Whether Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving could collaborate, share the basketball, and play enough defense to bring a championship to New York’s less-advertised NBA franchise were unknowns holding the whole league together.
Now, after being knocked out by the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Nets can’t silence their skeptics until next year. After a 48-24 season and playoffs that only lasted two rounds, the biggest questions about their three stars remain unanswered.
The injuries negated potential basketball problems and neutralized the Nets’ status among Las Vegas punters as title favorites. Durant, Harden and Irving shared the floor for just 43 seconds in the Bucks series. In Game 7, with only Durant as a reliable offensive option and Irving in street gear, Milwaukee outlasted the Nets, 115-111, in overtime at Barclays Center, inflicting searing pain.
“It hurts,” said coach Steve Nash, praising the efforts of Durant, who scored 48 points in 53 minutes in Game 7, and Harden, who also played the 53 minutes, despite straining his hamstrings. leggings. “I suffer for them more than anything.”
The 75th NBA season will be remembered for its Covid-19 protocols, game postponements and empty arenas for months to come. But the Nets became the league’s biggest story on the pitch following their January acquisition of Harden from the Houston Rockets. Five years after GM Sean Marks was hired to save a franchise devoid of elite talent and draft picks, Marks has built a legitimate contender by assembling one of the most impressive offensive lines in the history of the league.
The problem for the Nets wasn’t their defensive shortcomings, the depth they sacrificed to make the trade with the Rockets, the lack of available practice time during the coronavirus pandemic, or Nash’s inexperience as a than a first year coach. That was it: In the regular season, Durant, Harden and Irving were healthy enough to play together for just 202 minutes in eight games. Their 130 minutes together in a five-game sacking of the Boston Celtics in the first round proved to be their only burst of continuity as a unit. Milwaukee has won three of the last four games in the series after Irving’s nasty sprained right ankle in the first half of Game 4.
These playoffs were meant to be an opportunity for the Nets to transfer a slice or two of cultural relevance to Brooklyn from Manhattan to a city teeming with Knicks fans. In the end, neither Marks nor Nash really got to know what the Nets could really look like when they are whole.
A few key moments that got the Nets to this point:
Durant and Irving connect
At the start of the 2019-20 season, there was a lot of speculation about where Durant and Irving would end up. Earlier in the previous season, Irving had pledged to stay with Boston for the long term, while Durant looked to be on the verge of winning another title with Golden State. As the world found out after their seasons ended – Durant’s through a tear in Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals – they wanted to play together.
The Nets had enough salary cap flexibility to sign them and their friend DeAndre Jordan. The Knicks had the same means, but Durant and Irving picked the Nets and took Jordan, who finished the 2018-19 season with the Knicks, with them.
Nets officials took the lead knowing Durant would likely miss his entire first season as a Net while recovering from Achilles’ injury. Irving only played 20 games in his first season in Brooklyn due to shoulder issues. The two are now halfway through their four-year deals.
The Nets rocked the NBA once again by hiring Nash as a coach in September 2020. He had no coaching experience, even at the assistant level, but he won two Most Valuable Player awards and was the one of the best point guard in league history.
He was basically chosen by Marks, his former Phoenix Suns teammate, who felt he had the gravity and communication skills to handle the Nets’ two mercurial stars. Harden would only arrive a few weeks after the start of Nash’s first season on the bench. The Nets also called on Mike D’Antoni, Nash’s former Phoenix coach, for advice to veterans.
“I wasn’t hired to come in and be a tactical assistant,” Nash said on a podcast hosted by NBA sniper JJ Redick.
The hiring of Nash, who is white, has drawn criticism nonetheless, given the shortage of black coaches in the NBA, whose pool of players is estimated to be nearly 80% black. Nash’s hiring came after Jacque Vaughn, who finished the 2019-20 season as the team’s interim coach and unexpectedly got the Nets playing without Durant and Irving in the so-called bubble of the NBA in Florida. Vaughn, who is Black, remained an assistant alongside D’Antoni and Ime Udoka. On ESPN, Stephen A. Smith called Nash’s hiring a “white privilege.”
“Well, I skipped the line, frankly,” Nash said during his introductory press conference. “But at the same time, I think leading an NBA team for almost two decades is pretty unique.”
