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Kenyon Martin talks Nets, Kevin Durant's injury, Kyrie Irving backlash

Kenyon Martin talks Nets, Kevin Durant's injury, Kyrie Irving backlash

With the Brooklyn Nets’ win at Miami on Sunday, they have won a franchise record 18 of their last 20 games, which represents the best 20-game stretch at any point in a season in the organization's history.

Kyrie Irving is leading the Eastern Conference guards in All-Star voting, and Kevin Durant is having an MVP-level season, averaging 29.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game.

But unfortunately, last night, Durant had to exit the game in the third quarter after Jimmy Butler fell into Durant. On Monday morning, the Nets announced that he was diagnosed with an isolated MCL sprain of the right knee and that he'll be out for at least the next two weeks before being reevaluated. It's devastating news for Nets fans, as the team has been taking the league by storm for the past 20 games. 

To discuss Durant's injury, Irving's strong play and more, I sat down with Nets great and Basketball News contributor Kenyon Martin to discuss his former team. 

Etan Thomas: The Nets are on a great run. They’ve been proving a lot of people who had completely written them off wrong. How do you think they’re playing overall right now? 

Kenyon Martin: "I think they’ve been playing great. Once you get your two stars on the same page in KD and Kyrie — and they’re playing off each other and going to each other when the other one is hot and they’re healthy — they are a tough team to beat. I saw KD went down last night and I’m hearing he may be out for a few weeks, which definitely hurts, but he’ll bounce back. They’ll just have to hold down the fort until he gets back, and when he returns, they’ll take off again just like they did when Kyrie returned.

"And Kyrie is playing as free as I’ve seen him since he was with Cleveland in the Finals. It's like he’s playing with no pressure and nothing holding him back from being one of the top guards in the league. And the team is benefiting from that relief."

Etan: Let me ask you this, because I think Jacque Vaughn has done an excellent job since he’s taken over, and I don’t think it’s being talked about as much as it should be. No knock on Steve Nash because I don’t know the ins and outs of why it wasn’t working with him, but there is definitely a visible difference. Would you agree? 

Kenyon: "Let’s be honest, E — Steve Nash is a hell of a basketball player and had great athletes around him. I’ve never thought of Steve Nash as a vocal guy, never thought of him as that kind of a leader. I’ve never heard him get after anybody. I’ve never heard him put anybody in their place or call anybody out or chastise anyone who needed to be chastised. I just heard of him as a nice guy who is a great pass-first point guard who guys really enjoyed playing with. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have done a good job coaching; I just think it was a little premature to put him in that position.

"Jacque Vaughn, on the other hand, has proven that he could be a head coach down in Orlando. He just got a bad deal. But he showed that he could do all of the things that a head coach needs to do in order to be successful in this league. He’s not afraid to be honest with guys, to call guys out or to challenge guys, but still not turn into the enemy. But (he'll) be like, 'We’re in this together, but this is how we have to do things.' He wasn’t a two-time NBA MVP, he wasn’t an All-Star year-in and year-out, but he commanded a respect from the jump."

Etan: That’s very true. One person who has really stood out this season is Nic Claxton. He won’t get the praise that KD and Kyrie get of course, but he has been doing a tremendous job and is really vital to this team. 

Kenyon: "I’ve been a big fan of his since he got to the Nets. I love the energy he plays with, his effort, his motor, his athleticism, his defense, (he's a) rim protector. And when you have a guy who is surrounded by superstars, understands and embraces his role, and plays it to the best of his ability, the team is going to be successful, and that’s what he does night-in and night-out."

Etan: I always admit I do have big-man bias, and I know the game has transitioned into a more of a guards game — more people play small ball — but I’m surprised players like Dwight Howard and (DeMarcus) Boogie Cousins aren’t in the league right now. But specifically with the Nets, couldn’t they use them? Especially in the playoffs when they have to face Milwaukee or Boston, or Philly with Joel Embiid and Montrezl Harrell off the bench?

Kenyon: "I’m a big fan of both of those guys and their entire body of work. The way Boogie has adjusted his game and what people have thought of him over the years, he’s channeled the energy that people were saying was negative into his game and on-court passion, tenacity and physicality that every team needs. 

