Nets need more than 'culture' to prove questions stemming from Kevin Durant's trade demand won't loom over season

NEW YORK — Kevin Durant was clear … kinda.

Kyrie Irving was charismatic … kinda.

Ben Simmons was encouraging … kinda.

Once basketball resumes, the Brooklyn Nets will be the biggest story in the NBA — ceding that space for the moment due to issues in Boston and Phoenix rightfully taking up more oxygen in this ecosystem.

Before the Nets can go about the business of staking a claim in a conference that hasn’t been this top-to-bottom competitive in perhaps two decades, they must get their own house in order.

There was very little discussion about championship expectations or even avenging the embarrassing first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics — a slight mention of it, though — because so much attention was focused on how the Nets got here.

And not about where they’re going.

When employing a player of Durant’s talent, championship discussion should be the bare minimum. But the Nets are surrounded by so much other stuff, you wonder if it’ll be possible for them to galvanize themselves for the next eight to nine months.

June is a long way away, with a long and winding road between now and then. Durant voiced his concerns with the Nets, laying out the issues that led to his trade request, and then subsequent retreat once it was clear the Nets had no incentive to move him.

Oh, and along the way he wanted the Nets to fire general manager Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash as a condition to keep him. It was a sloppy power play, one that resulted in everyone having to kiss and make up — or pretend it wasn't as damaging as it appeared.

Durant termed it a “standoff,” one in which he understood why the Nets were in no rush to trade a man as great as he is with four years left on his contract.

On one hand, he adamantly claims he wants no part of being in charge.

“First of all, I never walk into any GM office, coach office and demand anything. Tell them to sign anybody or run a play for me,” Durant said. “I come in and do my job as a player. A lot of people have it in their minds that I control everything here with the Nets.

“I’m not the liaison between Kyrie and the organization, I always told them that. I told Sean and Kyrie, ‘Y’all gotta build y’all relationship.’ Everybody’s different.”

Durant could honestly believe that, and this space isn’t here to question him. But there’s another side. How the organization handles its business affects how Durant sees his future — and how the Nets approach business has to consider what could be best for Durant, whether he voices it or not.

He said the games he missed due to his MCL injury brought out the Nets’ issues, some he might’ve obscured with his individual greatness. Once-banished Irving was brought back on a part-time basis, James Harden started acting up once Irving refused to be vaccinated, leading to his trade to Philadelphia and all hell subsequently broke loose.

“We’ve seen Steph Curry with the Warriors, injured coming into the playoffs. That team still fought and won games,” Durant said. “Luka [Doncic], he was hurt, his team still won games. That’s what grew some doubt in my mind, when adversity hit, can we keep pushing through it?”

Discount Durant’s titles with the Warriors if you like, but he’s not wrong about everything, or this thing. Diagnosing what he sees is spot on — it’s figuring out the reasons behind it is where one can part ways.

Just as Durant doesn’t want to be responsible for reading Irving’s mind, the Nets can be just as confused in figuring out what Durant wants and needs as he enters a critical juncture in his career.

Imagine Durant having to explain Irving’s sentiment when Irving made it appear he was being noble in “sacrificing” $100 million in an extension he didn’t receive last summer due to being unvaccinated, or Irving claiming he doesn’t understand where the thought he doesn’t want to play every night when there’s a full body of evidence that shows living up to his contractual obligations appears as optional.

It’s a burden Durant knows he’s ill-equipped for, especially if he has the right to feel just as confused as the average basketball observer at Irving’s actions, regardless of the friendship.

“Awkward, very awkward,” Irving said of Durant’s trade request, which came after he opted into the last year of his contract.

The word of the day was “culture.” Everyone pointed to it, talked about it but could only provide cursory definitions as to what it meant to each person. Marks pointed to Spurs culture and Heat culture, but said the Nets want to have their own — which is what?

One can only assume Durant, who mentioned the word plenty, had some level of conversation with Irving.

Did Irving feel the accountability applied to him, too, or just everyone else?

“I sit and listen, a student because he’s been through a lot. I honored his wisdom,” Irving said. “He’s seen championship runs, been a part of them. Won some, lost some. I wanted to hold space … be held accountable to where he feels comfortable at that level. Just meet each other where we are.”

To be fair, no answer would satisfy given the circumstances in which the Nets were last en masse. The equity all seemed to gain in a valiant second-round loss to Milwaukee in 2021 was squandered, and the Nets are starting from scratch.

“A year of us looking in the mirror, we [messed] up as a team,” Durant said. “It only makes you better. I’m banking on that we got competitive people in this building.”

There’s only one bankable commodity in this entire motley crew, and that’s Durant’s on-floor excellence. Irving is singularly productive when healthy and in attendance, but is better served as a supporting player than the entity everything revolves around. Simmons is talented and dynamic — perhaps even more impactful to winning than Irving, potentially — but is armed with as many questions on the floor as off.

Can anyone truly assess how good Nash is as coach, or at the least, how commanding he is? And Marks has shown he can put together an overachieving team full of try-hards but charting a championship course has yet to be determined.

The culture gets in the way of the practicality — is the roster championship-ready, independent of the three big pieces? Did Marks do enough to answer questions of the deficiencies on the floor?

Is Markieff Morris an answer? How about Royce O’Neale or T.J. Warren?

There are things to like about the Nets, who are not a total disaster on paper. But they won’t be given the benefit of the doubt, not for a while.

“Just get to work,” Nash said. “There’s no easy way, I can’t sit and diagram. We work, communicate, set goals, boundaries. Like Sean said, culture is evolving. When you ask us, ‘How’s our culture?’ Ask me tomorrow.”

And tomorrow after that and tomorrow after that.