The Nets were always a long-shot for Serge Ibaka.
After all, they could only offer Ibaka the $5.7 million taxpayers’ mid-level exception. But with Kevin Durant leading the recruiting charge for his former teammate, it didn’t feel that way.
There was Ibaka posting an Instagram picture on a private jet – his destination unknown. And there was KD’s brother, Tony, posting an encouraging response: “Brooklyn.” There was also NBA analyst Richard Hamilton reporting that Ibaka was definitely going to leave the Raptors, possibly for the Nets.
But it wasn’t meant to be. The Clippers swooped in on Saturday night and secured the 31-year-old veteran big man on a two-year, $19 million deal, sources confirmed. So it was Ibaka ending up in Los Angeles with Kawhi Leonard, rather than Brooklyn with Durant.
Ibaka would’ve been the perfect fit, a two-way force with championship experience and makeup. He can rebound. He can shoot. He can defend. He also doesn’t need the ball to be effective. But facing a financial disadvantage due to salary-cap restrictions, the competition proved too steep.
It was disappointing. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. They didn’t get outbid. He didn’t take less than what they could offer.
Durant came out swinging this offseason, trying to orchestrate reunions with James Harden and Ibaka, his old pals from Oklahoma City. The Nets just lacked the assets (young star, full MLE) for those moves to happen. In the case of Harden, perhaps talks can be re-visited later on. (Had they been able to pull off the Harden blockbuster prior to free agency, they would’ve had a much better pitch. But it never got there).
For better or worse, Durant will always be chasing LeBron James. KD, who cares so much about public perception, thinks he’s the better player — and wants to be viewed as such — but few share that opinion. The ring count is 4-2, after all — whatever your feelings about Durant joining forces with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to get his titles.
On Saturday, the difference between the two could be found in the agency game. The Lakers, who may as well sport a jersey patch sponsored by Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports, swiped Montrezl Harrell from their LA rivals at a full mid-level discount, and added him to already existing Klutch clients James (Paul’s long-time friend), Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
There’s no doubt the defending champions were already attractive to Harrell, but his connection to James and the agency didn’t hurt. (It’s also worth considering that Ibaka may have ended up a Laker himself if Harrell had stayed with the Clippers. After all, Ibaka’s close friend had recently posted a photo-shopped image of Ibaka wearing a Lakers jersey on IG).
Imagine if Durant had a similar situation with agent Rich Kleiman expanding his client base. It may not be feasible — given all the business they already do together with Thirty-Five Ventures — but it’s at least worth considering (assuming it hasn’t been considered already). Maybe it’s even something KD and Kyrie Irving could join forces on, with the duo frequently expressing concern about the well-being of their peers in the game.
In any event, the Nets must move forward without Ibaka, a missed opportunity that has to sting at least somewhat.
Sean Marks was able to secure sharpshooter Joe Harris on a five-year, $75 million deal. That may have been seen as a bit of an overpay. But Harris is a low-maintenance, impact role player that the team had to retain at all costs, and Joe Tsai can afford it. On Friday, Tsai’s net worth increased $427 million to $14.1 billion. So the big-market owner has opened his wallet, and is intent on paying the luxury tax, as any big-market owner should.
The Nets have also improved on the margins, adding playoff-tested depth in floor-spacers Landry Shamet and Jeff Green. “3-And-D” man Bruce Brown should help out the team’s subpar perimeter defense.
Spencer Dinwiddie (who was again talking future payday on Twitter), Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen all hold value in either the rotation or the trade market. As mentioned, maybe Brooklyn and Houston circle back on Harden. The Nets have also tried to make a play for Bradley Beal before, and his situation in Washington bears monitoring. There’s also John Collins — with Atlanta adding significant frontcourt depth — though it may be tough to find a match there trade-wise. Either way, the team certain doesn’t seem done with its hunt for a third star.
Windows of contention don’t last forever. Brooklyn needs to maximize its chances as it officially enters ring-or-bust territory. The questions remain the same, whether injuries and egos will get the best of Durant and Irving. If they’re performing at an elite level, anything is possible. If not, they won’t live up to expectations.
Adding a talented player like Ibaka would’ve felt like a significant victory, especially with some uncertainty in the frontcourt depth. Instead, the Nets were left searching for alternatives as the Lakers and Clippers each added impact big men to their rosters. KD was aggressive in his recruitment, as superstars are in this era of player empowerment. He knows what’s at stake. But it was Leonard and his nemesis James who came through in the Klutch.
The Eastern Conference has its share of contenders in Miami, Milwaukee and Philadelphia, among others. It’s just hard to be absolutely demoralized about missing out on Serge Ibaka when Brooklyn wasn’t outmaneuvered by the competition.