The match was over and the Barclays Center crowd chanted “MVP”. Fans wore NBA jerseys in all team colors and their star raised his arms to greet their praise.
But Kyrie Irving was already heading to the locker room. The same was true for Kevin Durant. Ben Simmons wasn’t even in the building. It was no party for the Nets, who play their home games here. It was for the Boston Celtics, for their star Jayson Tatum, and for the team that had just accomplished a once unthinkable feat: a four-game sweep of the Nets in the first round of the playoffs. The Nets superteam the Celtics faced, built around Irving and Durant to win a championship in June, didn’t even make it to May.
It was a dismal scene to end a season that started with inflated expectations in October. The Nets had three of the best players on the planet, a cast of characters that was the NBA’s version of “Ocean’s Eleven.” The league’s team managers feared them. In fact, in a preseason poll conducted by NBA.com, 72% of league general managers predicted the Nets would win the title. The Los Angeles Lakers finished second, with 17% of the vote, proving that no one knew much: the Lakers didn’t make the playoffs at all.
However, at the start of the season, a big question arose: what could prevent these two teams from meeting in the NBA Finals? Who else but LeBron James could possibly prevent Durant from delivering the Nets their first NBA title? And who but Durant could stand in the way of James’s quest for a fifth championship?
It turned out that many would stand in their way.
The Nets and Lakers have failed — spectacularly — at creating successful superteams, though the failures have different roots. For the Nets, it was a mixture of the absurd: a star who wouldn’t get a coronavirus shot; another star who wanted out after forcing his way to the Nets in the first place; a substitute star who didn’t even show up for the playoff game.
For the Lakers, it was pure Hollywood: an aging former All-Star who wanted the ball for himself when his coach wanted him to share it; a team of has-beens hoping for a last hurrah; the A-list star trying to carry the team, but unable to do so as he had so many times before. The young opponents laughed at them, openly, and reveled in hastening their disappearance.
The Nets also had their detractors.
“I know so many people wanted to see us fail at this point, picked us as contenders and have so much to say at this point,” Irving said after Monday’s season-ending loss, “so I just use it as fuel for the summer.”
In Brooklyn, there were problems from the start. Irving refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. And because of New York City ordinances that required most individuals to be at least partially vaccinated to enter facilities such as sports arenas, the Nets gave Irving an ultimatum: Get vaccinated or stay away. the House. Irving chose to stay home. The season started without him.
In mid-December, the Nets relented when they allowed Irving to join them as a part-time employee for most road games. In a twist, they needed him, they said, because of the coronavirus itself: Seven of their players had been kicked out of a game against the Orlando Magic because they went into the protocols of NBA Covid-19 health and safety, leaving the team short-handed. The Nets had also lost Joe Harris, one of their best outside shooters, to an ankle injury.
Just weeks into the season, the Nets superteam was beginning to unravel. Younger teams weren’t impressed with them. It didn’t help much that James Harden had one of his worst NBA seasons. But he was still taking his share of shots — at Irving. At one point, Harden told reporters he would vaccinate Irving himself, revealing a glimpse of his frustration. As Harden grew increasingly disgruntled, the Nets pulled the plug, sending him to the Philadelphia 76ers in February in exchange for a package including Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and draft picks.
It was a quick end to the Nets superteam experiment, showing how hard it can be to build a roster with store-bought stars: You can’t just round them up and expect it to work. , regardless of their individual talent.
Yet amid the wreckage of the Nets’ midseason trade, a new superteam has emerged — one that was supposed to include Simmons, a three-time All-Star selected No. 1 overall in 2016. The problem was that Simmons arrived with a recalcitrant back and self. – described mental health problems. He couldn’t train, let alone play on the pitch.
The blows kept coming. Durant missed 21 games with a sprained knee. The Nets went on a losing streak, which dropped them in the Eastern Conference standings. The team tried to shore up their backcourt by signing Goran Dragic, but he later tested positive for the virus. New York City eventually lifted its vaccination orders, which meant Irving could play in home games. But that left the Nets little time to build playoff chemistry.
Even then, they had to scramble for a playoff spot.
“I wish we had more continuity as a group, but that’s just the league – every team goes through it,” Durant said this week, adding: “It’s a lot of things going on every throughout a season you need to go well in order for you to be a good team, and a lot of things haven’t gone our way.
