Even as the Brooklyn Nets continued to fail to gain traction in the second half of the season and fell to the play-in tournament, it would have been difficult to anticipate them being on the wrong side of the most one-sided series of this year’s playoffs. Their series against the Boston Celtics was deemed as potentially the most competitive first round series in NBA history. Brooklyn was the seventh seed in the Eastern conference, but their ranking was not supposed to be a reflection on their playoff potential. This series was not going to be your usual first round matchup, it was going to be a conference final level and it was going to end with a team who had proven to be a championship contender being sent home far too early.
This buildup was not surprising. The expectations for the Nets were sky-high and have been so since Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving came to Brooklyn three years ago. And even as the Nets struggled in the regular season, it was hard to temper those expectations. Irving missed 53 games in the regular season, largely because of his refusal to take the Covid-19 vaccine. Durant missed 27 games with injury. There was also the mid-season trade which sent former MVP James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers for Ben Simmons, who has not appeared in a game since last season’s playoffs.
There were plenty of excuses to explain the Nets’ struggles. And as witnesses to Durant and Irving’s past playoff magic, who were we to doubt their ability to do it again? Certainly, when it mattered most, this Nets team would figure it out. A switch was sure to click players and coaches alike into high gear, into the championship caliber team we all expected them to be. Worries about their team defense and what other three players made up the best lineup to play alongside Irving and Durant would be resolved. Ben Simmons’ highly anticipated and assumed to be imminent return would help solve both of those problems. Another player or two would step up in key moments to help complement Brooklyn’s three-headed monster. Any other issues would be shored up by the fact that the Nets have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, while their opponents don’t.
But the excuses never proved to be valid ones. Brooklyn played sixteen quarters of playoff basketball in which that metaphorical switch was never flipped. A defensive collapse in the last possession of game one gave the Celtics’ an open layup and the game, completely wasting a 38 point masterclass and giant middle finger from Kyrie Irving to his former team. Then in games two and three, Bruce Brown stepped up as that other player who could help the Nets win, as he often had this season. The problem, however, was that his efforts came without strong performances from Irving and Durant that we had presumed would be a constant in the series. Irving did not come close to repeating his game one performance in any other game, and Durant struggled in a way he had made us forget he was capable of until game four. In game four with their season on the line, the needed urgency was never really as palpable as it should be in such a scenario. Defensive lapses continued, center Nic Claxton left ten points at the free throw line, and Durant just didn’t hit the clutch shots he often made last playoffs. On top of all this, that third star, Ben Simmons, who was brought in to elevate the Nets with his point guard prowess and elite defense, did not appear once in a series he was widely expected to be healthy enough to play in.
The Nets’ superteam endeavor has failed once again. And honestly, I won’t rule out it all being because of lineup inconsistencies. Give Durant, Irving, and Simmons a full regular season together and they might just figure it all out. But at the same time, it feels like there is more missing. We’ve seen teams like the Los Angeles Clippers fail to be the superteam that just clicks when it matters most. They responded by making needed adjustments, and while injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have prevented us from seeing concrete evidence, it really does feel like the changes made have moved the franchise in the right direction. The most notable of these changes might have come at the head coaching position, an area where Brooklyn may need to seriously consider making a change this offseason. Admittedly, I feel a little bad for their current coach Steve Nash. Nash was essentially appointed by the Nets’ stars to be their coach, despite having no NBA coaching experience. He clearly was hired to act as a good manager of superstars and a team that would not need what a conventional NBA coach provides. But three years in, the Nets may need a seasoned coach to come in and make sense of whatever is happening inside the organization. Nash may not deserve to be immediately fired, but if the right coach becomes available, I’d expect the Nets to look to make the upgrade.
The Nets future promises to be a bright one, even with three seasons that might attempt to convince us otherwise. As more elite teams emerge both because of superstars and strong front offices, a championship is now far from the guarantee it once was for the Nets. Changes will be made, and even if we just bank on Irving and Durant getting a few more games together and the addition of Simmons, I’d confidently bet on that being enough to give Brooklyn fans a lot more to cheer for than this season did.