Paul Pierce remembers suffering in the heat, that blistering Las Vegas sun, to help the deal come together. Fifteen years earlier, almost to the day, Pierce had walked across a stage in Vancouver as a baby-faced 20-year-old swingman out of Kansas. He shook commissioner David Stern's hand and began a career with the Celtics during which he would score 24,021 points (second most in franchise history), dish out 4,305 assists (fourth) and—most important—lead Boston to the 2008 championship as Finals MVP. Now, he was moving on. The Celtics were rebuilding, and they were ready to trade Pierce to Brooklyn. Hours earlier Pierce had spoken on the phone with the Nets' new coach, Jason Kidd, and with the team's star, point guard Deron Williams. They each told him how much they wanted him, how they felt he could help them win a title. And oh, by the way, they said, could you get Kevin Garnett to come too?
The deal had already been struck: Garnett, Pierce, guard Jason (Jet) Terry and forward D.J. White to Brooklyn for Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Gerald Wallace, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph and three first-round picks. But Garnett had a no-trade clause, and he seemed unwilling to waive it. On draft night, inside the Nets' war room, general manager Billy King huddled with Kidd and Williams. "You guys have to make this happen," King told them. "The ball is in your court."
Immediately Kidd and Williams fired off texts. Kidd, a teammate of Garnett's on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, got little out of him. Williams, even less. Beloved by teammates, Garnett keeps his distance from opponents. "He didn't know me like that," Williams says. Still, Williams tried. It would be an honor to play with you, he texted. Yup, Garnett texted back. If you, Paul and Jet are here, we have got a great chance to win a championship, wrote Williams. OK, Garnett replied. "I said what I needed to say," says Williams. "But I don't think I was making any difference."
But Pierce knew KG. "You could put a bag filled with $10 million in front of Kevin, and his first reaction is going to be no," says Pierce. "He just doesn't like change." Pierce had seen this before, in the summer of 2007. The Timberwolves were coming off a 32-win season and preparing to start over. They cut a deal that would send their franchise player, Garnett, to Boston. Garnett didn't want to go. It was only after two of his closest friends, Chauncey Billups and Tyronn Lue, sat in his living room and told him that going to the Celtics was best for his career that Garnett finally relented, a decision that helped him earn his only ring. Six years later Boston was ready to send him to another contender. Again, Garnett was hesitant. "People don't know how close Kevin was to retirement," says Pierce. "He was going to go home [to Malibu]. Boston was his last stop. He was going to play with us, and that was going to be it."
If anyone could persuade Garnett to agree, Pierce reasoned, it would be him. So he stepped out of his friend's air-conditioned living room onto the scorched grass of the backyard and punched in Garnett's number. For half an hour they hashed it out. Pierce emphasized that Rivers was gone, to the Clippers, and that he would be leaving Boston too. "You're not going to the Clippers; you are not going to San Antonio," Pierce told him. "This is the best fit." Garnett hung up to take another call. A few minutes later he called back. For another 30 minutes a sweat-soaked Pierce hammered home to Garnett that this opportunity was too good to pass up. "We talked about how there wouldn't be as much pressure on him in Brooklyn," says Pierce. "He would have another big man [Brook Lopez] to play with. He would have a coach he was comfortable with. He would have Jet and me to play with." Finally, Garnett let out a deep sigh.
"So, Brooklyn, huh?" Garnett said.
"That's when I knew I had him," says Pierce. "I must have lost five pounds during that conversation. But it got the job done."
On July 18, Pierce, Garnett and Terry were introduced at a press conference at the Barclays Center. Between them they had 24 All-Star appearances, 360 playoff games and three NBA championships—along with salaries that will swell the Nets' payroll to a league-high $102 million and trigger a luxury tax penalty of $87 million. To their right King smiled, even as he saw two futures flashing in front of him. Would their arrival result in a parade down Flatbush Avenue or set the franchise back for years to come?
Early last June, Kidd blended into the crowd at a wedding in Sea Island, Ga., watching a friend's daughter begin her future while he pondered his own. Kidd had two years and $6.2 million remaining on his contract with the Knicks, who wanted him to return. At 40, Kidd wasn't so sure. He was coming off a season in which he had played more minutes (26.9 per game) than he had wanted and a postseason in which he couldn't have shot the ball much worse (12.0%). That weekend Kidd told his agent, Jeff Schwartz, that his playmaking days were over. "He tried to talk me out of it," says Kidd. "He said, 'You have more left in the tank.' I just told him, 'I know this car. It's on empty.'"
Kidd, though, wasn't ready to just walk away. Toward the end of his four full seasons with the Mavericks, Kidd began to contemplate his post-playing future. He quizzed president of basketball operations and GM Donnie Nelson about being an executive. He dined with the coaches on the road, picking their brains about the profession. At one dinner Mavs assistant Dwane Casey suggested Kidd take one of the tablets the coaches used to study film. "He's a basketball savant," says Casey. "We had a saying on our staff, 'You got to sell it to Jason.' Before we made any changes, we made sure Jason was on board with them."
Kidd wanted to try coaching, so he asked Schwartz to make some calls. Several teams had vacancies, but Kidd wanted Schwartz to start with the Nets, the franchise he had transformed from laughingstock to back-to-back NBA Finalist in the early 2000s.
Kidd, though, was not on Brooklyn's radar. The Nets were coming off a disappointing first-round exit, and King wanted a seasoned coach. Phil Jackson was his first choice, but Jackson wasn't interested. Next was Brian Shaw, Jackson's former top lieutenant who had drawn rave reviews as a Pacers assistant. When Schwartz called King, the answer was, "Absolutely not." Says King, "I loved Jason, and I thought he is one of the brightest players and a natural-born leader. But he had no experience." Later King ran Kidd's name past Dmitry Razumov, a Nets partner, and was surprised to learn of support for Kidd. So when Schwartz called again, King agreed to a meeting. "I figured, Why not?" says King. "But he still wasn't high on my list."
