The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nets are already preaching patience. That’s not a great sign.

Kevin Durant's Brooklyn Nets are off to a 1-4 start thanks to their underwhelming offense, porous defense and tough schedule. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Every time the Brooklyn Nets take the court, they must contend with the game clock, the shot clock and the ticking clock that Kevin Durant placed around their necks in September.

While explaining his summer trade requests, the 34-year-old forward conceded at media day that he was “getting older” and wanted “to be in a place that’s stable and trying to build a championship culture.” Five games in, the decaying Nets look nothing like contenders, falling to 1-4 with a 129-125 overtime loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday.

Brooklyn ranks 28th in point differential and 30th in defensive efficiency, and its once-vaunted offense, which placed first in 2020-21 and 10th in 2021-22, has slipped to 17th. The Orlando Magic is the only Eastern Conference team with a worse record than Brooklyn. Unlike the Nets, the rebuilding Magic enjoys a long runway thanks to top overall pick Paolo Banchero, who was four years old when Durant made his NBA debut in 2007.

No wonder Durant’s mind shifted into wide-angle mode after a recent loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Asked about Ja Morant’s rapid rise, Durant said: “You can tell the changing of the eras in the league as time goes on. The last 10 years, this next 15 years, you see guys that are in the league right now that are going to help push the game forward.”

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So far, the Nets have taken it on the chin from a murderer’s row of next-generation torchbearers: Zion Williamson pummeled Brooklyn for 25 points on opening night, Morant poured in 38 points on Monday, Giannis Antetokounmpo racked up 43 points and 14 rebounds on Wednesday and Luka Doncic posted 41 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists on Thursday. A strong start might have helped the Nets move past their offseason drama, but this shakiness will surely reopen old wounds if it continues.

There have already been several moments of overt frustration. After fouling out twice in his first three games, Ben Simmons lashed out at what he perceived as “bulls---” officiating. In Brooklyn’s next contest, Steve Nash earned the first ejection of his coaching career for an extended meltdown over an alleged non-call. That same night, a courtside microphone caught Kyrie Irving yelling at Simmons, who continues to play with crippling shyness on offense, to “shoot it.” Irving later repeated the Nets’ company line about Simmons during his postgame comments, telling critics to give the forward “a f---ing chance” to return to form after a season-long mental health absence and offseason back surgery.

Plenty ails the Nets, and the losses are stacking up despite their best player’s solid start and heavy workload. Durant is averaging 33.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4 assists while logging 37.3 minutes per game through five contests, putting him on track for his highest minutes tally since his 2014 MVP campaign. Of course, he attempted to shoulder a similar burden last season and wound up missing 27 games with injuries before a flat postseason showing in a first-round exit. Piling more on Durant’s plate isn’t a viable option given his age and injury history, and the Nets should really be seeking ways to make his basketball life easier.

Finding a more sustainable way to utilize Durant will require significantly better production from Simmons, a 26-year-old former No. 1 pick. When the Nets traded James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers in February, Simmons, who headlined the return package, pictured himself as a fast-paced playmaker “flowing” in transition with Durant and Irving “running alongside.” Meanwhile, Brooklyn surely hoped that the versatile two-time all-defense selection would bolster its perimeter defense and hold his own when asked to guard rival stars.

Those visions haven’t materialized, as Simmons has struggled badly to find his footing. Offensively, he is averaging career-lows — by far — in scoring, usage rate, shot attempts and free throw attempts. His worst misses, like an air ball from point-blank range against Dallas, continue to reek of the self-doubt that plagued him during the end of his Philadelphia tenure. Nash has insisted that it takes time to shake off rust, but it’s alarming that Simmons’s passivity has only worsened following his change of scenery.

Putting aside the incessant shooting concerns, Simmons has been a steep downgrade from Harden as an offensive initiator. Brooklyn’s pace ranks 20th, and Simmons doesn’t command enough respect to consistently generate good looks for his teammates against set defenses. In a stilted my-turn, your-turn offense that has been heavy on isolations for Durant and Irving, Simmons has been okay without getting many turns, and his off-ball presence has cramped Brooklyn’s spacing.

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Some of Simmons’s best moments on offense have come from timely tip-out rebounds and hustle plays, which would be okay if he were a backup center. But much more is required from Harden’s functional replacement, especially considering that Irving is best cast as a scoring guard, not a distributor.

“We’ve got to stick with the process,” Nash said of Simmons this week. “Keep growing and keep improving. He’s a huge piece of our team. We’ve just got to support him, keep working with him and try to give him as much confidence as possible.”

Defensively, Simmons is far from Brooklyn’s weakest link. He came up with a savvy steal on Doncic late in regulation that, with quick thinking, he turned into a transition dunk for Durant. Even so, Simmons has been sloppy with his fouls in the early going, and he was repeatedly attacked by Antetokounmpo and Doncic in one-on-one situations, to great effect. The Nets’ defense has wobbled throughout Nash’s tenure, and it appears headed for another long year without any imposing paint protectors on the roster.

Brooklyn’s schedule difficulty will let up in November, and Nash will expect to get more from Joe Harris and Seth Curry, two valuable shooters who have been working back from ankle injuries. It’s unclear whether that will be enough for the Nets to avoid splintering. Durant previously expressed his frustration with Brooklyn’s inability to handle adversity last season, and both he and Irving eyed offseason trades to greener pastures. Nash, who received public support from Nets owner Joe Tsai in August, remains an obvious fall guy if the struggles continue: The player-friendly culture he attempted to create has backfired, and a hapless defense is bad news for any embattled coach.

This isn’t an easy place for an organization to be, stuck preaching patience so soon after absorbing Durant’s headline-dominating rebukes. Sadly, the franchise player who dreamed of hitting fast-forward is back living a slow-motion reality, grappling again with square one.

“Everything,” Durant said, when asked what the Nets must prioritize to reclaim their winning ways. “You look at your whole team, you look at all your schemes, and try to fine-tune it all.”

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