‘That’s the Tim Duncan part’: Why the Nets believe Mikal Bridges is the answer to their failed superteam experiment
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Nick FriedellESPN Staff Writer
- Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.
IT’S A LITTLE after 1 o’clock in the morning on Thursday, Feb. 9, and Mikal Bridges, the talented swingman from the Phoenix Suns, is awake inside the Four Seasons hotel in Atlanta. The trade deadline is 14 hours away.
For months, Bridges has known that if the Suns swung a deal with the Brooklyn Nets for superstar Kevin Durant, he would likely be in it. His phone buzzes. It’s Phoenix guard Damion Lee on FaceTime. He breaks the news that Bridges, Cameron Johnson, Jae Crowder and a haul of first-round draft picks are headed to Brooklyn.
“I looked it up on Twitter,” Bridges told ESPN. “And then my agents called and then Cam called.”
Johnson is Bridges’ best friend on the Suns. The pair had grown so close since Johnson entered the league in 2019, a year after Bridges, that Suns center DeAndre Ayton nicknamed them “Twins” because they do almost everything together.
“I call him first,” Johnson told ESPN. “And he answers. He’s like, ‘Bro!’ I’m like, ‘I’m on the 16th floor. Come up to the 16th floor.'”
The deal certainly doesn’t come as a shock to Bridges or Johnson. There had been so many rumors, for so many months, that the teammates had started making jokes about the situation.
The news begins to filter through the Suns’ roster. Across the 16th floor, Suns forward Ish Wainright pokes his head out of his room. Then guard Saben Lee. Then Damion Lee.
“I’m in the hallway, and this is like 1 a.m., so everybody’s in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s ready for bed, and now everybody’s in the hallway. And then he comes through the elevator, so we’re already all in the hallway.”
As the Twins process the news, they do so as members of the Suns’ front office try desperately to reach coach Monty Williams, who had gone to sleep hours before.
When Williams wakes up a couple hours after the deal is done, he has dozens of missed calls and texts. As he begins to scroll, he realizes what has transpired. Bridges and Johnson had become family to him — and now they were gone. “If I was going to lose Cam and Mikal, it better be for Kevin,” Williams told ESPN. “You know what I mean? It’s like you’re crying in one eye and then the other eye is kind of bright.”
“That’s the only time in my coaching that I’ve cried [after a trade],” he said.
It is a scene out of a basketball summer camp — and a metaphor. A man reluctantly thrust into the nucleus of an organization. On his way out of Phoenix. And, now, on his way into Brooklyn.
The emotions of the deal hit the Suns organization hard. Williams cancels shootaround the next morning as the group processes the finality of it all.
“None of us went back to bed that night,” Williams said. “I called Mikal, I called Cam, and they had been up with the players.”
Nine hundred miles away, Nets general manager Sean Marks has already come to his own realization. Almost four years after landing Kyrie Irving and Durant, instantly transforming the franchise into a championship contender, the reality hits that this iteration of the team will not cross that finish line.
Sitting in the Nets’ practice facility, Marks reflects on the failed experiment — one every other front office likely would’ve done — and the moves to make it right again. That begins with Bridges, a player the franchise believes can serve as the foundation of its rebuild, and a man to calm the yearslong turbulence that has come to define the organization.
“We knew the end of an era was upon us,” Marks told ESPN. “When Kyrie had already moved, the discussions with Phoenix heated up and it became real, like ‘All right, well, there’s a shift happening here, right? Are we resetting, retooling, rebuilding?’
“We were able to come to terms with that knowing that the package we were getting back in return was something that has a clear pathway. We’ve never sort of had a group of young guys before that were under contract, proven, healthy and you can see a pathway of, ‘Hey, I can see what this may look like in two, three years from now.’ … Not just Mikal but all of them, where do they all take their games to? Who’s the next person that takes that leap?”
The answer, so far, is abundantly clear: So clear that Marks flatly admits the deal wouldn’t have gotten done without Bridges.
“The simple answer is no,” Marks said. “Clearly, no.”
