James Harden showed up out of shape. Kyrie Irving was a part-time player. Ben Simmons ended up being a full-time fashionista. And now a disastrous, drama-filled season for the Nets is officially over following a first-round sweep to the Celtics. Injuries to key players, debatable coaching decisions, and an aging roster were also among the long list of factors at play in Brooklyn’s crash landing.
A pivotal offseason is approaching for the Nets to reshape their roster around Kevin Durant, who will be 34 years old next season with a lot of miles on his body and a lengthy injury history.
Since Monday, fans and media have played the blame game, but there is no one person at fault and no one clear solution. The 2022 playoffs have highlighted the downside in building a superteam, which can cause a lack of depth or quality behind the superstars up top.
The biggest story line hovering over Durant and Brooklyn’s decision-makers this summer is whether Irving and Simmons are best suited to remain KD’s costars. To examine that and more, here are seven questions about how Brooklyn should approach this offseason and the ripple effects that could be felt across the NBA:
1. Should the Nets Keep Kyrie?
Irving is eligible for a five-year, $245.6 million contract extension this summer. After the Nets got swept Monday night, Kyrie said he planned to re-sign.
“I don’t really plan on going anywhere,” Irving said. “When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that it really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe [Tsai] and Sean [Marks].” Stars should have a voice in decisions made by the team. But Irving is there because Durant wanted him to be, so the Nets had to accept he was a package deal. But the two stars’ influence is not equal. KD is the team’s most important player and voice.
And we already know how strategic Durant can be. He famously left Oklahoma City for Golden State, after blowing a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the West finals. He left the Warriors after winning two titles in three years. Then this year, he approved of the Nets’ decision to dump Harden as soon as it became apparent he wasn’t committed to winning in Brooklyn. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reported that KD was “astonished” when Harden showed up to camp in poor condition then proceeded to play “sluggish” basketball. Business rightfully took precedence over their friendship when Durant signed off on the Nets moving him in a deal for Simmons.
Could Kyrie suffer the same fate? Is his friendship with KD enough to keep him in Brooklyn despite his shaky history with the team?
For pure basketball reasons, extending Irving is a no-brainer. He has averaged 27.1 points, 6.0 assists, and 4.7 rebounds in his three seasons with Brooklyn. At only age 30, he remains a masterful scorer who can manipulate defenses from anywhere on the court. We all know it’s not that simple, though. Marcus Smart held Irving in check all series, which continues a trend of underwhelming playoff performances by Kyrie ever since he left LeBron James.
In one postseason with Boston and two with Brooklyn, he’s averaged 21.9 points on just 47.5 percent shooting from 2 and 34.7 percent from 3. Irving has had some monster games, like his 39 points in Game 1 against the Celtics this year, but has lacked consistency.
Injuries have also long been an issue for him. He missed the entire 2018 postseason, the year the Celtics went all the way to a Game 7 against LeBron. With Brooklyn, Irving has played in just 103 regular-season games in three years. In 2019-20, he missed 52 games with shoulder and hamstring injuries. In 2020-21, he missed 18 games because he was away from the team for personal reasons and dealt with numerous injuries. And in 2021-22, he was ineligible to play at home in Brooklyn as an unvaccinated player under New York’s vaccine mandate.
Durant and his teammates stood by Kyrie all season. But KD had to play nearly 40 minutes every night, for months, to lead Brooklyn to a play-in spot in part due to Irving’s lack of availability. Can KD fully trust Irving to be there when he needs him the most in the future?
All of this is worth considering, including the complexities of Irving’s moody nature. It’s been three straight tense seasons in Brooklyn, just like it was for two years in Boston, and during Irving’s final season with Cleveland, when he went days without speaking to LeBron.
The decision to re-sign Kyrie and stick with him could make or break Durant’s odds of ever playing in the Finals again. Durant should at least consider pushing the Nets front office to consider alternatives before handing over an extension.
2. Who Else Might Be Interested in Kyrie?
One big problem for the Nets: There likely aren’t a lot of Kyrie suitors, if any. Few teams wanted him way back in 2017 when he hit the trade block, and his value has plummeted since.
The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported in October that the Nets would listen to offers for Irving. I’m told there were crickets.
Circumstances have changed since, but a lack of interest is precisely why the Celtics were able to land Irving for a first-round pick (which became Colin Sexton), an injured point guard (Isaiah Thomas), and a 3-and-D wing (Jae Crowder). So even if Durant or the Nets wanted to move on from Irving via trade, who would take him?
A trade to the Knicks would be downright incredible for entertainment purposes. But who would they send back? New York isn’t giving up RJ Barrett and the Nets wouldn’t make a deal that doesn’t improve their title odds.
How about the Lakers? LeBron should be trying to say goodbye to Russell Westbrook but he wouldn’t make sense for Brooklyn, meaning a three-way deal would need to happen with Russ getting sent elsewhere. Marc Stein reported on his Substack that Charlotte is a potential landing spot for Westbrook, so perhaps a larger deal with more pieces and picks involved (Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward to Brooklyn?) could get Irving to L.A.