"And what Dwight brings to the table is similar to what we were talking about before with Nic Claxton. He knows his role and does it to the best of his ability. Shot-blocker, rebounder, physical play, athletic, rim-protector, and we all know he’s strong as hell. Why wouldn’t you want someone like that on your team? (Think about) what the Lakers got out of the combination of him and JaVale (McGee) a couple of years ago."

Etan: Uh huh, when they won the championship. 

Kenyon: "Yup, I just think more teams should follow that. If you don’t have a dominant Joel Embiid or a dominant (Nikola) Jokic, you need to play by committee at that position. And I think what a lot of teams are missing is exactly that. I think either one of them could be that missing piece for a lot of teams. But yes, specifically for the Nets this season."

Etan: I even wrote about it. I was surprised, going back to JaVale and Dwight, that the Lakers didn’t keep them. I’m not a GM, but If it ain’t broke and just won you a championship, don’t fix it, right?

Kenyon: "Who’d they get, Marc Gasol?"

Etan: Yeah, that’s who they got.

Kenyon: "Yeah I just have a problem with the league as a whole when you have guys that have proven what they can bring to the table, talking about Dwight and Boogie Cousins. It makes no sense for them not to be on an NBA roster right now."

Etan: Another player I’ve really been impressed with is Royce O'Neale. I don’t know if people were expecting him to play as well as he’s been playing this season. Was he a pleasant surprise for you or did you foresee that?

Kenyon: "Honestly, I thought it was a little weird of a trade at first because of the position that he plays. But you can never have enough guys that you can count on. I think Royce is a solid pro. He’s proven that he can be successful in this league and you can count on him. And here’s the thing — when players are surrounded by greatness and a role is asked of you, it should be easy for you to fill that role. You know what I mean? It shouldn’t be a hard thing for professionals to do. People can really find success on good teams by simply doing what’s asked of you."

Etan: (Laughing) Doesn’t seem like a hard concept.

Kenyon: (Laughing) "Shouldn’t be hard at all."

Etan: It’s interesting with Kyrie, because really just a few weeks ago — after the entire fiasco when he shared the documentary "From Hebrews To Negroes," got suspended, had backlash, was assigned six steps to return and everything that transpired after that — there was this loud uproar among the media and fans on social media proclaiming definitively that the Nets would be better off without Kyrie Irving, and even that he may be out the league soon.

Kenyon: (Laughing) "How crazy is that?"

Etan: It’s crazy, but that was the overall sentiment, especially from a lot of the media for a while. So he comes back and they are playing great. They go on a 5-0 winning run and Kyrie is averaging 30, then a 10-0 run, then a 14-1 run. Now, they’ve won 18 of 20 games, setting a franchise record. Kyrie’s hitting game-winners and shining, and you've seen all of those people just get quiet. None of those people have offered any retraction to their previously loud statements. They just act like they weren’t just saying the Nets were better off without him. And I’m just like, keep that same energy you had to demonize someone to also praise them when they are doing well.

Kenyon: "But the key word in what you just said is the media. Who cares what the media says? I took all that criticism and uproar and outrage the media had as all performative. They were just putting on a show and jumping on a bandwagon, which many of them get paid to do. I didn’t buy into any of that. It’s not like he wrote the book or made the doc. He said he didn’t agree with all of it and was sharing it for the information. But if those media people who were saying the Nets were better off without Kyrie don’t know how special of a player he is — aside from the documentary and whatever else — then they don’t need to be writing or commenting on anything.

"It’s like a fumble in football. Everybody in the media, fans (and) social media started jumping on top of the dog pile, and Kyrie emerged from the bottom of the pile carrying the football and holding it high in the air for everyone to see. The backlash didn’t break him. The team still needs Kyrie Irving. They wouldn’t be where they are without him. And if anybody thought the Nets didn’t need him, they just don’t know the game."