IT’S APRIL 15 in Philadelphia, and inside a raucous Wells Fargo Center the Nets are hanging with MVP favorite Joel Embiid and the 76ers in Game 1 of their first-round series. With the No. 6 Nets trailing the third-seeded Sixers 61-53 with 1:22 left in the second quarter, Bridges dribbles the ball past half court as Nets big man Day’Ron Sharpe sets a screen on Sixers swingman Tobias Harris.
Current Net Bridges, now one-on-one against former Net James Harden, surveys the landscape before dribbling through his legs and beginning his drive. With a step on Harden, Bridges takes two more aggressive dribbles, getting to the rim as Sixers backup big man Paul Reed tries to cut off Bridges’ lane. The effort is futile.
Bridges leaps into the air and skies over Reed, shifting the ball midair to his left hand for a ferocious throwdown. Several Nets teammates and coaches jump out of their seats in jubilation at the electric moment — one that simultaneously awes and quiets the Philadelphia crowd.
The play takes a grand total of seven seconds, but it is an encapsulation of the Nets’ new reality. Here is a talented player, a 26-year-old many across the league believe will turn into an All-Star as soon as next season, shining brightly on the game’s biggest stage. Bridges finishes the game with 30 points on 12-for-18 from the field in 34 minutes.
But the young Nets fade down the stretch to the more talented and experienced Sixers and lose 121-101, the gap between where the Nets are as a team and where they used to be — with more established stars — clearer than ever.
It’s an important lesson for Bridges — that for as lean as the coming months and years might be, his organizational support won’t be.
“I don’t know that he knows how good he is and how good he can be,” Marks said. “I know he wants to be great, and he’s going to have an opportunity to prove it.”
THE NETS’ LOCKER room is almost futuristic in its construction. Tucked to the right in a long hallway inside Barclays Center, sleek white locker stalls, each adorned with individualized LED lighting, form the perimeter of the square-shaped room. Joe Harris has seen all the highs and lows inside these walls. The veteran guard is the longest-tenured Net, having been with the organization for seven years. He has seen players of all levels come and go. He isn’t surprised Bridges has fit into the group so quickly.
“Obviously an incredible player, but just the fact that he’s down-to-earth, humble, engaging guy,” Harris told ESPN. “The first time he comes into the facility, he’s just going up, introducing himself to everybody. Obviously, it’s small stuff that you would think that everybody does, but it sometimes is not the reality.”
Josh Hart, for his part, has known that for a long time. The new Knicks guard played with Bridges at Villanova, helping the Wildcats win a national championship in 2016.
“He’s just a great culture guy,” Hart told ESPN. “He plays both sides of the ball. He’s a team-first guy. He wants to win. He’s definitely someone you want to play with.”
Says new teammate Dorian Finney-Smith: “When you got a guy who’s putting up 30 points and he’s always the happiest guy around, it’s contagious.”
After four-and-a-half years coaching Bridges in Phoenix, Williams knows the Suns will miss him almost as much off the floor as they will on it.
The longtime coach is sitting on a black chair on the side of the Suns’ practice floor. He recalls a scene that he says played out many times with Durant during the pair’s time with the Oklahoma City Thunder: hearing repeated knocks at his office door from Durant himself, hours before the rest of his teammates would arrive in the building.
“It’s amazing how much those guys are alike. We’d have practice at 11 and Kevin was on the floor at 8, 8:30, full sweat. I’m in the coaches’ meeting. [Knock, knock, knock] ‘Coach, hurry up!’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m in the meeting, man. I’m trying to get ready for the game, man.’ Mikal’s the same way.”
If Bridges seems too good to be true, know that Marks is still coming to grips with all of it, too. One of the reasons the Nets were so insistent on acquiring him was because he was an antidote to what ailed them — and to what derailed them entirely. Bridges is at the center of the new team DNA they wanted to create.
“We had done our due diligence and thought, ‘This is amazing what I’m hearing about him. Terrific,'” Marks said. “And he comes into your building and you go, ‘It’s better than I thought.’ I watch his interactions — not only his interactions with me — I watch his interactions with the ball boys. I watch his interactions with people who can do absolutely nothing for him. And that speaks volumes about who this person is.”
