What next for the Brooklyn Nets?

What's next for the Brooklyn Nets after getting swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Last season, there was huge interest in and speculation over the Brooklyn Nets. That looks like being the case again this summer but for very different reasons. 

A season that began with the trio of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden apparently set to stroll to the championship – at least according to top betting sites – ended in the ignominy of being swept in the first round of the playoffs, by an admittedly formidable Boston Celtics team.  

There is more than enough blame to go around, although Irving probably deserves the biggest slice of the blame pie. The man who more or less built the All-Star lineup in Brooklyn, by persuading both Durant and Harden to join him, promptly opted out of most of the season due to his decision not to take the Covid-19 vaccine.  That may have been a valid personal decision but in the context of this Nets team, it was hard not to see it as selfish, leaving Durant to hold down the fort.

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Throw in the inevitable health protocol absences and injuries, most notably to Durant himself, and the strain began to tell, particularly on Harden, who could justifiably claim that this was not what he had signed up for. The subsequent trade that took Harden to Philadelphia and brought Ben Simmons, Andre Drummond, and Seth Curry to Brooklyn seemed to be both a great piece of business and a fresh start.

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What’s next for the Brooklyn Nets Big 3 if they don’t win the title next season?

In reality, it was a false dawn. Curry suffered from an injury, Drummond turned out not to be a great fit for the starting lineup and the Ben Simmons circus became almost as embarrassing and counter-productive as the constant speculation and argument surrounding Irving. 

Come to the playoffs, the hope that a team that had barely played together would be able to beat one of the best lineups in the NBA was very quickly dispelled. 

All of the Nets’ problems – their over-reliance on Durant, Irving’s apparent indifference, Simmons’ ongoing mental and physical health issues, and the tactical naivety of coach Steve Nash combined to produce an epic dismantling that was painful to watch. 

KD and Kyrie Questions

Any plan for rebuilding the Nets has to start with their two big stars. The friendship between Durant and Irving is fundamental to this team and to their chances of delivering on that championship. 

The good news for Nets fans is that Durant is under a long-term contract and is completely committed to staying with the Nets. “Completely committed” is not, however, a phrase that is often associated with Irving. He has a player option that he could theoretically decline, enabling him to enter free agency this summer. That seems unlikely, given his statements immediately after the final Celtics game, and it would represent a breathtakingly selfish move, even for Irving. 

The bigger problem may not lie in Irving choosing to leave, but in his expectations. He has spoken about working with Durant and the franchise owner Joseph Tsai along with general manager Sean Marks, in order to build a championship-winning team. 

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But the other three people in that equation might justifiably ask whether Irving is genuinely committed to that, and to the sacrifices and work it would involve.  Many Brooklyn fans would prefer to see Durant stamping his authority on the franchise, even at the expense of sidelining his friend. He is clearly the best player on the roster and ought to be the de facto leader. 

Yet it has seemed all season that Irving is in fact the effective in-absentia leader of the Nets, and as such, responsible for much of the chaos and paralysis. Some hard conversations need to be had behind the scenes, and the hardest one could be that between Durant and Irving. 

Ben Simmons 

It is fair to say that Ben Simmons has used up all of his credit and is now considerably in debt when it comes to the respect of NBA fans. His decision making, or that of his entourage, has been poor, judging from last summer’s clips of him shooting baskets. 

Scoring goals is something that he had been notably reluctant to do while on the court last season, and many were surprised by the eye-catching outfits that he chose to wear on the Nets bench while watching his new teammates being destroyed by the Celtics

Yet, he is young enough and talented enough that all of this can be forgotten. It is entirely plausible that a young man in the public eye has found the public dissection of a flaw in his game to be overwhelming and that this has produced something of a breakdown, both in his self-confidence and his overall state of mind. 

Admitting to that may be difficult but would bring him universal sympathy. Owning up to human fragility and rejecting the stereotype of the alpha male sports star would earn him many new fans. 

In the absence of such an admission, however, we’re left to speculate, and that speculation has inevitably taken a cynical turn. The prize, for the Nets, could be the return of one of the game’s best defensive players, adding a crucial component to the lineup. 

To get there, though, will require some soul-searching and honest conversations, starting with Simmons himself. 

Steve Nash – stay or go?

Eyebrows were raised when Steve Nash got the Nets coaching job, not least because of Irving’s suggestion that the team didn’t really need a coach at all. The criticism of Nash has been that he has lacked the coaching gravitas – this being his first-ever coaching job – to have the difficult conversations needed to resolve the team’s ongoing problems. 

There was too, a notable naivety to some of his tactical decisions in the opening playoff games against the Celtics, although there was also clear improvement in the last two games. On the other hand, Nash has not exactly had an easy assignment. Juggling a team with so many issues, and three MVP-caliber talents who all have different agendas and ways of working, would test even the most experienced coach. 

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For much of the season, Nash kept the show on the road and ensured that the Nets got to the playoffs, despite everything. And his overall 92-62 record is solid, in the circumstances. Crucially, Nash appears to have Durant’s support, and given the work that is needed behind the scenes, the Nets may well decide to leave Nash in place to provide a degree of stability in what promises to be a summer of upheaval at the Barclay Center. 

 

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