For the Nets, having to go through the play-in tournament to enter the playoffs was a minor disaster. What happened to the Lakers was worse.
The entire team was vaccinated before the season to avoid the kinds of disruptions the Nets have experienced, but other hurdles have arisen. Injuries to eight-time All-Star James and Anthony Davis made continuity difficult. A coronavirus outbreak in December meant the available roster was constantly changing. Worse still, the combinations on the pitch weren’t working.
It has a lot to do with Russell Westbrook, who the Lakers traded for last summer, expecting him to be a third superstar alongside James and Davis.
Westbrook, 33, was the most available of the three Lakers stars, but he was also the least effective.
Midway through the season, it was clear Westbrook wasn’t going to deliver the superstar level of play that helped him win the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2017 with Oklahoma City. (No MVP chants this year.) Opponents began to ridicule his shot selection and air balls. He was uncomfortable with an offense that didn’t cross him. The Lakers had hoped that Westbrook could help stabilize the team when James was off the court, but it didn’t work.
Westbrook would later accuse coach Frank Vogel of having a personal problem with him, saying he had never had a problem with a coach or teammate before.
“You don’t know it, but it was Frank and his wife’s birthday and I sent him a bottle of champagne to his hotel room, which you don’t know anything about, because it’s a good thing to do, a nice gesture,” Westbrook said at a press conference after the Lakers’ season ended. He added: “I don’t know what his problem was with me.”
Vogel was let go after the season and Westbrook, James and Davis only played 21 games together. Their union hasn’t been productive on the field, which has left the Lakers with limited options to improve the rest of their roster.
On Jan. 9, the Lakers took on a Memphis Grizzlies team on an eight-game winning streak led by 22-year-old star Ja Morant. Among Morant’s highlights that night was a dunk and a two-handed block. James began barking at Morant’s teammate Desmond Bane, 23, who later told reporters he had told James no one was scared of his steps anymore. Their teammate Ziaire Williams played on the same high school team as James’s son, LeBron James Jr., known as Bronny.
With losses piling up and nothing changing, the tension mounts.
When James praised other team leaders in February, some wondered if those compliments were meant to contrast Lakers vice president and general manager Rob Pelinka. James also told The Athletic that he didn’t close the door on ever returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The following week, Rich Paul, James’ agent and business partner, met with Pelinka and team owner Jeanie Buss to assure them that James wanted to be a long-term Laker.
The franchise has long enjoyed star players and often won championships. Magic Johnson became a lifelong friend to Buss, after her father bought the team in 1979. Kobe Bryant spent his entire career with the Lakers, winning five championships – three with Shaquille O’Neal and two with Pau Gasol . The team prioritized giving him a remarkable farewell in his final season rather than developing the team’s young players.
Other times, their affinity for the stars has cost them dearly.
During the 2012-13 season, the Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, hoping they could pursue another championship with Bryant. Injuries and mismatched personalities have imploded this team. It ended in a first-round playoff loss and Bryant tore his Achilles tendon just over a week before the playoffs, which hastened the end of his career.
The Lakers missed the playoffs for the next six years. They only recovered when James and Davis joined forces and won the 2020 championship.
A first-round exit in 2021 led to the trade with Washington for Westbrook. The Lakers believed the move would help them win the 18th franchise championship. He does not have.
The Nets had their own title ambitions this season and still hoped to regroup in the playoffs. But the Celtics were expecting them in the first round, with an arsenal of homegrown stars. They had drafted almost all of them, including Tatum and Jaylen Brown, their best players, and Marcus Smart, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Of course, the Celtics hadn’t objected to acquiring big-name players in the past: They traded for Irving in 2017. But after two disappointing and drama-filled seasons in Boston, he flew to Brooklyn. .
And Irving was there Monday, swearing Brooklyn was where he wanted to be: “I’m here with Kev,” he said, and they would “run this franchise together” with the team’s front office.
They originally came together to win championships, and so far they haven’t been successful. But the dreams behind the superteams are undefeated — remember, the Lakers and the Nets had tried before — even if the superteams themselves sometimes fail.
Irving added, “I’ve been recognized for my greatness, but at this point I really want to be on a great team.”