TThe Brooklyn Nets began this season as the favorites of many experts to reach the NBA Finals of the Eastern Conference. Instead, they were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. The only thing left now is to try to figure out what went wrong in Brooklyn.
James Harden trade
The Nets started this season with a Big Three: a theoretically healthy Kevin Durant, a theoretical on the field Kyrie Irving and a one-time NBA MVP in James Harden, which was acquired the previous January in a trade with the Houston Rockets. It was a high-risk move to bring these talented veterans together as they had all fallen out with their previous franchise.
To no one’s shock, the trio did not hold out, and it was Harden who traveled. With their options limited to gaining a potential impact on the All-Star in a Harden deal, they arranged a prey deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, bringing them back, the hugely gifted, defensive first great man Ben Simmons.
The Nets’ bet was based on the idea that Simmons only stopped playing because his relationship with the Sixers had disintegrated after his infamous offensive collapse during last year’s playoffs. As it turns out, it was more than that: Simmons’ absence was due to both physical and mental health issues that ultimately prevented him from playing a single minute in Brooklyn this season.
Yes, in the long run, the Nets may have something in the Simmons acquisition. That said, Brooklyn’s chances of success this year hurt being forced to sign the Harden deal and settle with this particular return.
The main reason Harden was tired of his situation in Brooklyn? Well, it could not help that he was dealing with the endless circus that was Irving’s fight with New York City. It turns out that New York’s Covid-19 restrictions meant unvaccinated players could not play home games at the Barclays Center, making it impossible for Irving to play in Brooklyn for much of the regular season. In many crucial matches, Irving was a spectator.
Lots of other players – despite their personal convictions – would simply have gotten the vaccine, especially when it hurt their team’s chances of winning a championship. After all, a committed Irving is one of the most dangerous players in the entire league.
Irving, for his own reasons, refused to make such a sacrifice for his teammates. If you’re wondering if this could have been the reason Harden eventually forced himself out of town, well, that’s conventional wisdom, though there has never been a confirmation from Harden himself. One man who, however, thinks the problem affected the season is Kyrie Irving. “I think [my vaccine status] became a distraction at times, ”the point guard said after Monday’s loss to the Celtics. “And as you can see, we’ve just had some drastic changes.”
Kevin Durant was injured
So the Nets were without Irving in many games, Harden was in Philadelphia and Simmons was on the bench. It was entirely up to Durant to help carry a large portion of the team’s burdens. Unfortunately, Durant suffered an MCL injury on January 15 and was missing for over a month and a half (KD was not the only Nets player to miss time, Joe Harris’ season was ruined by an ankle injury).
When Durant returned, he was forced into use to pull the Nets into seventh place, requiring them to win a play-in match just to get into the playoffs. When the playoffs started, Durant began to feel the effects of the heavy minutes he played near the end of the regular season.
That’s not a complete excuse for his early games against Boston – especially since the Celtics lacked starting center Robert Williams in the first two games of the series – but that could not have helped. He scored 39 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in Game 4, but at that point he was running empty.
The Nets have a habit of hiring mascots instead of head coaches: let’s not forget that they picked up Jason Kidd just the season after he retired as a player. So it was not shocking that they handed over Hall of Famer Steve Nash the keys to the team in September 2020, even though he had never even been an NBA assistant coach before.
Nets players supported Nash Monday night, after their season ended, but at times during that celebration, Nash looked more like a babysitter than a coach. With his team down 2-0 and facing a decisive match 3, Nash seemed allergic to calling timeouts and designing games, hoping his vets would stumble into the right approach on their own. Most of the time they did not.
After Nash’s appointment, Irving famously responded to the news with a joy: “I do not really see that we have a ‘head’ coach.” Perhaps not the most polite statement in the world, but Nash did little to prove his point guard made a mistake this post-season.
Still, it’s hard to know what Nash could have done given how thoroughly the Celtics played out his team. While the dysfunction in Brooklyn has caught the headlines, Boston should have been favored from the start.
After stumbling through the first half of the season with first-time head coach Ime Udoka, still learning on the job after an impressive internship under Gregg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs and Nash himself at the Nets, the team got healthy, Udoka got into his own and the Celtics found finally their identity.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown learned to play with each other again. After being promoted to the starting point guard, Marcus Smart emerged as the defender of the year in the NBA… and the rest of his team was not far behind. The Celtics were the best defensive team in the league in the second half of the regular season, and there were no loops at the offensive end either. When the Celtics got the chance to fight in the final game of the season and avoid meeting Durant and Irving in the first round of the playoffs, the Celtics played at full strength against a Memphis Grizzlies B team to snatch the East’s second seed.
They took up the challenge because they knew they could beat the Nets on their own terms. By betting on themselves, the Celtics not only avenged their loss to the Nets in last year’s playoffs, but they may also have sent the entire Brooklyn organization back to the drawing board.