The Nets Fell Apart From the Top

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant didn’t trade themselves from the Nets.

They didn’t hire Steve Nash to coach the team, even though he had no experience.

They didn’t trade for — and then trade away — James Harden.

They didn’t sign off on Irving playing only part-time because he would not get the coronavirus vaccine.

As players, they couldn’t have done any of those things. But the team owner Joe Tsai and General Manager Sean Marks could. And they did.

Over the past three and a half years, the Nets’ ambitious plans to form a championship-winning superteam have fallen apart in fits and starts, finally imploding over the past week with the trades of Irving and Durant. Those two superstars have become the faces of the collapse, but the rubble of the franchise may reveal that the problem extends to the foundation — to the people who had the power to avert disaster many times and never did.

During a news conference on Thursday, Marks was asked whether he deemed the Durant and Irving era in Brooklyn a failure.

“I think it would be easy to look in from the outside,” Marks said. “And, you know, honestly, I look at it internally and say, ‘Wow, it didn’t work.’ Like, let’s be honest there. We did not reach the full potential of where we thought we could get to.”

‘We do have the pieces’

In the summer of 2019, Durant and Irving spurned the Knicks and joined the Nets in free agency. Tsai, a billionaire co-founder of the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba, assumed full control of the Nets and Barclays Center at a record-setting $2.35 billion team valuation. The Nets were primed to be not just the dominant basketball power in New York, but also in the N.B.A.

“I think the fans expect that we win a championship,” Tsai said in a YES Network interview months later. “And the good thing is, I believe that we do have the pieces in place.”

Few teams ever do, and the Nets, it’s now clear, didn’t either. But it wasn’t for one of the most common reasons — a cheap owner — since Tsai has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury tax penalties for his starry teams over the past three seasons.

But he waffled on key decisions, signed aging veterans who were little help and tolerated behavior that eroded the team’s culture. He was more visible than most team owners, often sitting courtside at games and posting on Twitter in response to rumors about team drama. The N.B.A. has fined him for criticizing officiating on Twitter.

Tsai also has been willing to use his financial muscle to help his players, even if it invited public criticism. He arranged for all of the Nets to be tested for the coronavirus early in the pandemic when tests were scarce for the general public, earning a rebuke from then-Mayor Bill de Blasio. Tsai also owns the W.N.B.A.’s Liberty, and in 2021 the women’s league fined the team $500,000 for secretly chartering flights to games for the players. Tsai has been critical of the W.N.B.A. requirement that players fly on commercial airlines.

But catering to players can backfire, as Tsai found out.

Steve Nash won two Most Valuable Player Awards as an N.B.A. player, but he had no coaching experience when he was hired to coach the Nets in September 2020.Credit…Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

A coach with no experience

Coaching is typically considered a crucial piece for superstar-laden teams. Coaches must manage egos, maximize talent and manage workloads, all while winning basketball games. Only Golden State’s Steve Kerr has won a championship as a rookie head coach without having been an assistant coach first.

But for the Nets superteam, Tsai and Marks decided their head coach would be Nash, who won two Most Valuable Player Awards as an N.B.A. player but had no coaching experience. They drew criticism for overlooking Jacque Vaughn, an experienced Black assistant coach, for Nash, who is white. The hiring, in September 2020, came at a time when only seven of the N.B.A.’s 30 team head coaches weren’t white. Most N.B.A. players are Black.

But Nash and Marks were teammates on the Phoenix Suns, and Nash knew Durant because he consulted for Golden State when Durant played there.

Irving almost immediately undermined Nash during an appearance on Durant’s podcast, saying: “I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean? K.D. could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.”

While both expressed their respect for Nash, Irving’s comments indicated that the Nets would need structure and accountability, since Durant and Irving were already resisting the traditional hierarchy. For his part, Durant responded to Irving and called the partnership with Nash “a collaborative effort.” It was a glaring instance in which leadership experience might have made a difference. After Durant requested a trade over the summer, he described a culture on the Nets that seemed adrift.

“I went to them and was like: ‘Yo, I don’t like how we are preparing. I don’t like shootarounds. I like practices. I need more,’” Durant told Bleacher Report in November.

He added, “Hold me accountable.”

The Nets fired Nash in November and hired Vaughn.

Irving vs. Tsai

Nowhere were the cautionary signs for the Nets more clear than in the rift between Tsai and Irving. Irving declined to take the coronavirus vaccine as the 2021-22 season got underway, but Tsai was a vocal proponent of vaccines, telling ESPN that it wasn’t “a matter of belief” but rather a scientific “matter of fact.”

Irving became a liability. He was not allowed to play in home games because of a local vaccine mandate, and he showed no signs of changing his mind. Tsai and Marks allowed him to become a distraction. First, they said he would not be allowed to play in road games either, citing the harm to the organizational culture of having him play only part-time. But just two months later, they changed their minds, even though Irving hadn’t changed his and the team was in first place in the Eastern Conference.

It sent the message that Irving could play by his own rules.

About a year earlier, the Nets acquired Harden from Houston by trading away promising young players. But soon after Irving was allowed to return, Harden stunned the Nets by asking for a trade. Harden later told reporters that Irving’s decision to not get vaccinated had a “very minimal” effect on his trade request, but he acknowledged that “it definitely did impact the team.”

The Nets quickly acquiesced to Harden in February 2022 by trading him to the Philadelphia 76ers, the competitor of his choice, instead of riding out the season, since they were playing well, or giving themselves time to explore all of their options to be sure they were getting the best deal.

In December, Harden told Fox Sports why he wanted out of Brooklyn.

“It was just, there was no structure and even superstars, they need structure,” Harden said. “That’s what allows us to be the best players and leaders.”

Four days after the Nets sent Harden to Philadelphia, one of the popular players they had traded away to get him from Houston — center Jarrett Allen — was named an All-Star with his new team in Cleveland.

Days after trading Kyrie Irving, the Nets reached a deal to send Kevin Durant to the Phoenix Suns.Credit…Brad Penner/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Last chance

Even after the Boston Celtics embarrassed the Nets last year by sweeping them in the first round of the playoffs, the Nets still had a shot to fulfill the promise of Durant and Irving this season. The Nets leadership attempted a culture reset — a public display that they would not be pushed around by stars anymore. When asked about Irving receiving a long-term extension, Marks demurred.

“I think we know what we’re looking for,” Marks told reporters in May. “We’re looking for guys that want to come in here and be part of something bigger than themselves.”

After Durant requested a trade in the off-season, Tsai tweeted support for the front office and coaching staff. A few weeks later in August, Durant backed off his request and Marks said the sides had “agreed to move forward with our partnership.”

Then in October, when Irving refused to disavow antisemitism or apologize after posting a link to an antisemitic film on Twitter, Tsai publicly rebuked him and suspended him.

Irving missed eight games. But when he returned, the Nets showed their tantalizing potential once again, going 18-2 in one stretch, only to unravel again as Durant got injured and Irving’s contract-extension talks fell apart and he asked to be traded.

“I want to be in a place where I’m celebrated and not just tolerated or just kind of dealt with in a way that doesn’t make me feel respected,” Irving said Tuesday, a day after the Nets traded him to the Dallas Mavericks.

Two days later, the Nets traded Durant, too, to Phoenix. “We believe making this trade now positions the franchise for long-term success,” Marks said Thursday in a statement.

Marks, at a news conference Thursday, was asked what his message would be to Nets fans who expected to see a championship contender this year.

“That’s honestly tough,” Marks said. “But my goal here and our goal is, from ownership all the way down, is to put something out on the floor that everybody can be proud of.”

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