The Mavericks sorta-kinda make sense in a sign-and-trade for Jalen Brunson. Except Brunson is a low-maintenance and highly productive player next to Luka, who is far better suited to play with motion than a dominant ball handler like Irving.
It’s difficult to find even theoretical situations because so few teams are desperate to acquire a 30-year-old headache about to demand $50 million annually. It has the potential to one day turn into the NBA’s worst contract.
3. Is Simmons Part of the Future?
It’s only human nature to wonder whether the inactive player dressed in bright colors and John Lennon sunglasses against the funeral backdrop of the Nets bench will actually play.
Simmons just completed his second regular season in six years not playing a single game. (The first time was his rookie year when he was sidelined by foot surgery.) The Australian national team questioned his heart before the draft. Simmons reportedly quit on LSU during his one-and-done campaign. And the Sixers were frustrated by his lack of progress on offense for years. Simmons resisted the Sixers coaching staff’s push to get him to switch shooting hands, particularly from former assistant coach John Townsend. And now, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Sunday the Nets were taking Simmons “at his word” regarding the back pain preventing him from playing. In other words, sitting out for the sweep was Ben’s call.
Cmon MAN!!! Out for Game 4 when it was rumored you were going to make your debut. This dude has ZERO competitive .. As small a chance as the Nets have to come back in this series, you still have KD and Kyrie, all you need is to win ONE game and take it from there.. #ManUp pic.twitter.com/Y5smcnQkqZ
— Reggie Miller (@ReggieMillerTNT) April 24, 2022
The Nets have no choice but to believe Simmons. Feel however you want about the media’s coverage of his back pain or his mental health, but the majority of people around the league are saying the same things as Reggie Miller or the Inside the NBA crew. Shaquille O’Neal went nearly as far as calling him a liar, and Charles Barkley said he should’ve at least tried to play in Game 4 to give his teammates something to prove his commitment, just like how Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes has come back in a limited capacity for the Raptors while dealing with an ankle injury.
“For Nets players, the confusion was not centered around Simmons’ ailment, but with the perceived lack of attempt to play, effort to be in uniform and push his body in these high-stakes playoffs,” Charania reported. “Nets players and coaches wanted to see Simmons show resolve and enter this series to start his on-court Brooklyn tenure, even if it was for limited minutes on Monday or none at all while still dressing for the game.”
Durant felt comfortable with the Nets moving on from Harden. How will he feel about Simmons, who has taken no action to prove he cares about winning?
On Monday, Woj tweeted that Simmons and Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul met with the Nets to discuss his future with the team and his desire to remain in Brooklyn. Sounds familiar.
The discourse around Simmons’s availability has been dicey, but one thing is clear: Simmons hasn’t been active for quite some time. For what reason would the Nets count on him in the future? Why would Durant, who has two championships, trust Simmons to be a part of the solution? There is zero evidence he can contribute in the biggest games on the biggest stage. In college, he folded in big conference games. With the Sixers, he passed on a critical open layup in a playoff game. And with the Nets, well, he’s made fashion statements.
Ben Simmons now targeting Game 7 or Game 8. Details to come.
— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) April 24, 2022
4. If Simmons Stays, What Can He Provide?
Teams were reluctant to make strong offers to Philadelphia for Simmons before the deadline, and now there’s even more confusion about his condition. I spoke with a trusted source from a non-playoff team that was previously attracted to Simmons who told me they’re out on him.
“We’re at the point we’d want to see him play first,” said the source. The Nets might feel the same before making a move. Sure, Simmons has major flaws. But he’s only 25, signed to a reasonable contract with three years remaining, and the last time we saw him he was one of the league’s best defenders.
Simmons would have filled a lot of gaps in Brooklyn’s series against Boston; he could’ve defended Jayson Tatum, which would’ve allowed Bruce Brown to match up against Jaylen Brown, and let Durant hover near the basket while defending a lesser scoring threat.
Brooklyn’s idea was to have Simmons blend what he did in Philadelphia with what Draymond Green has long done in Golden State, anchoring the defense while screening and cutting on offense (similar to how they deployed Brown and Blake Griffin). Simmons could play the point, pushing Irving off the ball into a more balanced role and setting up Durant for easier buckets.
There is arguably no better basketball fit for Simmons than the Nets, especially considering Simmons would also be the third option behind KD and Kyrie when it comes to answering questions from the media.
Potential options are limited, but should be explored. One of my favorite hypotheticals is sending Simmons to Utah for Rudy Gobert. Danny Ainge was a big fan of Simmons in the 2016 draft. Donovan Mitchell and Simmons could make for a potent pick-and-roll duo, and Gobert would anchor Brooklyn’s defense. Gobert has his own offensive limitations but they’d be minimized with the shot-making of KD and Irving.
