After what was supposed to be a title contender was undone by injuries, a Nets season that ended with a bunch of ‘What ifs’ now turns the page to ‘What’s next?’
“I don’t really even know,” Kevin Durant said after Saturday’s Game 7 ouster. “I wasn’t even planning on losing — so I don’t know how I’m going to feel. I’m always thinking about our team and how we can get better and what we can do individually. I want to take a few days off. I don’t know man, s- -t — I don’t know.”
The Nets came into the playoffs as title favorites, but exited in the second round with James Harden hamstrung and Kyrie Irving out with a sprained ankle.
Injuries limited the Big 3 to just 202 minutes together in the regular-season and 130 more in the postseason. A top priority for next season will be getting them healthy — and getting them extended and surrounded by the right supporting cast.
“Of course we try to improve every single year. That’s the goal,” said Harden. “We never want to stay the same. We try to improve, try to get better and keep getting better.
“If we’re not injured, and me and Ky are on the floor, [this season] is a totally different conversation. … Just got to try to stay healthy. I’m sure the front office and the top guys will try to bring in more players around me, KD and Ky and continue to improve.”
Durant acknowledged continuity is important, since “GMs, owners, they move players all the time.” But he and Harden both sounded like men intent on building long-term.
The Nets can only hope so.
“You talk to Steve [Nash], you talk to other people, there are a lot of us, especially me, hoping that I’ll be around for a while,” Joe Harris said. “This thing is far from over.”
That will require maneuvering from GM Sean Marks, and money from owner Joe Tsai. Neither have been lacking in those departments.
Brooklyn has a projected $53.4 million tax bill according to ex-Nets assistant GM Bobby Marks, now with ESPN. But Tsai is worth $13 billion, and has shown no fear of spending when it comes to building a contender.
Priority No. 1 (and likely Nos. 2 and 3 as well) for extending his team’s window will be opening negotiations on four-year extensions for the Big 3 that would kick in after next season.
Harden can sign a deal that maxes out at a staggering $252.8 million. Durant’s would top out at $234.5 million, Irving’s at $217.0 million.
The Nets can open negotiations with the trio on Aug. 6, as well as Nic Claxton and Landry Shamet, whose rookie deal expires after next season.
Even before that, Marks has to make calls on nine free agents starting in August: Bruce Brown, Chris Chiozza, Jeff Green, Blake Griffin, Mike James, Tyler Johnson, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Reggie Perry. Brown, Chiozza and James are all restricted.
Spencer Dinwiddie said last month he’ll decline his $12 million player option for next year. A sign-and-trade could be in the cards, but that could double the Nets’ tax bill. And there are calls to make on whether to buy out DeAndre Jordan’s contract, or guarantee Alize Johnson’s.
Griffin and Green are both big men in their 30s, but the former is set to make $29.8 million from his Detroit buyout no matter what the Nets (or anybody else) pay him, while the latter is on his fourth straight veteran minimum. Brown could reportedly earn up to $9 million in free agency.
“I hope I’m here. I know my contract is up, but I hope I’m staying in Brooklyn,” Brown said. “I love playing with these guys: They made me better this year. I worked on a lot of things. I’ve got a lot to work on this summer and I’ll get better. But I hope I’m here for sure.”
Like the movies, locking up the stars long-term is the first step toward success, and then putting together the right supporting cast the next. The story will be the same for the Nets.