The game was over, and the crowd at the Barclays Center shouted “MVP.” Fans wore NBA jerseys in all the team colors, and their star raised his arms to acknowledge their praise.
But Kyrie Irving was already on her way to the locker room. It was Kevin Durant too. Ben Simmons was not even in the building. This was not a party for the Nets, who play their home games here. It was for the Boston Celtics, for their star Jayson Tatum and for the team that had just accomplished a once unthinkable feat: a four-game sweep of the Nets in the first round of the playoffs. The Nets super team that the Celtics faced, built around Irving and Durant to win a championship in June, did not even reach May.
It was a sad scene to end a season that started with high expectations in October. The Nets had three of the best players on the planet, a cast of characters that were the NBA’s version of “Ocean’s Eleven.” Team leaders around the league feared them. In fact, 72 percent of the league’s general managers predicted in a preseason poll from NBA.com that the Nets would win the title. The Los Angeles Lakers finished in second place with 17 percent of the vote, proving that no one knew much of anything: the Lakers did not reach the playoffs at all.
But when the season started, there was a big question: What could prevent the two teams from meeting in the NBA Finals? Who else but LeBron James could possibly prevent Durant from delivering the Nets their first NBA title? And who besides Durant could stop James’s march to a fifth championship?
It turned out that a lot would get in the way.
The Nets and Lakers failed – spectacularly – to create successful super teams, even though the failures had different roots. For Nets, it was a mixture of the absurd: a star who would not be vaccinated against coronavirus; another star who wanted out after forcing his way to the Nets in the first place; a replacement star who did not even show up for the elimination match.
For the Lakers, it was pure Hollywood: an aging former All-Star who wanted the ball for himself when his coach wanted him to share; a crew of has-beens hoping for one last hurray; The A-list star tries to carry the team but is unable to do so as he had done so many times before. Young opponents openly laughed at them and rejoiced at speeding up their deaths.
The Nets also had their critics.
“I know so many people wanted to see us fail at this point, chose us as competitors and have so much to say at this point,” Irving said after Monday’s season finale loss, “so I’m just using it as fuel for this summer. “
In Brooklyn, there were problems from the start. Irving refused to be vaccinated against coronavirus. And because of New York City ordinances that required most individuals to be at least partially vaccinated to enter facilities such as sports arenas, Nets Irving gave an ultimatum: Get shot, or stay home. Irving chose to stay home. The season started without him.
In mid-December, the Nets gave up when they allowed Irving to join them again as a part-time employee for most road games. In one twist, they needed him, they said, because of the coronavirus itself: Seven of their players had been kept out of a fight against the Orlando Magic because they had entered the NBA’s Covid-19 health and safety protocols, leaving behind team short. -handed. The Nets had also lost Joe Harris, one of their best outside shooters, to an ankle injury.
Just a few weeks into the season, the Nets’ super team had started to come loose. Younger teams were untouched by them. It hardly helped that James Harden was in the midst of one of his worst NBA seasons. But he still took his share of shots – at Irving. At one point, Harden told reporters he wanted to vaccinate Irving himself, revealing a glimpse of his frustration. As Harden became more and more dissatisfied, the Nets pulled the plug and sent him to the Philadelphia 76ers in February in exchange for a package that included Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and drafts.
It was a quick conclusion to Nets’ superteam experiment that showed how difficult it can be to construct a list of store-bought stars: You can not just throw them together and expect it to work, no matter how great their individual talent is.
But amid the wreck of the Nets’ mid-season trade, a new super team emerged – one that was to include Simmons, a triple All-Star selected No. 1 overall in 2016. The problem was that Simmons arrived with a crooked back and confidence. -described mental problems. He could not practice, much less take the field to play.
The hits kept coming. Durant missed 21 games with a sprained knee. The Nets went on a losing streak that caused them to spiral down the Eastern Conference standings. The team tried to strengthen its backcourt by buying Goran Dragic, but then he tested positive for the virus. New York City eventually repealed its vaccination regulations, which meant Irving could play home games. But that left the Nets with some time to build up chemistry for the playoffs.
Even then, they had to fight for a place in the off-season.
