By Brian Mahoney
NEW YORK (AP) — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving gave the Brooklyn Nets two big victories in one night.
“They hit the Mega Millions and the Powerball,” former NBA star Charles Oakley said.
In the first hours of free agency, the Nets added two of the best players available to a young roster that made the playoffs, giving them hope of not only contention for an NBA title, but to be the biggest basketball team in New York.
The Nets have gone after both before and gotten neither.
There was the 2012 acquisition of Joe Johnson to play with point guard Deron Williams, a pairing that was touted as “Brooklyn’s Backcourt.”
Then there was the trade the next year for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, a megadeal that landed the Nets the cover of “Sports Illustrated.”
It didn’t get them anywhere close to a title, though.
So it would be easy to mix caution in with optimism, but former Nets who were back at Barclays Center on Sunday to play in the BIG3 think things can be different this time.
“I think they’re going to be great,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a lot different now.”
In his mind, the key change is the Nets’ practice facility in Brooklyn that the team was just starting to move into when he accepted a buyout during the 2015-16 season. Before then, the Nets were still practicing in East Rutherford, New Jersey, even though they had been playing their games in Brooklyn since 2012.
“A lot of guys were staying in Jersey so the commute over here was tough, man,” Johnson said. “Riding in a car for two, 2 1/2 hours and then get out and have to warm up and play. That was tough.”
Johnson said he would leave his home in Cresskill, New Jersey on game days a little before 3 p.m. to arrive at Barclays Center by 5:30. The current practice home, rising high above the Brooklyn streets and with a fancy view looking over the river toward Manhattan, will allow Durant and Irving a life he never lived as a Net.
“Oh, they’ll have it made in the shade,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Williams, along with Brook Lopez, led the Nets to a 49-33 record in the first season in Brooklyn, before the Nets lost to Chicago in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. The trade with Boston came a couple months later and brought outsized expectations, but the Nets actually had a worse record the following season, going 44-38, though they did reach the second round.
Reggie Evans, who played on both teams, thought the less-heralded team was the better one. While he praised Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry, who also came in the trade, for their professionalism and work ethic, they were near the end of their careers by the time they donned their Brooklyn black jerseys. Garnett was 37 at the time of the trade, and Pierce and Terry would turn 36 before the 2013-14 season started.
Durant is 30 and Irving 27.
“So what we got was smart, wise guys who know the game. Very smart, you know what I’m saying?” Evans said. “So it’s two different scenarios, but I like what they’ve got going on.”
He added that both players should be at ease in New York, whereas Williams, acquired from Utah to be the first franchise star in Brooklyn, never quite seemed comfortable.
“I love D-Will, I just think it’s a lot of pressure being up under these lights in New York,” Evans said. “It takes a real, real soldier to play here.”
What about Durant and Irving?
“KD and Kyrie ain’t going to have no trouble playing in front of these bright lights,” he said. “Period.”
The Nets’ haul so thoroughly dwarfed the Knicks’ that Knicks President Steve Mills put out a statement hours after free agency opened acknowledging his fans’ disappointment. New York went on to sign some solid veterans who should help it improve, but no marquee names.
“Do they have an ‘A’ player on their team? I don’t think so,” said Oakley, a former Knick who has feuded with Knicks owner James Dolan. “They got maybe one ‘B’ and a lot of ‘Cs.’”
So the Nets could dominate the local rivalry, which they did for a time when Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin were leading them to consecutive NBA Finals in the early 2000s. That couldn’t do much to shrink the shadow they play under — they were calling New Jersey home then — but maybe that could change with both teams in the same city now.
“I think it’s a different day and age because they’re in New York. Like, nobody has to cross the river to come see them play,” said Martin, who like Oakley is now a coach in the 3-on-3 league of former NBA players co-founded by Ice Cube.
“What we were doing and no matter how much we were winning, we’re still in the Meadowlands. So I think that was a deterrent to people, and then the Knicks’ historical brand, it’s always going to be that. No matter what the Nets do, the Knicks’ staple, that’s always going to be there. But I think if they come in and win a championship, that will change. That will change the dynamic of the area, I believe.”