The world of the NBA is obsessed with stars. As they should be.
Stars are still ultimately what drives the league and ultimately what wins games.
There is no Milwaukee Bucks championship last year without Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Boston Celtics are not heading to a Game 7 against those Milwaukee Bucks without Jayson Tatum’s heroics. There is no Game 7 in Phoenix for the Dallas Mavericks without Luka Doncic.
The first step of any rebuild — the first step to any championship, really — is to find the star. It is hard to build anything without that key piece in place.
The thought among many tanking teams is that they angle themselves for that star player, throwing away seasons for the chance to draft and begin building and developing their star.
That is not how the Brooklyn Nets got their stars of course. They had their ground-up rebuild — done at a time when the team had none of its own picks — all angled to create cap room for a big summer to strike it rich.
The Nets struck it rich, adding Kyrie Irving one summer and then Kevin Durant the next. That vaulted the franchise into real contention. Brooklyn has been title or bust for three years now.
Yet, the Nets are still without a title. They came one large toe away from advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last year and a potential title. But the breaks have not gone their way.
The Brooklyn Nets found all of their stars and built a championship-level roster. But they are still without a title and a first-round exit leaves questions for their team building.
Brooklyn’s star experiment has not fallen apart by any means. But it has cracked at the seams.
James Harden has already forced his way out, dissatisfied with something in the Nets’ ecosystem. General manager Sean Marks seemed somewhat non-committal about Irving’s future with the team facing Irving’s player option this offseason.
And who knows about Ben Simmons, really? He should be healthy but his fit is still a big question.
The Nets figured out the things at the top. But they are sitting at home today because as the top of their roster dealt with their own drama, the team ran out of money and ran out of resources around them.
As Shaquille O’Neal likes to say, the stars need “the others” to step up and do their jobs to get them over the top. And Brooklyn’s pursuit of its stars completely gutted the roster.
Never mind Brooklyn got nothing from Simmons as he continued to recover from his back injury. The Nets got really little beyond Durant and Irving in their playoff series.
The Nets had 26.3 points per game from Kevin Durant and 21.3 points per game from Kyrie Irving in the series. Four other players scored in double figures in the series — Seth Curry (14.5 points per game), Bruce Brown (14.0), Nic Claxton (10.5) and Goran Dragic (10.5).
The Celtics did not have great scoring balance — only five players scored in double figures — but they did not have the steep drop off from their main players that the Nets had. Brooklyn had only one other player score more than five points per game.
Brooklyn was constantly playing uphill because the team did not have support for its main players, leaning heavier and heavier on their stars and they could not crack the defense enough.
It was not much better during the season. Brooklyn does not have a lot of scoring or creating punch beyond their best two players. And that stress showed throughout the team’s playoff series.
It is going to be increasingly difficult for the Nets to find that player. The issue with having so many superstar players on the roster is they eat up so much of the cap.
The Nets have $154.1 million committed to eight players including player options for Kyrie Irving and Patty Mills for the upcoming season. That means the Nets are a tax-paying team and will have few avenues to add meaningfully to their roster.
They will need Bruce Brown to copy his breakout season this year. They need Joe Harris to come back healthy and give the floor spacing they missed all year. They need Ben Simmons to be healthy and fit in seamlessly.
There are few avenues for this Nets team to improve other than hunting for veterans on the minimum market trying to latch on for a title run.
Beyond health for their stars, the Nets are going to be tough again.
Of course, those stars might be good enough to get them a good seed and an easier path through the playoffs. The Orlando Magic saw Irving score 60 points on their defense just because he could. Durant had a 30-point, 11-for-12 shooting performance agains the Magic too.
The Nets probably were the 7-seed this past year because Irving could not play until January because of his COVID-19 vaccination status and then could only play in road games until late in the season because of New York’s COVID-19 regulations. And then Durant missed 23 games with an injury.
The Magic are of course a long way from the Nets’ problems and concerns. They need the star to begin building their roster around and finding the role players to emphasize that star player. This is still the most important step in any rebuild.
But the Brooklyn Nets — and other “super teams” like the Los Angeles Lakers and even the Philadelphia 76ers — show that stars alone are not enough, as important as they are.
Find stars who do not fit well together and the team is going to come up short of its goals. Overextend your investment in those star players and you run out of room to add key players to help get your roster over the top. The Nets are going to continue cycling in players at the end of their bench or hoping to make a runaway draft pick.
The Magic right now are a team seemingly full of these secondary players. They have the kind of guys who would give a team like the Nets that guy to get them over the top. The Magic are a team begging for a star to make everything else make sense.
What Brooklyn is going through is how these contending teams die. The current salary cap structure puts an expiration date on teams because of the ever-escalating salaries of star players.
This is part of what happened to the 2009 Magic as they tried to rebuild on the fly and double down and adjust after their Finals appearance.
What ultimately ended their run was they kept flipping their big money into worse contracts. By the time Dwight Howard hit freee agency, the Magic had no avenue to improve their roster or players that would help them get that second star they would need to compete again.
The Nets are in the death spiral of all contending teams. Every great team goes through these tough decisions. And Brooklyn has to hit on some undervalued players to get the team back into title contention and give the stars the support they need.