For the past three seasons, success for the Nets had been rooted in hypotheticals.
Ever since the all-stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant joined the team in the summer of 2019, the Nets had been supremely talented on paper, a team with hopes of multiple N.B.A. championships. On the court, though, they were never good enough to contend. Their specialty, it seemed, was not playoff wins but off-court theater.
Two weeks into a new season, one that was supposed to be a fresh start, the Nets are once again mired in drama. Four days ago, Irving posted a link to an antisemitic documentary on his Twitter account, drawing a public rebuke from the team’s owner, Joe Tsai. On Tuesday, the Nets announced that their coach, Steve Nash, was out. Hours later, General Manager Sean Marks sat down behind a microphone and tried to quiet the gathering storms.
Marks expressed regret about having to fire Nash, but said now that it was done, he would “like to get back to basketball,” to “focus on the things that are important.” Asked why fans would continue to cheer for the Nets with the team’s constant dysfunction, Marks replied, “Look, it’s understandable” if they don’t. He said the Nets had a “window” for winning, one he hoped the next coach would maximize with the current roster. But that may take longer than he likes: An hour or so after he finished his news conference, the Nets took the court again, and lost again.
Marks’s problem, the Nets’ problem, is there is no real proof that this team or that any of the other teams assembled during Irving and Durant’s tenure were built to win a championship. Since 2019, the deepest the Nets have advanced in the playoffs was the Eastern Conference semifinals two years ago. Durant carried the offensive load largely by himself in that series, with Irving and the now-departed James Harden mostly sidelined with injuries. If Durant had worn a smaller shoe — one that kept his toe behind the 3-point line on a critical shot — the Game 7 overtime loss that ended the Nets season that year might have been a win.
But “what ifs” have always been the story of these Nets.
After an off-season in which it seemed as if Durant and Irving would be traded (Durant by request), both returned to Brooklyn instead. The Nets trotted out a revamped roster that also included Ben Simmons and Joe Harris, who were returning from injuries, and the new addition Royce O’Neale, but they struggled out of the gate. The Nets opened the season 1-4 even before the backlash to Irving’s antisemitic post began to take attention away from basketball. Simmons has missed the last two games with injuries. And Tuesday’s defeat dropped them to 2-6; at the moment, only the Orlando Magic (1-7) are keeping them out of last place.
And while Nash paid the price for those struggles, many of the Nets’ issues are things that would have been problems for any coach: not only Irving’s social media and Durant’s changing commitment, but also Simmons’s difficulty finding his rhythm on the court; a lack of depth in the frontcourt; and an inability to close out games.
“It was a difficult task, first of all, for Steve,” Harris said after Tuesday night’s loss to the Chicago Bulls. “It was not an easy job for him, given especially how much turnover we had.”
“There was a lot going on,” he added, “and it made for a difficult job.”
While Durant said he was “shocked” to wake up from a nap and find out Nash had been fired, he did not seem surprised by the move. Durant said he had not been consulted about Nash’s firing but admitted that he “knew that everybody was being evaluated.”
“That’s just how it is in the league,” Durant said. “I like working with Steve. I like working with the coaching staff, and it was a roller coaster the last few years. But you know, at the core of it, basketball is something that we all love to do. So regardless of who the coach is, regardless of the circumstances, still got to come to work.”
On Tuesday night, the Nets took the floor against the Bulls, with the assistant coach Jacque Vaughn in Nash’s seat. Vaughn will serve as the interim coach until the Nets find a permanent leader; he said he did not know how long that would take.
But the Vaughn-directed Nets looked like the same team they had been all season. Simmons sat out with an injury. They struggled on the defensive end, and particularly at the end, when they allowed Bulls guard Zach LaVine to outscore the Nets by himself (20 points to 19) in the final period. And while Durant looked dominant with 32 points, the Nets again appeared to be a team with an incorrect combination of players.
But, at least hypothetically, the Nets say they still believe they can win a championship.
“We got everything you need and more,” said O’Neale, who noted — correctly but rather optimistically — that there were still 74 games left in the season.
Durant said the Nets’ issues, in fact, were not unusual.
“It’s the N.B.A.,” he said. “Everybody got volatility. Outside people might look at what we do as bigger than what it is, but we come to work every single day. I mean, guys ask for trades before coaches get fired. You know, we have disagreements in our locker room. That happens in the N.B.A. But at the end of the day, we all came to work. It just didn’t work out on the floor.”
It’s hard to say when it will work out. Simmons has a knee injury. Irving might be suspended for promoting the antisemitic documentary (Marks said the team was having internal discussions). And after Durant asked to be traded over the summer, it’s not hard to imagine him asking for that again.
“I just want a good coach,” Durant said Tuesday. “I’m sure Sean and the staff will do a good job trying to figure that out.”