The blockbuster Harden
Harden entered this season as a disgruntled member of the Rockets. He wanted to leave after D’Antoni and Daryl Morey left the team without an established coach and senior manager, and Harden pushed for a trade with the Nets to reunite with Durant, his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate. It was a bold move for someone with three years left on the contract – and it cemented the Nets as league villains when it worked.
Harden showed up late for training camp to pressure the Rockets to trade him. Appearing in less than optimal form made his disinterest palpable in the eight regular season games he played. The Nets, who started at 6-6, ignored Harden’s checkered resume and widespread skepticism that one ball wouldn’t be enough to satisfy three high-volume scorers, and began trade negotiations.
In a four-team trade, Marks agreed to cede control of the Nets’ top pick until 2027 to the Rockets and sell two young fan favorites, Caris LeVert (in Indiana) and Jarrett Allen (in Cleveland), to land. Harden. As an added bonus, the exchange prevented Harden from landing alongside center Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, after the 76ers offered the Rockets a deal involving Ben Simmons.
The deal remains a bet for the Nets. Every year without a championship will increase the surveillance and the pressure. Management must decide whether to pursue contract extensions with Durant, Harden and Irving that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury wages and taxes or risk one of the three opting for free agency after the next season under their current contracts.
“This is just the start of our journey,” Net owner Joe Tsai said on Twitter. after the defeat of match 7. Known as one of the league’s richest owners alongside Steve Ballmer of the Los Angeles Clippers, Tsai certainly has the financial might to keep the core together.
In the pursuit of Harden and after his arrival, Irving missed seven games in January for personal reasons. Marks said Irving’s sudden downtime and the acquisition were “completely separate.” Still, the Nets felt there was an urgent need to maximize Durant’s championship window and concluded the exchange with that in mind, according to two people familiar with the club’s thinking who were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
The Nets knew they wouldn’t have a training camp to try to get Harden into the squad, but believed that by bringing in a durable player they would almost always have two elite players on the ground. It also became clear, shortly after Harden’s arrival, that he was in the best position to be the team’s playmaker, according to one of the people. Clair, even, for Irving.
“We established that maybe four days ago now,” Irving said in February. “I just looked at him and said, ‘You’re the point guard and I’m going to play the shooter role.’ It was that easy.
Cries that Harden was a luxury item for the Nets quickly faded. The team went 29-8 in the regular season in games Harden played and 12-11 without him.
The health problems started almost immediately; Spencer Dinwiddie was lost to a tear in his knee that ended the season in just three games. Dinwiddie averaged a career-high 20.6 points per game the previous season, and he was meant to be another scoring threat in a team full of them.
Durant overcame his Achilles tear in a big way, ending his season with 49 points against Milwaukee in Game 5 and 48 points in Game 7. But he ended up playing in just 35 of the Nets’ 72 regular season games at cause of a hamstring. injury. Harden, who suffered from his own hamstring injury, missed more time in the regular season (21 of last 23 games) and playoffs than in any previous season.
The Nets were rocked in April when LaMarcus Aldridge, a former All-Star they signed after negotiating a buyout with the San Antonio Spurs, retired at 35 due to long-standing heart disease . Nash used a franchise record of 38 starting rosters in those 72 games and four separate ones in the Bucks Series, building on the well-traveled Jeff Green; Blake Griffin, a former All-Star who joined the team in April; and former Detroit Pistons Griffin teammate Bruce Brown.
For the playoffs, the Nets finally looked healthy – for a round. Harden missed everything but the first minute of the first four games of the Milwaukee Series and lacked an explosion or lift in his legs when he volunteered to return for Game 5 after a sprained ankle d ‘Irving. Green’s plantar fascia strain kept him out of the first three games with the Bucks.
“It’s been a really tough year,” said Nash. “We were thrown a lot. “
Even with injuries and the healthy Milwaukee stars, the Nets came within an inch of moving on to the next round. With a second to go in regulation time in Game 7 and the Nets down 2 points, Durant made a contested right wing shot that looked like a 3 point for the win. But his toe was on the 3-point line, and that counted as a long 2, sending the Nets into overtime rather than the Eastern Conference final.
“My big foot got its foot on the line,” Durant said. “I was just seeing a little screenshot of how close I was to ending their season on this one. But it wasn’t in God’s plan, and we’re moving on.