The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nets need a culture reset after their humbling sweep by the Celtics

Kevin Durant saw his season end Monday night. (John Minchillo/AP)

NEW YORK — Before the Brooklyn Nets can pick up the pieces of their broken roster and begin the arduous task of reassembling a championship contender, they must make a painful admission: Their approach to culture-building has been a complete failure.

When the Nets gave Steve Nash his first coaching job in 2020, his laid-back personality and ability to relate to enigmatic superstars such as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were among his chief attributes. Nash captained up-tempo, entertaining and highly successful offenses during his Hall of Fame career, and Brooklyn would chase titles in that same mold, prioritizing freedom and flow over rules and systems. Durant and Irving appeared to welcome the change from Kenny Atkinson, a stricter personality known for developing younger players, in part because they were eager to do things their way. Nash was cast as a beach bum or a substitute teacher who wouldn’t freak out about every defensive lapse or ambitious shot attempt.

“I think it’s also going to change the way we see coaches,” Irving said on a podcast after Nash’s hiring. “I don’t really see us having a head coach, you know what I mean? [Durant] could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.”

Durant added that coaching the Nets would be a “collaborative effort.”

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Together, the Nets self-combusted in spectacular fashion, entering the season as title favorites and exiting early thanks to a humbling first-round sweep delivered by the Boston Celtics. In Boston’s 116-112 Game 4 victory Monday, Durant scored 39 points and led a too-little, too-late fourth-quarter rally that fell short. Irving managed a quiet 20 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

With just one playoff series victory since they teamed up in 2019, it’s clear that Durant and Irving overestimated their leadership skills and vastly underrated the importance of traditional checks and balances in an organization. The Nets were consumed by all types of adversity, but much of their instability can be traced back to their willingness to cede so much authority to their stars.

Irving’s decision to remain unvaccinated — and the Nets’ muddled response — set the tone for a wasted season. The Nets, unable to convince Irving to get the shot so he could play full time, tried in vain to hold him accountable by sending him home. Less than two months later, they folded and welcomed him back on a part-time basis, willing to juggle their starting lineup and disrupt the rest of their roster to accommodate their star guard.

The mixed messages exposed Brooklyn’s desperation and contributed to James Harden’s desire to push for a midseason trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. When Durant went down with a knee injury in January, the Nets, who entered the season as title favorites and aspired to be a superteam, were revealed as a one-man band missing its only reliable centerpiece.

Harden quickly concluded that the 76ers represented greener pastures. After all, Irving’s vaccination saga was bound to hang over the Nets for months, and their resulting lack of chemistry was likely to prove fatal in the playoffs.

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By season’s end, Brooklyn had paid Irving $34.9 million to appear in 33 games, including the playoffs. Irving could have saved some face with a dominant postseason, but he turned in three straight forgettable showings after a 39-point performance in a Game 1 loss. After months of noise surrounding his vaccination saga, the seven-time all-star exited with a whimper.

“So many people wanted to see us fail at this juncture,” Irving said. “[They] picked us as contenders and have so much to say at this point. I’m just using that as fuel for the summer. Hopefully we don’t run into any barriers [next season] and we can just start fresh and be realistic with our own expectations and live with our team results.”

Durant, to his credit, rarely complained publicly during the tumultuous campaign, but he wore the weight of his extreme burden throughout the Celtics series. In perhaps the most disappointing playoff run of his career, Durant was outplayed by Jayson Tatum and held in check by Boston’s top-ranked defense. His ineffectiveness was somewhat understandable — he logged more than 38 minutes per game after the all-star break and averaged 44 in the playoffs. No matter the problem over the past two years, Nash’s solution has been to turn to Durant for all the answers.

With his 34th birthday approaching in September, Durant needs to rethink his approach to playing time if he hopes to remain among the game’s best throughout his four-year contract extension, which will keep him in Brooklyn through the 2025-26 season. Durant needs a coach and a front office that are committed to protecting him from himself, a la San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich’s careful handling of Tim Duncan’s latter years. If Brooklyn stays the course, Durant will run into the same problems next April and May.

“No regrets,” Durant said. “S--- happens. No crying over spilled milk. It’s about how we can progress and get better from here. We’ve been through a lot this year. Even the great teams don’t dwell on what they do.”

The Nets’ ill-fated dalliance with Harden was another example of the perils of being too player-friendly: Durant was glad to welcome his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate into the mix last year but unable or unwilling to convince him to ride out this year’s choppy waters.

Instead of staring down Harden and taking another shot with their “Big 3,” the Nets caved again and gambled on taking back Ben Simmons from the 76ers. That blew up in their faces: Simmons never played and backed out of a plan to suit up during the playoffs, citing back soreness. Nash admitted Monday that there was a “mental component” to Simmons’s absence and expressed the organization’s support but otherwise offered no insight on the forward’s disappearing act.

Nash’s defenders, such as TNT analyst and former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy, have rightly pointed out that injury issues and a major midseason trade are beyond any coach’s control. Durant expressed his support after Game 4, noting that Nash had “been dealt a crazy hand” over the past two years.

“We’ve had different iterations of our team,” Nash said before Game 4. “We had a month of covid-19. We had the [James Harden] trade. We had Kevin’s injury. We had Kyrie’s absence, part-time and full-time. It’s something we’ve all had to grow from. It’s challenged us in a lot of ways and, if anything, it’s made us better and stronger. All of that is definitely a factor in where we sit right now.”

But those excuses don’t absolve Nash or Brooklyn’s front office from responsibility for creating an environment where Irving answered to no one, where Harden wanted out, where Simmons never showed up and where Durant ran himself into the ground.

That’s well short of a championship standard, and the Nets paid for it during a one-sided series in which they were thoroughly outworked and out-executed. Nash’s joyous vision of the game was replaced by choppy, isolation-heavy offense and a scrambled defense that couldn’t get stops when they were most needed. Remarkably, Brooklyn was the only team in the 16-team playoff field not to win a game.

The Nets find themselves in the same spot as the 2020 76ers, the 2021 Celtics and this year’s Los Angeles Lakers, forced to confront the possibility of a coaching change or a radical roster overhaul after a humbling first-round exit. After their many trials and tribulations, they need to absorb this lesson: There’s a fine line between empowering stars and dereliction of duty.

To salvage the balance of Durant’s prime, Brooklyn can’t settle for anything less than a philosophical reset. With or without Nash, the first step for the Nets is to recalibrate their power balance.

But Irving, who is eligible for a contract extension this summer, sang the same distorted tune as he expressed plans to return.

“When I say I’m here with [Durant], that really entails us managing this franchise alongside [owner Joe Tsai and General Manager Sean Marks],” he said. “We’ve got to make some moves this offseason and really talk about it and really be intentional about what we’re building — have some fun with it and make it enjoyable.”

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