THE NETS’ PRACTICE facility resides on the eighth floor of an otherwise ordinary office building in Brooklyn. It’s six weeks after the trade, and Bridges is sitting alone on a chair just off the court, expansive views of the Manhattan skyline and New York Bay in the distance.
Located in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, the HSS Training Center, which opened in 2016 and cost $45 million, has some of the best views in the league. Bridges gazes through the wall of windows at the shining skyline a few miles away. He knows this is a completely different Nets team. And he knows there’s a massive difference between being a guy and being the guy.
“Just a little bit more responsibility,” Bridges told ESPN. “On offense, mainly. Being that guy. Having the ball out, making the right decision pretty much every time.”
Bridges, who averaged 17.2 points last season in Phoenix and is averaging 13.1 points a game for his career — has exploded for 26.1 points over 27 regular-season games for the Nets. During the span, the Nets were 12-15.
Marks says it — the rebuild, the cultural shift, everything — starts with a belief, one he has in Bridges.
“You can’t be afraid,” Marks said. “And he’s not afraid. We’ve seen him take the last shot; we’ve seen him say, ‘Hey, I’ve got him. I’m gonna guard that player on the opposing team.’ So he’s taken on that responsibility, hasn’t shied away from it.
“When you take on a higher load and you are maybe the focus or the focal point, you’re going to get the other team’s best unit, best defender, whatever it may be. They’re going to be narrowed in on you, zeroed in on you. I think it starts with a belief, and I think he certainly believes he can get there.”
Still, Bridges said he’s adjusting to the new role.
“I still don’t go into it as ‘my team’ or anything like that,” he said. “It’s just who I am. It’s just, you need all guys, all five — and everyone on the bench — just to play together.”
To those who have known Bridges the longest, the leap Bridges is taking, and the belief his new team has in him, doesn’t come as a surprise.
“That’s something that I think a lot of people saw before,” Hart said. “Obviously, the NBA’s situational and he couldn’t have that role in Phoenix because obviously they had CP[[Chris Paul]and DBook[[Devin Booker]and those are two All-Star guards, so now with him given the opportunity, he’s just showing what he’s always been capable of.”
Says Marks: “He’s almost that glue guy. You usually phrase glue guys as guys who don’t play a whole lot but they bring intangibles, whereas he’s actually a guy that can carry the load.”
Down 2-0 to the 76ers, Williams knows what Bridges’ next step could be. He has seen it with Durant, with Paul, with Booker.
“I think when you start to complete your game the way that he has, like he can score on every level,” Williams said. “He’s got a post-up game, he’s got a floater now, catch shot, off the dribble, I think the improvement comes with the experience. Now, can you take your game and do it in this situation? Can you take your team to the playoffs? Can you get in the playoffs and do it there? Can you do it in the second round? That’s where he is now.”
TO FULLY UNDERSTAND the belief the Nets have in Bridges, it’s important to recall even a fraction of the dizzying stretch that preceded his arrival.
In January 2021, Irving took an unexplained leave of absence from the team, during which time he violated the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols and was fined $50,000. Then, before the 2021-22 season began, Irving confirmed he’s unvaccinated, making him ineligible to play in New York City because of the city’s vaccination requirements. Three months later, on Dec. 17, the team reversed course on its commitment to ban Irving from play, due in large part to the fact that the team was decimated from a teamwide COVID outbreak and Durant was playing heavy minutes. Irving would be allowed to play part-time, on the road.
The next day, Irving entered health and safety protocols, as did Durant, joining eight other Nets players on the roster sitting out because of the outbreak.
A month later, in Brooklyn, Durant sprained the MCL in his left knee, sidelining him for six weeks. After Durant’s injury, and increasingly frustrated by Irving’s inability to play at home, Harden ultimately pushed for a trade to the 76ers.
Brooklyn acquiesced, acquiring Ben Simmons, who didn’t play for the rest of the season. The Nets, once thought to be title favorites, were swept in the first round by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.