For nearly three hours Kidd made his pitch, which stunned King with its level of detail. Kidd broke down specific games and presented what he would have done differently. He talked about the need for more ball movement. He talked about the need for Williams to dribble less and pass more. He talked about the need to not just build a winning team but also a winning culture, like the ones in San Antonio and Miami. As King listened, he couldn't help but think of another coach he had worked with. "He reminded me of Larry Brown," says King. "Move the ball, defend, play the right way."
King was impressed, but there was one other person he wanted to hear from: Mike Krzyzewski, King's mentor at Duke, who had coached Kidd with USA Basketball. Krzyzewski gave Kidd a strong endorsement and offered some advice. "He said, 'Don't limit him by asking him to be a traditional coach,'" says King. "That's not what he is. You have to let him let his instincts guide him. He may not have experience, but in critical situations he'll know what to do." Casey, now the Raptors' coach, knows what Krzyzewski means: "Jason has a sixth sense about how to counter situations. Late in games he always has a tweak or something profound to say."
Kidd understands that on a team loaded with stars, he is potentially its biggest liability. "Jason has been able to control things his whole career because he had the ball in his hands," says Pacers assistant Nate McMillan, who took over the Sonics in 2000 after just two years as an assistant. "It's a different feeling preparing players to do that." Kidd used the off-season to absorb information from every possible source. He spent the weekend with Mavs coach Rick Carlisle in Pine Valley, N.J. He talked to Frank Johnson, John Lucas, Mark Jackson and Larry Bird. Kidd says his philosophy will blend the approaches of the men he played for. The creativity of Dick Motta, who was the architect of innovative offensive sets. The attention to detail of Scott Skiles. The efficiency of Carlisle. Even before Kidd signed with Brooklyn, he aggressively pursued and then hired Lawrence Frank, his former coach with the Nets, to be his top assistant.
Unlike most first-year coaches, Kidd isn't expected to develop talent, but rather to make full use of a surplus of it. Every starter has averaged 20 points at some point in his career, and top reserves Terry, forward Andrei Kirilenko and big man Andray Blatche averaged double figures last season. The Nets want to attack early in the offense, then play through their collection of skilled post players when the game slows down. "My job is to put these guys in a position to be successful," says Kidd. "Our model—and this applies to me too—is that we have no excuses."
It's early October, and Williams is leaning back in a folding chair, watching his teammates work out. It's all Williams can do these days; a lingering sprained right ankle has limited him in practice. But from the sideline he has noticed a difference from last season. "Mentally, we were soft," says Williams. "We lacked something. This year, we've got it." Williams recalled one practice when Kidd ordered the 6'11" Garnett to take a breather. Garnett refused. Kidd asked him again. Finally, Garnett walked off ... only to continue doing the drill alone, imagining a defender in front of him, running the full length of the floor. "That's Kevin," says Rivers. "When I thought he needed rest, I'd have to threaten to call off practice to get him off."
As much as the Nets want Garnett and Pierce's production, they need the intensity that comes with it more. King remembers seething in his seat while watching 5'9" Nate Robinson glide down the lane for layups in the Bulls' Game 7 victory last May.
Perhaps the most persistent concern is what Garnett, 37, and Pierce, 36, have left, a question that was raised after the Celtics also lost in the first round last spring. "Don't read too much into that," says Rivers. "When [Rajon] Rondo went down, we asked them to do too much. They went from trying to mesh into the team to having to carry it again. But Paul can play forever; he never uses his athleticism. And Kevin—as long as you watch his minutes—can still be Kevin Garnett." In Brooklyn, Garnett will move back to power forward and play alongside an All-Star center in Lopez. Pierce will share the perimeter scoring with Joe Johnson and defer the toughest defensive assignments to Kirilenko. And they will have Williams, a two-time All-NBA second-team point guard, getting them the ball. Says Garnett, "I'm fascinated with being on a team with so much talent."
The Nets paint a rosy picture of the future—of a team that can use Prokhorov's money to buy draft picks and that will be under the cap in 2016, when, perhaps not coincidentally, Kevin Durant will be a free agent. But a middle-of-the-pack finish would be disastrous. When Garnett addressed the media on the opening day of camp, he was asked why he agreed to the trade. "To get another ring," Garnett said. He paused. "That's the only reason."
"PEOPLE DON'T KNOW HOW CLOSE KEVIN WAS TO RETIREMENT," SAYS PIERCE. "HE WAS GOING TO GO HOME. BOSTON WAS HIS LAST STOP. HE WAS GOING TO PLAY WITH US, AND THAT WAS GOING TO BE IT."
For the latest news and to read Chris Mannix's Big Board on the 2014 NBA draft, follow @ChrisMannixSI on Twitter or go to SI.com/NBA, where you'll also find SI's All-NBA preseason teams.
Photographs by NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/ NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
YOU'RE GONNA HEAR US ROAR The Nets are counting on Garnett (near right) and Pierce to continue to produce at All-Star levels, but even more crucial to their chances is the intensity they bring on every play.
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Every starter for Brooklyn, including Pierce (34) and Garnett (2), has averaged 20 points during his career.
HEINZ KLUETMEIER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WINNING INSTINCT Kidd (far right) has what Casey calls a "sixth sense" for handling late-game situations, and with clutch performers like Pierce, he has the talent to carry out his vision.