Remember the Brooklyn Nets as the worst team money could buy. Remember them as an ill-fitting set of big-name ballplayers who were expected to win a championship and then face-planted in the first round, failing to win even one playoff game.
The Nets made the 2022 Celtics look like the 1986 Celtics. Boston made a mockery of the notion that, as a surging two-seed in the East, it got a most unlucky bounce by drawing what was advertised as the most dangerous seven seed in the history of American sports.
Unlucky? Not exactly. That leprechaun Kyrie Irving stepped on last year got its sweet revenge this time around. The Nets weren’t just too small and too disorganized to avoid getting swept by the Celtics. By any fair measure of their own words, they also lacked the competitive heart worthy of a legitimate contender.
Steve Nash said they didn’t have the necessary intensity in Game 2. Blake Griffin said they didn’t have the necessary spirit in Game 3. Nash said they didn’t have the necessary durability in Game 4.
“Maybe they ran out of gas,” the coach said of his players.
They ran out of answers too. What an epic disaster. What a fitting end to a New York basketball season that started with so much promise, and ended with this most resounding thud.
A year after their stirring revival, the Knicks couldn’t even make the play-in tournament. A year after nearly reaching the conference final with one healthy star, the Nets couldn’t even make it to Game 5 in Round 1.
They made it interesting at the end Monday night, if you can call a routine endgame flurry by a trailing home team interesting. The Nets gave their fans way too little, way too late.
Nash said he was “proud of our guys for the fight after everything we went through.” Sure, the Nets endured Kevin Durant’s injury and the standard run-ins with COVID. But some of that adversity Nash and some players cited was, well, self-imposed.
The fallout from the Nets’ headache-for-headache trade of James Harden for Ben Simmons? That was on them. They acquired Harden knowing all about his high-maintenance ways, then couldn’t keep him happy enough for one full season.
Of greater consequence, Irving could have met the city’s mandate and gotten vaccinated and played a ton more than the 29 regular-season games he played.
And yet there was Irving on Monday night, after Boston’s clinching 116-1112 victory, talking about how the season “was just a heavy lift for us” and how “it’s hard to just turn the switch on and just be like, ‘All right, we’re a great team today.’ … Guys are in and out of the lineup.”
Irving admitted that he felt he was letting down his team when he was out, but it’s too late for that regret now. He had control of how often he was in and out of Brooklyn’s lineup, and he made a choice that he can think about all summer.
His employers have a lot to think about too, including whether to invest a crazy amount of money in a long-term Irving extension. Good luck with that. But owner Joe Tsai and general manager Sean Marks also have to examine their culture of player appeasement, and determine whether that needs to be dismantled.
The Nets were said to be floored with Simmons’ decision to skip Game 4 with a sore back (off a rehabbed herniated disk). Why should they have been so surprised by this development when the organization’s actions sent Simmons a clear message that his opt-out would be deemed acceptable, if not par for the course?
Brooklyn’s superstars didn’t want the ultra-competent Kenny Atkinson to be their coach, and Atkinson was made to disappear. Those same superstars, with Durant as lead advocate, wanted to put a novice, Nash, in charge, and Nash’s inexperience was a chief reason why Brooklyn was swept into oblivion.
Irving had his personal reasons to take his various leaves over the past two years, including his opposition to the city’s mandate that initially cost him a chance to play all home games — at least until his bosses told him to stay home for road games too. The Nets were widely praised for making a noble stand, and for taking the fight to Irving for a change.
But when facing a manpower shortage and a pressing need to win some games, the Nets exposed their soulless core by abandoning their stance and inviting Irving back to work. And a season after the Big 2 became the Big 3, a completely disengaged Harden effectively told the Nets they needed to trade him to Philadelphia or else. Voila, the Nets traded him to Philadelphia.
This all traces back to the most overused word in sports — culture. Every big-league organization professes to have one, even though the true culture club over the years can be reduced to Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs, Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors and maybe a few others.
The Brooklyn Nets are located a million miles south of that club. “Too many things held us back,” Nash said. And a lot of those things were the Nets’ own fault.
“We didn’t make any noise,” Durant said, “but we got to the playoffs.”
Whoop-de-damn-do, to quote one famous Nets forward from the distant past. And good riddance to a basketball team that wasn’t worth the money or the hype.