“I wish we had more continuity as a team, but it’s just the league – every team goes through it,” Durant said this week, adding: “There are a lot of things that happen during a season that you must go well in order, because you were a good team and many things did not go our way. ”
For the Nets, it was a minor disaster to have to go through the play-in tournament to get to the playoffs. What happened to the Lakers was worse.
The entire team was vaccinated prior to the season to avoid the kind of disruption that the Nets experienced, but other obstacles arose. Injuries to James and Anthony Davis, an eight-time All-Star, made continuity difficult. An outbreak of coronavirus in December meant that the available list was constantly changing. Worst of all, the combinations on the court did not work.
Much of it had to do with Russell Westbrook, who the Lakers traded for last summer, and expected to be a third superstar alongside James and Davis.
Westbrook, 33, was the most available of the three Lakers stars, but he was also the least effective.
By mid-season, it was clear Westbrook would not offer the level of superstar play that helped him win the league’s most valuable player award in 2017 with Oklahoma City. (No MVP chants this year.) Opponents began ridiculing his shot selection and balloons. He was uncomfortable with a misdemeanor that did not run through him. The Lakers had hoped Westbrook could help stabilize the team when James was not on the field, but it did not work.
Westbrook would later accuse coach Frank Vogel of having a personal problem with him, claiming he had never had a problem with any coach or teammate before.
“You do not know, but it was Frank and his wife’s anniversary, and I actually sent him a bottle of champagne to his hotel room, which you know nothing about, because it’s a nice thing to do, nice gesture,” Westbrook said during a press conference after the Lakers season ended. He added, “I’m not sure what his problem was with me.”
Vogel was fired after the season, and Westbrook, James and Davis played only 21 games together. Their union was not productive on the field, leaving the Lakers with limited opportunities to improve the rest of their roster.
On January 9, the Lakers met a Memphis Grizzlies team on a winning streak of eight games led by 22-year-old star Ja Morant. Among Morant’s highlights that night were a thump and a two-handed block. James started barking at Morant’s teammate, Desmond Bane, 23, who later told reporters he told James no one was afraid of his footsteps anymore. Their teammate Ziaire Williams played on the same high school team as James’ son, LeBron James Jr., known as Bronny.
With accrued losses and nothing changes, tension built up.
When James praised other team leaders in February, some wondered if those compliments were intended to contrast with Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president and general manager. James also told The Athletic that he had not closed the door for a day to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The next week, Rich Paul, James’ agent and business partner, Pelinka, and Jeanie Buss, the team owner, met to assure them that James wanted to be a long-term Laker.
The franchise has long appreciated star players and it has often won championships. Magic Johnson became a lifelong friend of Buss after her father bought the team in 1979. Kobe Bryant spent his entire career with the Lakers, winning five championships – three with Shaquille O’Neal and two with Pau Gasol. The team prioritized giving him a remarkable farewell in his final season rather than developing the team’s young players.
Other times, their affinity for stars has cost them.
During the 2012-13 season, Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, hoping they could chase another championship with Bryant. Injuries and inconsistent personalities caused the team to implode. It ended in a playoff loss in the first round, and Bryant tore his Achilles tendon over just over a week before the playoffs, accelerating the end of his career.
The Lakers missed the playoffs for the next six years. They only recovered when James and Davis teamed up and won the 2020 championship.
An exit in the first round in 2021 led to trade with Washington for Westbrook. The Lakers thought that move would help them win the franchise’s 18th championship. It did not.
The Nets had their own title ambitions this season and were still hoping to rally in the playoffs. But the Celtics were waiting for them in the first round with an arsenal of homemade stars. They had drafted almost all of them, including Tatum and Jaylen Brown, their top players, and Marcus Smart, the NBA’s defensive player of the year. Of course, the Celtics had not previously been opposed to acquiring big name players: They had switched to Irving in 2017. But after two disappointing and dramatic seasons in Boston, he moved to Brooklyn.
And there was Irving on Monday, promising Brooklyn was where he wanted to be: “I’m here with Kev,” he said, and they would “manage this franchise together” with the team’s front office.
They originally came together to win championships, and so far they have not come through. But the dreams behind super teams are undefeated – remember, the Lakers and Nets had tried before – although the super teams themselves sometimes fall short.
Irving added: “I’ve been recognized for my greatness, but at this point I really just want to be part of a great team.”