a rebuild. They’re light on future-focused assets. Surely, pivoting away from the Durant/Irving pairing so quickly wasn’t on the agenda.

They’re especially light on draft capital. If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you know exactly why this is.

After sending control of their draft through to 2027 to the Rockets, what should this team do?

Assessing The Nets’ Options

The first option available to the Nets is the obvious one. Roll the dice on Irving. Lock him up long-term, and press forward with him, Durant, and Ben Simmons.

Sure, Irving’s antics have got to be stressful for the organization. Any desire they may have to cut ties is understandable. It just feels like their other options are bleaker. If they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, the hard place feels hard enough that they ought to lean into the rock.

However, that’s looking less and less likely as the hours go by.

Suppose the Nets opted to trade Irving while hoping to retain Durant. At this point, Irving is clearly a distressed asset. It’s highly unlikely that any team will surrender equal on-court value for his services.

As has become customary when a superstar considers a trade request, Irving apparently has a list of teams he’d be comfortable landing with in a sign-and-trade. Those teams are the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, Heat, Mavs, and 76ers.

The Lakers could send the Nets Anthony Davis. On a related note, they probably won’t. Davis’ last two seasons have been plagued by injury, but he still feels like less of a risk than Irving. After all, Irving’s absences have been within his own control. And with the news that Irving might be willing to opt out of his $36 million player option for the MLE with the Lakers, L.A. is highly unlikely to do this.

More realistically, the Lakers would offer Russell Westbrook and their 2027 first-round pick. It’s hard to imagine that proposition would appeal to the Nets. If the fit between Westbrook and LeBron James was so poor, imagine the fit between Westbrook and Ben Simmons.

Perhaps a three-team deal could be arranged. For example, the Hornets have rumored interest in acquiring Westbrook’s expiring contract. The Nets could trade Irving to the Lakers, while the Lakers send Westbrook and their ‘27 pick (and maybe a ‘26 pick swap) to the Hornets.

Such an arrangement could land the Nets Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier. They’re both starting-caliber players, but will Kevin Durant look at a supporting cast of Hayward, Rozier, and Simmons and feel good about his championship odds?

Otherwise, it’s hard to imagine a reasonable trade with any of these teams. The Clippers have virtually nothing realistic to offer the Nets. The Knicks could swap Julius Randle and a pick or two, but after the disappointing 2021-22 he had, it’s hard to imagine that would satiate Durant, who has yet to even speak to the Brooklyn front office about all this mess according to reports.

The Heat could offer Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro. Still, parting with the 23-year-old Herro for a player as volatile as Irving may not appeal to them, and an aging Lowry and a lesser talent in Herro may not be enough to satisfy Durant either.

The Mavericks have nothing. The 76ers have a package of Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris that they’d be fools to part with. It’s practically impossible to imagine a scenario where the Nets trade Irving and get back a package that maintains their lofty ceiling in 2022-23.

Of course, they could go full rebuild. If the Nets opted to trade both Durant and Irving, that would open up options. Teams would likely break the bank for the chance to roster Durant next season. Players like Jaylen Brown or Bam Adebayo could suddenly be at the Nets’ disposal.

Here’s the thing: neither of those players is as impactful as Kevin Durant. The only players that are will not become available. If they’re hoping to avoid the mediocrity treadmill, the Nets could trade Durant for a package centered around draft capital, and Irving for whatever they can get.

If they did so, Rafael Stone would be obliged to send their front office a handwritten thank you card.

How Could This Impact The Rockets?

Suppose the Nets hash out their differences, sign Irving long-term, and keep Durant. Let’s be realistic: there’s a world where they win 60 games next year, and 55 the next, and the Rockets don’t get a premium pick from them in the short term.

There’s still reason to hope that they won’t sustain their success through to 2027. Did we mention that Kevin Durant was 33? In all likelihood, this team goes as far as he goes. A group built around Irving and Ben Simmon could be competitive, but it’s unlikely to contend.

It’s entirely possible that in Scenario A, the Nets are just kicking the can down the road. This team will almost surely need to move on from this core before 2027.

If that happens sooner than later, it could be the catalyst for a great era of Rockets basketball.

Let’s say the Nets trade Irving this summer, and hope to convince Durant to stick around with whatever their new core looks like. Having looked at realistic options for an Irving trade, it feels entirely possible that Durant is demanding his departure by the trade deadline.

The Nets could be middling around Durant, Simmons, and the Irving return, deal Durant at the deadline, and struggle through the rest of the year. Of course, the Rockets only have swap rights heading into the 2023 draft. It’s next year where they’ll truly be hoping for the Nets to suffer.

If they were to move Durant for a pick-heavy package this summer, and Irving for table scraps, that becomes more realistic. In a best-case scenario, the Nets are forced to field a lottery-level team in 2023-24, without the possibility of gaining a lottery pick.

They’d be hoping for another team’s misfortunes as we’re hoping for theirs.

Realistically, the possibilities are endless. Suppose Tari Eason is the steal of the 2022 draft. In that event, the Rockets could have already received fair value in the Harden deal. The Nets could remain a force in the Eastern Conference for a decade and the Rockets could justify the Harden trade with good drafting.

Still, with so much uncertainty and apparently volatility surrounding this Nets organization, that’s beginning to feel a less likely outcome by the minute.

If I was a Nets fan, I’d be measuring my expectations. As a Rockets fan, let’s just say it appears Houston is poised to win this zero-sum game.