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Disappointing Nets Season Defined By Who Wasn’t Playing
As much as I’d like to laud the Nets for battling to the end of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Monday night before falling, 116-112, to get swept off the Barclays Center floor by the Celtics, I just can’t.
This was the most disappointing season in my nearly 50 years of Nets fandom. Hyped by everyone from Las Vegas to Brooklyn as a favorite for the league title, the Nets ended up as a seventh-place team who couldn’t win a single playoff game (the play-in victory over Cleveland doesn’t count in NBA postseason records).
No excuses—this team just wasn’t good enough. Their shooters lacked size (how’d you like all those sequences where the Celtics had star Jayson Tatum hunt and torture the Nets’ diminutive guards on switches?) and their size couldn’t shoot (how’d you like center Nic Claxton bricking 10-of-11 free throws?).
To repeat a cliché, sometimes the best ability is availability, and the Nets came up short on that end as well. I’m not just talking about all the injuries, like Joe Harris’ broken ankle in November that knocked him out for the season, or the COVID-19 infections. That stuff happens to all NBA teams.
No, I’m referring to more self-inflicted wounds. The Nets went from a franchise that emphasized their “culture” to one where the inmates took over the asylum.
The underlying theme for this whole Nets season seemed to be “Not feelin’ it.” All season long, the main storylines centered around who was playing and who wasn’t. The constant drama and the Nets’ disrespectful lack of transparency turned off their own fan base, making this a fairly dislikable team despite the presence of a once-in-a-generation basketball savant in Kevin Durant. Head Coach Steve Nash was caught in flat-out lies throughout the season.
The sagas continued right up until the bitter end, actually. Ben Simmons, the Nets” featured return in the February 10 trade of superstar James Harden to Philadelphia, wasn’t even at Monday’s affair after multiple reports over the weekend indicated that it would be the night he would make his first NBA appearance in about 10 months. Simmons, who sat out all season after telling the Sixers he wasn’t “mentally ready”, suffered a herniated disc in his back when “ramping up” his conditioning in Brooklyn.
After scrimmaging on Saturday (I’ll never understand the logic of allowing him to scrimmage but not to play 10-15 minutes in a real game), Simmons told the Nets he felt “sore,”, which, according to Brooklyn’s untrustworthy PR staff, was the reason he and his shiny wardrobe were absent from the Nets’ bench for Game 4.
Except that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that it wasn’t just Simmons’ physical condition that was preventing him from playing--he was still feeling unsure about his mental health. On “NBA Today”, Wojnarowski claimed that Simmons and his agent Rich Paul informed the Nets that Simmons “needed more support, he needed more help” in that department.
As if the Nets and their loaded Performance Team aren’t staffed with highly-trained professionals who know how to deal with those issues.
Whatever—it was par for this season’s course.
Going all the way back to training camp, the Nets learned of another player who would get paid for choosing not to perform, at least in the road games through the first few months of the season. Seven-time NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving refused to get injected with the COVID-19 vaccine, thereby locking him out of games in New York City due to its vaccine mandate.
Never mind the message it sent to his community during a public health crisis, Irving’s illogical obstinance was a haymaker to the jaws of his teammates who were depending on him, no matter what they said publicly in his defense.
Irving acknowledged as much after the Game 4 loss, telling the media, “I felt like I was letting the team down…it became a distraction at times.” Ya think?
As such, the Nets’ season was under duress before it even began. The organization initially banned Irving from all team activities before relenting in December to allow him to play in visiting arenas where permissible.
Little good that did. Irving would play about once or twice per week and then sit out for the remainder, like he was an NFL player. When the mandate was lifted in late March, Irving suddenly was plunged into a normal NBA schedule. As a part-time player for 20 games, Irving’s shooting split was a robust 49.4/43.8/90.8; in his subsequent 9 contests, his efficiency dropped to 41.6/38.4/93.5. After pouring in 39 points in Game 1, Irving averaged a miserable 15.3 ppg on 37.2/18.2/100 shooting over the final three games—and that’s in a series without any back-to-backs.
Worse, if you look back at many of the hustle plays that turned a series in which Boston outscored Brooklyn by a mere total of 18 points, Irving was the culpable Net who neglected to do the little things, like box out on rebounds or contest hard on Boston’s three-point looks.
Irving’s nonsense likely fed into Harden’s growing disillusionment with his situation in Brooklyn. The Beard signed off on the Nets as his destination when demanding a trade out of Houston last season--with the understanding that he’d be part of an offensively-unparalleled Big 3 with KD and Kyrie. He wanted a ring and was willing to subjugate his isolationist game if it helped him win a championship.
Well, Irving wasn’t playing, then he wasn’t playing home games, and then Durant suffered a sprained MCL in his knee, knocking him out for 17 games. Harden had no choice but to revert to his old way of playing, only now without appropriate floor spacers alongside him. He didn’t fare well at all.
Of course, Harden, as he is known to do when things go south, started calling in with ailments and gave half-hearted efforts when he did suit up, forcing General Manager Sean Marks’ hand.
As if Harden’s antics weren’t bad enough, Marks traded him (and Paul Millsap, another player who quit on the team in midseason over playing time complaints) for a package that included Simmons, an even more polarizing player who was booed out of Philly despite earning three All-Star berths for his failure to develop his shooting.
If only the Nets could start fresh next season. Unfortunately, they’re in luxury tax hell, with few assets to offer in trades that would bring back players with size who could also shoot. It also looks like they’ll be stuck with the pair of Simmons and Irving (assuming he either exercises his player option or is extended this offseason), which pretty much guarantees that the Nets will continue to be the House of Dysfunction in 2022-23.
Wait til next year?