Mired in an uninspired start on the court and consumed by another round of off-court controversy, the Brooklyn Nets parted ways with Coach Steve Nash on Tuesday just seven games into the NBA season.
In a statement, Nets General Manager Sean Marks said that Nash had “faced a number of unprecedented challenges” and that the Nets were “sincerely grateful for his leadership, patience and humility throughout his tenure.”
At a news conference later Tuesday, Marks revealed that Nash concluded that the Nets were no longer responding to his coaching, saying the two men agreed that it was “time to make a change.” Marks said that he hadn’t sought any player input on the move.
“To be frank, the team wasn’t doing what it was supposed to be doing,” Marks said. “We had fallen from our goals. … We saw games this year where, I’ll be honest, I don’t think we’ve brought it. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. There were times where a quarter was taken off, a half was taken off, a game was taken off, and we didn’t compete.”
The Nets began pursuing exiled Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka as Nash’s full-time replacement, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. Marks said Tuesday that the Nets had “absolutely not” settled on Nash’s replacement, adding that they would target a candidate who is “competitive, has a voice and will be able to hold guys accountable” while also possessing “poise and charisma.”
Udoka was suspended by the Celtics for the season in September for having an inappropriate relationship with a female team staffer. The 45-year-old Udoka served as a USA Basketball assistant coach at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where Nets forward Kevin Durant led a gold medal-winning effort, and as an assistant on Nash’s staff during the 2020-21 season. Boston, which replaced Udoka with assistant Joe Mazzulla on an interim basis, is not expected to block Udoka if the Nets offer him the job.
Following a turbulent summer in which Durant requested a trade, Brooklyn started the season 2-5 and possesses the NBA’s 29th-ranked defense. The first two weeks of the season were filled with warning signs: Ben Simmons lashed out at referees after fouling out twice in his first three games, Nash earned the first ejection of his career last week for an angry confrontation with officials, and Kyrie Irving was caught on a courtside microphone yelling at Simmons to shoot the ball.
Meanwhile, Irving drew significant criticism after posting about an antisemitic film on social media last week. The NBA, the National Basketball Players Association, the Nets and owner Joe Tsai all rebuked Irving in separate statements, but the all-star guard refused to apologize in a heated postgame exchange with reporters Saturday. Irving, who eventually deleted his post about the film, has yet to face punishment from the NBA or the Nets, though he was greeted by a row of fans seated courtside wearing “Fight antisemitism” T-shirts during Monday’s win over the Indiana Pacers in Brooklyn. This latest saga followed a season-long ordeal over Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“I’m certainly not proud of the situation we find ourselves in,” Marks said, when asked about backlash to Irving’s post. “I’d like to get back to basketball. … There is no tolerance and no room for any hate speech or antisemitic remarks in this organization.”
Tsai and Marks spent the summer pledging to change Brooklyn’s dysfunctional culture after a humiliating first-round series sweep against the Celtics. Tsai backed Nash in August following a report that Durant was seeking a coaching change, but the Hall of Fame point guard nevertheless entered the season on the hot seat because of Brooklyn’s unresolved culture questions and need to improve its internal accountability.
Nash, known for his laid-back personality off the court, was hired in 2020 as a player-friendly alternative to Atkinson, who was regarded as a disciplinarian. Brooklyn envisioned the two-time MVP overseeing a free-flowing offense that made the most of Durant’s and Irving’s skills. The plan came together in his first season, as the Nets traded for James Harden, boasted the NBA’s best offense and reached the conference semifinals, in which they lost a heartbreaking Game 7 to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Along the way, Nash proved willing to cede key coaching decisions, such as how many minutes his stars played in postseason games, even when they were injured. Last season, the Nets solidified their reputation for bending to the whims of their stars when they allowed Irving, who was ineligible to play in New York City because of a local vaccine mandate, to return as a part-time player. That decision forced Nash to constantly juggle his starting lineups, and Irving’s inconsistent presence was a contributing factor to Harden’s desire to seek a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers in February.
Nash was therefore left without his best playmaker, and Harden’s replacement, Simmons, has been a shell of himself following back surgery and a season-long mental health absence. The Nets’ once-vaunted offense has slipped to 16th this season, and it has lacked the pace and ball movement necessary to make Brooklyn a top contender. With the Nets heading down the same path as last year, or perhaps a worse one, they had every motivation to make Nash the first coach to be dismissed this season.
“I’ve gotten to know Steve during his time in Brooklyn, and he is not one to shy away from challenges,” Tsai said in a statement. “My admiration and respect for him grew over time as he brought hard work and positive attitude to our organization every day, even in periods of exceptional storm surrounding the team.”
Nash retired after an 18-year playing career in 2014, dabbling in player development work and soccer commentary before being hired by the Nets. His hiring drew criticism because he had received a plum gig — a big-market team with superstar talent — without paying his dues as an assistant coach. Nash acknowledged at the time that he had “skipped the line,” but he argued that his playing experience would help him connect with players. Instead, his inexperience managing a locker room contributed to his swift exit.
“It was an amazing experience with many challenges that I’m incredibly grateful for,” Nash said in a statement. “I wish the Nets all the success in the world and the Nash’s will be rooting for our team as they turn this season around.”