The Brooklyn Nets began this season as many experts’ favorites to reach the NBA finals from the Eastern Conference. Instead, they were swept by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. All that’s left now is to try to figure out what went wrong in Brooklyn.
The James Harden trade
The Nets began this season with a Big Three: a theoretically healthy Kevin Durant, a theoretically on-the-court Kyrie Irving and a one-time NBA MVP in James Harden, who was acquired the previous January in a trade with the Houston Rockets. It was a high-risk move to bring these talented veterans together, given that they had all fallen out with their previous franchises.
To nobody’s shock, the trio didn’t last, and it was Harden who left. With their options limited in getting a potential All-Star impact in a Harden deal, they arranged a dissatisfied swap with the Philadelphia 76ers, which brought them back tremendously gifted, defense-first big man Ben Simmons.
The Nets’ gamble was based on the idea that Simmons was only holding out from playing because his relationship with the Sixers had disintegrated after his infamous offensive collapse during last year’s playoffs. As it turns out, it was more than that: Simmons’s absence was due to both physical and mental health issues that ultimately prevented him from playing a single minute in Brooklyn this season.
Yes, in the long run, the Nets may have something in the Simmons acquisition. With that said, being forced to make the Harden deal and settling with this particular return hurt Brooklyn’s chances of success this year.
The main reason Harden was fed up with his situation in Brooklyn? Well, it couldn’t help that he was dealing with the endless circus that was Irving’s battle with the City of New York. It turns out that New York’s Covid-19 restrictions meant that unvaccinated players couldn’t play home games at Barclays Center, making it impossible for Irving to play in Brooklyn for much of the regular season. During many crucial games, Irving was a spectator.
Plenty of other players – despite their personal beliefs – would have simply gotten the vaccine, especially when it was hurting their team’s chances of winning a championship. After all, an engaged Irving is one of the most dangerous players in the entire league.
Irving, for his own reasons, refused to make any such sacrifice for his teammates. If you’re wondering if this could have been the reason that Harden eventually forced his way out of town, well that’s the conventional wisdom although there’s never been on-the-record confirmation from Harden himself. One man who does think the issue affected the season though is, well, Kyrie Irving. “I think so [my vaccine status] became a distraction at times, ”said the point guard after Monday’s loss to the Celtics. “And as you can see we just had some drastic changes.”
Kevin Durant was hurt
So the Nets were without Irving for many games, Harden was in Philadelphia and Simmons was on the bench. It was all up to Durant to help shoulder a large share of the team’s burdens. Unfortunately, Durant suffered an MCL injury on January 15 and was missing for over a month and a half (KD was not the only Nets player to miss time, Joe Harris’s season was ruined by an ankle injury).
When Durant returned, he was pressed into service to drag the Nets into a seventh-place finish that required them to win a play-in game just to make the playoffs. By the time the playoffs started, Durant was starting to feel the effects of the heavy minutes he was playing near the end of the regular season.
That’s not a complete excuse for his early struggles against Boston – especially since the Celtics were missing starting center Robert Williams for the first two games of the series – but it couldn’t have helped. He managed 39 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in Game 4, but by that point he was running on empty.
The Nets have a habit of hiring mascots rather than head coaches: let’s not forget that they brought in Jason Kidd just the season after he retired as a player. So, it wasn’t shocking that they handed Hall of Famer Steve Nash the keys to the team in September 2020 even though he had never even been an NBA assistant coach before.
Nets players were supportive of Nash on Monday night after their season ended but at times during this sweep, Nash looked more like a babysitter than a coach. With his team down 2-0 and facing a crucial Game 3, Nash seemed allergic to calling timeouts and designing plays, hoping that his vets would stumble into the right course of action on their own. They mostly did not.
Upon Nash’s hiring, Irving famously responded to the news with a blithe, “I don’t really see us having a ‘head’ coach.” Maybe not the most polite statement in the world, but Nash did little to prove his point guard wrong during this postseason.
The Boston Celtics
Still, it’s hard to know what Nash could have done given how thoroughly the Celtics outplayed his team. While the dysfunction in Brooklyn has captured the headlines, Boston should have been favored from the start.
After stumbling through the first half of the season with first-time head coach Ime Udoka still learning on the job after an impressive internship under Gregg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs and Nash himself with the Nets, the team got healthy, Udoka came into his own and the Celtics finally found their identity.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown learned to play with each other again. Upon being elevated to the starting point guard position, Marcus Smart emerged as the NBA Defensive Player of the Year… and the rest of his team weren’t far behind. The Celtics were the best defensive team in the league in the regular season’s second half, and no slouches on the offensive end either. Given the chance to tank in the final game of the season and avoid facing Durant and Irving in the first round of the playoffs, the Celtics played at full strength against a Memphis Grizzlies B-squad to grab the East’s second seed.
They took on the challenge because they knew they could beat the Nets on their own terms. By betting on themselves, the Celtics not only avenged their loss to the Nets in last year’s playoffs, but they may also have sent Brooklyn’s entire organization back to the drawing board.