Coming off of the Brooklyn Nets’ dominating 111-89 win over the injury-ridden Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn superstar guard Kyrie Irving made waves at the postgame press conference. When asked about how recent free agent signings Lamarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin were being folded into the team and what the implication was for Brooklyn’s culture, Irving said the following:
“I don’t know if everyone could have saw this vision a year ago, or two years ago…birth of an idea of what a place would look like with some guys in our league that we’ve…played against each other for so long, and then now in one place…we’ve all accomplished so much individually. But when we were looking at this thing, it was just a blank canvas…We saw that Brooklyn already had something great going for a certain amount of years, and I’ve always been an incredible supporter of the New Jersey Nets and Brooklyn Nets and when you talk about culture, it doesn’t just happen overnight. You don’t just build a team in a week or in two weeks.”
Of course, the immediate instinct is to cue the eye roll. Isn’t this the same Kyrie Irving that swore up and down how much he loved Cleveland? How much he loved Boston? Just this season, he has already managed to take two extended sabbaticals for the ‘culture’. What culture? What culture has James Harden helped to build except tripping at the finish line? Same question for Kevin Durant: are we supposed to believe that burner accounts on Twitter are signs of culture-changing behavior? Of winning behavior? Don’t get us started on Griffin or Aldridge either. Griffin forced his way off of the Pistons a la Harden, and Lamarcus pouted his way out of a successful Portland team!
To the casual fan, these comments and this roster can and will be seen as having the same stink that the ‘Big 5’ the Nets had just a few years ago when they mortgaged their future. But at least Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce had the dignity to not front run their way to a title. At least Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez ‘stayed loyal’ to their team. Years later, most fans will wonder what this organization could have possibly learned from their mistakes. Here they are again, slapping together and hogging all the talent on the market in an attempt to slap a team together. What culture?
Those fans are wrong.
There is a famous idiom about social media, especially in this Instagram-centric culture. People will see the result of your labor and get jealous, resentful of ‘easy success’. But what they don’t see are the hours, days, weeks, months and years someone has suffered to get to that highlight reel of their life. The Nets are now in that highlight reel.
You want culture? Let’s talk culture.
Let’s talk about how, when GM Sean Marks took over in 2016, he was asked to rebuild a team from nothing, with no draft picks (fun fact, due to a now famous deal with the Boston Celtics, those picks were turned into Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum).
Let’s talk about the team’s slow rebuild, banking on washed up and forgotten stars. Let’s list them.
D’Angelo Russell went from locker room pariah to All-Star and max contract player. Jarrett Allen went from ‘low motor’ pick to one of the best two-way centers in the league. Caris LeVert battled through years of injuries to become a borderline All-Star in his own right. Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris were given up on by their previous teams, almost relegated to the G-League when the Nets took them in. Did you know that, during Lebron James’ search for shooters in his second stint on the Cleveland Cavaliers, that the team had Joe Harris toiling away in the G-League? Neither did they, apparently.
That part about players being given up on is important. That is the Brooklyn Nets culture. The whole team, until this season, has been forgotten. No one thinks of Jason Kidd as a top five point guard of all time off the top of their heads. During those Finals runs in New Jersey, the Nets were still at the bottom of the league in attendance. The team is probably most famous for the fact that they let Julius Erving go.
Yet here they are. You want to talk about culture? Let’s talk about the now-viral GIF of the 2018-19 Nets bench, which most basketball fans know about, but can’t even name the players in. Let’s talk about the team whose player development staff was rated as one of the best in the league just a few years ago. Let’s talk about the hardnosed former coach Kenny Atkinson, who had to get held back by his players and ejected for sticking up for them.
On the surface, the Nets are ‘living their best life’ now, having moved on from those pieces for flashier, shallower ones. But look just a little deeper, and you’ll see echoes of the team that made this squad possible. They are famous names now, but when the Nets got them, no one wanted D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, or Jarrett Allen. That underdog sort of spirit continues with this team now.
Teams wanted Kyrie and KD, but look back on the 2019 free agency period and you will see how many were concerned that both players would be injury prone and bad for chemistry. Teams pulled out of any potential deals for Harden before the Rockets took the Nets’ offer, and many still doubted how he’d get along with the aforementioned Kyrie and KD. Before Aldridge and Griffin came along, no one paid attention to the team’s roster of incredible role players, either. Hindsight is 20/20, but you are simply lying if you tell yourself that you saw Bruce Brown, Tyler Johnson, TLC, and Landry Shamet coming.
As for Aldridge and Griffin, sure, they’re big names, but for everyone complaining about their talent, your team could have picked them up too, made them an offer. They didn’t. The Nets did.
Moreover, players want to play in Brooklyn. Joe Harris took a pay cut to stay. Dinwiddie is upset because the team is moving on from him. Harden, Griffin, and Aldridge were all recruited by Kyrie and KD. Some locker room cancer right?
Sure, the two decided to buy into the Nets to get this ball rolling. Nets fans everywhere will miss Russell, Allen, LeVert, and even Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But Kyrie and KD are only here because they saw what this organization could do with the unwanted and cast aside. They saw what Sean Marks saw. Joe Harris sees it too, as do Aldridge, Griffin, Jeff Green, and the countless other castoffs that called and call Brooklyn home.
If this team wins the championship this year, this won’t just be for them. This will be for the long hidden and die hard fans, the unheralded winners, and the building blocks came before to pave the road that this team now walks.
Of course the jerseys are cool, the names big, and the players flashy. The Brooklyn Nets are having their Instagram moment right now.
But if you haven’t picked up on the culture, hard work, suffering, sacrifices, and hard work it took for every single one them to get here, to Iso Gang and Scary Hours, you’re not just wrong.
You haven’t been paying attention.