Perhaps a young team like Houston would revisit a Simmons trade since his trajectory is on the same timeline as Jalen Green. A package with some combination of Eric Gordon, Jae’Sean Tate, and Christian Wood with draft picks could provide Brooklyn with the necessary depth and versatility to make other moves.
Would Klutch want to flip Simmons to the Lakers for Anthony Davis? AD has his own injury concerns, but he’s still an elite defender who could shine next to perimeter-oriented scorers like Durant and Irving. Simmons spends most of his summers in Los Angeles, and Klutch has always envisioned him playing in a LeBron-like role. That’s not happening in Brooklyn, but in L.A. he could learn from the man himself.
5. What Would the Nets Look Like if Both Stars Stay?
The Nets outscored teams by 9.5 points per 100 possessions with Durant and Irving on the court (and without Harden) during the regular season. They collapsed without one or both of them, which in hindsight served as a predictor for the team’s implosion against the Celtics.
Brooklyn had exploitable holes. Brown is a non-threat to shoot 3s, so the Celtics kept helping off of him to clog the paint or pressure Durant and Irving.
Joe Harris would’ve been helpful in the series, but he was sidelined due to ankle surgery. Harris is a knockdown shooter off spot-ups, screens, and handoffs, plus he helps keep the ball moving to generate motion. He could be a pivotal part of the solution next season.
A five-man grouping of Harris, Seth Curry, Durant, Simmons, and Irving would give the Nets an enviable lineup—on offense at least. The backcourt would be tiny. Brooklyn lacks formidable size and shooters who can get stops on defense. Those are the types of players true contenders have in surplus.
To slow down Tatum and Brown, Brooklyn relied heavily on Brown and Curry on the perimeter, and it tasked Andre Drummond, a limited center, with protecting the basket to start games. They were doomed from the start.
Drummond has already said he’ll leave this summer, but he’s not the only player hitting free agency. The highly versatile 23-year-old center Nic Claxton will be a restricted free agent. Brown, Griffin, Goran Dragic, and LaMarcus Aldridge will be unrestricted. And Patty Mills has a player option for next season.
The Nets could have a depleted roster without many avenues for overhauling the team. They have no cap space, meaning they will need to explore sign-and-trade possibilities, or potentially package assets like their $11.3 million trade exception, young players like Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe, and the no. 23 pick in the 2022 draft.
Successfully shuffling the roster using those pieces could put Brooklyn back in the title race. But as we found out this past season, with the Nets only able to add old heads, that’s easier said than done.
6. Is Steve Nash at Fault?
Sources I’ve spoken with in recent days don’t expect Nash to be fired, but we’re only days removed from the series loss and the evaluation stage is only beginning for Brooklyn’s brass.
“Come on, man. Steve’s been dealt a crazy hand the last two years,” Durant said after Game 4 in support of Nash’s return next season.
I tend to agree with KD’s public stance. The Nets’ coaching needs to be better but it’s tough to judge an inexperienced leader, especially considering the circumstances. Maybe the Nets should’ve gone with someone who has done it before, but Nash has a brilliant basketball IQ and deserves time to learn the ropes.
The Nets don’t have a ton of time, though, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s on the hot seat when there are so many other strong coaching candidates eager for an opportunity.
During Nash’s first season as head coach, his staff included Ime Udoka and Mike D’Antoni. They both left and were replaced by Brian Keefe and David Vanterpool, with Steve Clifford serving as a consultant. The Nets have prioritized surrounding Nash with experience, but they might consider a shake-up after this season’s flameout. Unless there is progress next season with his game plans, timeout usage, and execution, he could end up being the scapegoat.
7. Will Durant Look in the Mirror?
Durant needs to evaluate himself just as much as he does his costars. The Nets built a team that became appealing enough for him to join just a few years ago, leaving the comfort of annual contention in Golden State. He brought with him a playing style that more resembled the your turn, my turn days in Oklahoma City, though, and not the motion that has defined the Warriors dynasty.
With the Celtics focusing so much attention on Durant, we saw him activate his playmaking. Results were mixed, but he’s fully capable of absorbing more passing duties. Depending on how this roster evolves, we could see more of it next season.
KD helped build what the Nets are today, and he’ll have a say in what they become next. He is why the Nets signed DeAndre Jordan to a pricey contract, fired Kenny Atkinson, and pushed to swap a core of young players for Harden, which made some sense at the time but has proved to be a massive mistake, especially considering Jarrett Allen has developed into exactly the type of center the Nets wish they still had.
This offseason is an opportunity for the Nets and KD to redefine who they are with the players on their team and the style they play.
The best thing Durant could possibly do is simply trust the front office, which has a long track record of making successful signings and draft picks. Acquisitions like Brown have become important role players and picks like Thomas have shown promise. Taking a hands-off approach this offseason could be in Durant’s best interest, allowing Brooklyn’s front office the freedom to get creative without being concerned about appeasing their star.
The pressure is on the Nets front office to get this right, though. Or else, someday, it’ll be Durant looking for a new home.