Then, the summer and fall of 2022: which featured trade requests, rescinded requests, dismissals and an uproar that led to protests in the streets.
First Irving flirted with the possibility of sign-and-trades, only to pick up his player option for $36 million. Then Durant requested a trade just before the beginning of free agency in June, only to pull it back in August. Then, after a shaky 2-5 start to the season, the organization decided to part ways with coach Steve Nash. Then, in late October, Irving posted links on social media to a movie and book with antisemitic themes. After failing to formally apologize in two news conferences, and failing to say he wasn’t antisemitic, Irving was suspended by the Nets for what eventually became eight games.
After Irving formally apologized for his posts and returned Nov. 20, the Nets rattled off 20 wins in 24 games and vaulted themselves back to the top of the East. But another Durant knee injury, this time on Jan. 8 in Miami, this time a sprained MCL in his right knee, altered the course of the organization for the second year in a row.
Less than four weeks later, after openly speaking about the championship aspirations he still had for Brooklyn, Irving requested a trade. Five days after that, Durant was traded to Phoenix — and the Nets’ superstar era had come to its merciful end, a series of cascading what-ifs serving as its only eulogy.
Marks, sitting near one of the baskets at the practice facility, considers what he has learned most from the past two years of Brooklyn basketball.
He pauses. “Probably for a book at some point, right?” he says, laughing.
“I think I learned a lot about myself,” Marks said after another short pause. “We can’t ever forget it’s a team sport. And one player can make or break you in either way. You can all of a sudden go ‘Wow, we got this guy, he’s going to take us to a championship level.’ But, at the same time, maybe it doesn’t fit. Maybe this environment isn’t the right one. So you got to do your due diligence, but you have to be willing to have honest conversations, and truth be told — I’ve looked in the mirror and gone, ‘Hey look, I was wrong. I overlooked that. I didn’t see that. Or I should have listened to this particular player.’ That’s why we collaborate the way we do.”
Talk to NBA personnel who have come into Bridges’ orbit and they believe he is just the player to shepherd the Nets through the post-superstar era, rebuilding a culture that was once the envy of the league.
“That’s the Tim Duncan part,” Williams said. “Tim was like that. The best player on the team, but connected with everybody. And I think part of it with Tim was he never made himself feel or put himself in a position where he was above anything. Whatever the team was doing, he was gonna do it. If everybody got coached, Tim was gonna get coached.
“And Mikal has that. He does everything he’s supposed to and more, and I think it endears him to the whole organization .”
BRIDGES, FOR HIS part, didn’t believe he would be in this position.
“I didn’t think I would have to become a go-to, go-to guy this quick,” he said. “Phoenix, obviously [Devin] Book was going to be there. … Usually I’m not a guy — I was always allergic to getting kind of 30. I was always like the mid-20s, high 20s, even if I was a go-to guy, it was just how I was.”
Caris LeVert was a mainstay of the prior administration — a glue guy on a Nets team full of them, with Jarrett Allen, DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley, just to name a few.
Now in Cleveland, a casualty of the Nets’ superstar roster construction, he watches his old team from a distance.
“Obviously they went through some turmoil with the guys they brought in,” LeVert said, walking down the visitors’ tunnel in Barclays. “They had ups and downs like any other team has, but I feel like they’re in a place now where they’re kind of like where they started at, with a good core of guys, good culture guys, that you kind of build around.
Says Marks: “We can never be in a hurry to make a trade or make an acquisition, just because it may sound good.”
As the longest-tenured veteran of a Nets locker room once in turmoil but now in transition, Harris says he has never seen a player come to a new team — and become the face of that team — so quickly.
“The level of player that he is, he’s earned the right to be in that position,” Harris says. “But on the other side of it too, just the type of guy that he is — for me, I’ve been in the NBA for nine years and I’ve had a lot of teammates and a lot of people come through here. That’s like the type of guy that you want to be that person. When your best player, or the person you’re looking to be sort of that franchise-type guy, is that personality type, it just makes life a lot easier and better for everybody involved.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.