Etan: I hear you, but the piling on just bothered me. I was like... y’all are making him out to be Hitler himself. He specifically said, like you mentioned earlier, "I don’t agree with everything in this documentary, I’m sharing it for the information, I don’t hate anyone, I respect all religions." And they wanted to make him Public Enemy No. 1. and the face of antisemitism.

Kenyon: "Yeah, that’s exactly what they tried to do, but it didn’t work because that’s not who he is and (he) has never been that. You can’t make someone be something they’re not, and that’s not who he is."

Etan: But what was really bothering me is that I was seeing a lot of media people who look like me and you literally running to jump on that bandwagon and bashing him the most. That really bothered me.

Kenyon: "One-thousand percent. That bothered me as well seeing that because that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. And we’re talking about Black media who are in high positions."

Etan: Yes, the ones you see if you turn on ESPN or FOX Sports or HBO Sports or the main Black sports journalists. And I don’t have to single anyone out in particular because they all were doing that. It was really disappointing to see.

Kenyon: "For them to do that... I know you don’t want to call names and I’ll respect your platform, but some of them are some high paid."

Etan: Don’t even say it.

Kenyon: (Laughing) "I won’t say it but you know what I’m thinking." (laughing)

Etan: (Laughing) Yes I do.

Kenyon: "And the guy you expected to join the piling on actually took up for Kyrie — talking about Jason Whitlock."

Etan: Him and Candace Owens did. How crazy is that? It was like we were in the Twilight Zone.

Kenyon: "They usually can’t wait to say something negative about a Black athlete, or a Black person or the entire Black community."

Etan: They made an entire career out of it.

Kenyon: "Absolutely, and they are where they are because of that."

Etan: One-hundred percent.

Kenyon: "So yeah, I’m with you, it was definitely disappointing to see the piling on from Black media people in particular on the platforms they have and not one guy said something even remotely in this man’s corner. They were calling for his career."

Etan: And very loudly too. Jay Williams did say something, so shout out to him.

Kenyon: "Yeah that’s right he did, but he was the only one, at least that I saw. But let me say
this — you’ve done a great job in providing perspective on this whole topic. I’ve been following everything you posted. The interview with your guy from your show (Dave Zirin), you sat down with a Rabbi, you had the convo with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges. Even how you wrote about Nike after they dropped him.

"That’s why what you do is important, for that very reason of what we saw all the other media do with the piling on and one-sided bashing. You actually had discussions about it."

Etan: Thanks. Well, shout out to Basketball News for giving me the flexibility to cover different aspects of this topic in different ways. Most platforms wouldn’t have allowed that. They would’ve shut all that down. 

Kenyon: "Censorship is crazy. Not even to have a discussion?"

Etan: Sometimes, media platforms want you to follow a script and you have to stick to the talking points. And with this, the script was: Bash Kyrie, label him antisemitic, denounce, condemn and bash some more. 

Kenyon: "That’s just wrong, but I’m happy that Kyrie can put all of that behind him and the team’s playing well, and he’s rolling and being the Kyrie we all know him to be on the court. And you have to give a shout out to his teammates, who also didn’t buy into all of the bashing and the talk of them being better without Kyrie. Because if you saw, they were trying to get them to co-sign that, but none of them did. They didn’t say a bad word about Kyrie, and that’s also a reason why they are playing so well right now. Because that kind of stuff can ruin the entire chemistry of a team if you let the outside noise seep into the locker room."

Etan: That’s a great point. Last question: The Nets are playing really well, clicking on all cylinders and they have a rhythm with each other. They also have so many weapons we didn’t even talk about like Seth Curry, Joe Harris, Ben Simmons, Yuta Watanabe and TJ Warren. How well can the Nets do this season? 

Kenyon: "I would like to see them go out and get another big because you might have to play Philly. I love Nic Claxton, but dealing with Embiid by yourself for a whole playoff series is a lot to ask. But other than that, they have enough shooting, enough playmakers — they have a solid shot, they are definitely a contender. (It's about) learning how to win now, and win consistently like they have been doing — close games, ugly games, games where your main people are off because everything isn’t going to be clicking every game. But still finding ways to win consistently, they are really preparing themselves for a very good playoff season."

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