NEW YORK — At the Brooklyn Nets' practice facility, Kyrie Irving casually dribbled between his legs, behind his back, back to front, front to back. His eyes were mostly locked on the photographer in front of him but, as he glanced at the skyline to his right, a voice bellowed, "New York is pumped!"
Irving made news in his press conference by saying that he failed the Boston Celtics as a leader partially because he couldn't enjoy the game or allow anyone to get close to him after the death of his grandfather. He also said that he will protect Kevin Durant from returning from his Achilles injury until he is "101 percent healthy" because "we all know" that Durant wasn't ready to come back in the Finals and "we put him on a national stage" to "end up selling a product that came before the person." As Irving and Durant took questions, Nets rookie Nicolas Claxton marveled at the rows of reporters in front of him.
"It was crazy," Claxton said. "Like a zoo."
He was informed that last season's media day was nothing like this.
"We didn't have all these chairs out here last time," center Jarrett Allen confirmed. "It's just a whole new vibe in Brooklyn."
Claxton, 20, found out that he'd be teammates with Irving and Durant while at home in Greenville, South Carolina, watching ESPN. Claxton counts himself as a fan of both of them, but paid particular attention to Durant growing up because they're about the same height. Now he wants to "pick his brain" as he learns how the league works.
The Nets had transformed into one of the league's marquee teams by the time Claxton landed in Las Vegas for summer league. For their returning players, though, all of this might take some getting used to. Along with the added attention, there will be higher expectations, and the two central tensions of their season will be between the hype and the Durant-less reality and between the established culture and the new mix of players. Swingman Joe Harris, who has personified Brooklyn's culture as much as anyone for the last three years, sounded as optimistic about this as you'd expect on the cheeriest day of the NBA calendar.
"From the moment that Kyrie and Kevin and DeAndre [Jordan] signed here, they've been really bought-in to what has already been established here in Brooklyn," Harris said. "But also they're the ones who have had the experience. Kevin and Kyrie, they're the only ones that have played in the NBA Finals, won an NBA Finals, and they offer that sort of experience, leadership where there is an approach to all of it, there is an approach in the offseason. It's been a little different where in years past there was such an emphasis on guys improving and getting better, to now it's, 'All right, how are we going to make this team jell and it fits together to where we're competing for championships?'"
Harris added that the new guys with the big names are "very likeminded to the guys that are already in the locker room." While there may be some tactical adjustments, he did not think Brooklyn needed to change its overall philosophy.
For the most part, the Nets were on message. Coach Kenny Atkinson said he won't veer from his personality and he knows they need to come together quickly. That will be challenging, given the roster turnover and, as Garrett Temple put it, "the hoopla of New York media." Temple, a 33-year-old guard signed in free agency, plans to do his part to fill the leadership void left by the departure of Jared Dudley, Ed Davis and DeMarre Carroll, and will stress to his teammates that it's important to stay in the moment, especially "when you're in a situation like this, where there are so many expectations that probably shouldn't be there because one guy isn't even going to be probably playing this year."
Temple has been in Brooklyn since Labor Day and said he has been encouraged by Irving's leadership in informal scrimmages and is impressed with the team's depth. This is the time of year, however, when everybody raves about their teammates. "Spencer [Dinwiddie], Caris [LeVert] and Kyrie, it's like art the way they play," forward Wilson Chandler said, extolling the virtues of having multiple playmakers, but a skeptic could argue that it will be difficult for the three of them to play together. A skeptic could also scoff at Jordan's assertion that he and Allen, who will compete for the starting center spot, will be fine with however it shakes out.
On the subject of building chemistry, Atkinson said he looks at it as a "wonderful challenge" and "the really fun part of being a coach." This is what he is supposed to say, but it's also the only useful way of thinking about it. The Nets have made major moves, and they understand that they will have more eyes on them. When they were not under such a microscope, they were able to create an identity out of thin air and, eventually, overachieve. They're dealing with different kinds of problems now, and they're not going to complain about that.
"The goal is to get to this point where you have high expectations and where you kind of have a target on your back," Harris said. "And we got to this point a little bit quicker than everybody anticipated."