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Why Kevin Durant’s trade ultimatum raises more questions for Nets than answers

The Brooklyn Nets’ summer saga continues to take weird turns, and on Saturday, it reached an ultimatum.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, Nets star Kevin Durant, in a meeting with owner Joe Tsai in London, doubled down on his trade request and informed Tsai that he needs to choose between Durant or the pairing of general manager Sean Marks and coach Steve Nash.

The meeting came roughly a week after it appeared Tsai made peace with his other disgruntled star, Kyrie Irving, by tweeting an endorsement of famous New York City point guards praising Irving’s playground/streetball game. The place where the comments came from? The opening of a Showtime documentary on the Big Apple’s track record of floor generals co-produced by none other than Durant.

The London meeting came on the one-year anniversary of Durant’s four-year, $198 million extension with the Nets — which he signed while Marks was the GM and Nash was the coach.

It’s why there seems to be a missing piece to this bizarre puzzle that isn’t adding up.

Just four months ago, after the Nets’ brutal season ended in a four-game sweep by Boston, Durant strongly endorsed Nash’s return as coach.

“I mean, come on now, yeah,” Durant said after a season with championship-or-bust aspirations ended in the first round. “Steve’s been dealt a crazy hand the last two years. He’s had to deal with so much stuff as a head coach, a first-time coach: trades, injuries, COVID, it’s just a lot of stuff he’s had to deal with, and I’m proud of how he’s focused and his passion for us. We all continue to keep developing over the summer and see what happens.”

If Durant wanted Nash out but didn’t feel like putting him on blast to the media 10 minutes after the season ended, he could have discussed Nash’s future with an “I don’t know” or “Now’s not the time for that.” But he didn’t.

Durant and Nash have a history together that predates Brooklyn. The two worked together in Golden State when the Hall of Fame point guard was a consultant for the Warriors. Nash was hired as coach in September 2020 with significant influence from Durant.

Until recently, Nash’s coaching staff largely comprised assistants with ties to Durant. The Nets plucked Royal Ivey, another Texas Longhorn, from the New York Knicks in a player development role. Ivey and Durant played together in Oklahoma City, and Durant is the godfather to Ivey’s son. Brian Keefe was with Durant for years with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and David Vanterpool, a native of Durant’s Prince George’s County, Md., joined the bench too. Adam Harrington, Durant’s personal trainer who was a longtime Nets assistant originally hired by Kenny Atkinson and played with Nash in Dallas, further connected Nash and Durant toward the end of Nash’s career and stayed on his former teammate’s staff.

If Durant had any issues with Nash, whether it be his switch-heavy defense or lack of in-game adjustments, they didn’t rise to the level of being on his mind when Boston eliminated the Nets. Shortly after the playoffs, the Nets let go of Vanterpool and Harrington, the latter of which reportedly bothered Durant.

Marks, on the other hand, would more naturally be in Durant’s crosshairs, if only because this whole thing seemed to start with Irving’s contract standoff in June. As Brooklyn’s chief negotiator, Marks is by default “on the other side,” since Durant was clearly choosing sides and backing Irving.

Beyond that, though, most of the moves Marks has made over the last three seasons have been because of, or in tandem with, Durant.

Dating back to the summer of 2019, when Irving and Durant agreed to join Brooklyn as free agents, Marks awarded Durant a four-year contract extension knowing that the 6-foot-10 forward would miss the entire season because of a torn Achilles suffered in the NBA Finals. Durant even got a $1 million bonus for Brooklyn making the playoffs despite never suiting up. Signing Durant and Irving would of course restrict salary-cap flexibility going forward, but the Nets were counting on the duo’s star power to carry them.

Instead, Brooklyn parted ways with Atkinson in March 2020 before he ever got to coach his star tandem, traded its assets away for James Harden to form a superteam that would play together less than 20 times in a season and a half and came within inches of beating Milwaukee in the 2021 conference semifinals. But aside from Irving’s contract situation, which Marks and Tsai were in agreement on, Durant had plenty of roster say throughout, endorsing deals for LaMarcus Aldridge, Mike James and Harden despite the risks.

This led to Saturday. One plausible explanation for Durant’s latest ask is the Nets’ inability to trade him so far. Yes, the phone lines have been open, but Brooklyn has asked potential trade partners for so much in return for a 34-year-old Durant who has played in just 99 games over the last three seasons that no deal has materialized. Tsai appears to be patient in a trade, wanting to acquire every possible asset. Was this an attempt by Durant to either lower the Nets’ ask or energize a rather quiet trade market?

Before Durant’s sitdown with Tsai, there was speculation that he could be wavering on his trade request. Instead, he drew a line in the sand. Now the question is what is the “or else?” Will Durant, who consistently says how much he loves to play, sit out the season until a trade is made? Could he pull a Carmelo Anthony and play through the trade request, which likely wouldn’t end the drama that has followed the Nets for roughly the past year?

On the flip side, what does Nets’ management do assuming Marks stays in his position? Does he use the approach his two-time recent trade partner, Daryl Morey, took with Ben Simmons and sit and wait for the right offer no matter how long it takes or how the season goes? Durant’s ultimatum opened a chest’s worth of questions while the clock to training camp continues to tick more loudly.

(Photo of Kevin Durant and Steve Nash: Photo by Eric Espada / Getty Images)

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