Brooklyn Nets must alter their approach after a first-round sweep

By Yaron Weitzman
FOX Sports NBA Writer

NEW YORK, NY – The good news for the Brooklyn Nets is that it would be difficult for more to go wrong.

We can start with Kevin Durant‘s insistence is playing basketball in sneakers a size too largewhich, you might argue, cost the Nets a Game 7 victory over the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks last season – and think how different things would’ve been if the Nets had advanced to those conference finals.

Maybe that series win leads to another (and even some rings) or at least solidifies the bond among the team’s stars, which, perhaps, might have come in handy when the vaccine mandate instituted as the result of a once-in-a-century global pandemic (just read that sentence again and think about how you would have reacted to those words three years ago) transformed Kyrie Irving into a part-time player, which angered James Harden, who responded by loafing, which angered Durant, which alienated Harden, which led to a trade for Ben Simmonswho, it turned out, was not actually ready to play basketball.

Toss in there a series of ankle injuries that cost Joe Harris the majority of the season, and you answer the riddle of how a team that entered the season boasting three top-20 players just got swept out of the playoffs’ first round.

“I think the totality of all the stuff we face,” Nets head coach Steve Nash told reporters Monday night after the Nets’ season-ending 116-112 loss to the Boston Celtics“I think it just puts a strain on everybody.”

This is the thing the Nets can carry with them going forward. Considering everything they’ve endured, there’s even a case to be made that this season wasn’t the colossal failure it appears to be. Sure, they were swept in the first round. But they lost the four games by a combined 18 points, and that’s with two starters – earning a combined $ 50 million – out of the lineup.

“I’m proud of how we just kept fighting and kept keeping the faith,” Durant said after the loss. “Every day was trying to work towards something. You can take that away from the season.”

But there’s also no way around the fact that three years after handing control of the franchise to Irving and Durant, the Nets have just one playoff series win. That’s exactly what they got out of the group led by D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen before the team decided to replace them with stars, and it’s exactly the sort of fate the Nets and general manager Sean Marks were trying to avoid.

“Championship. That’s it,” Marks told a group of season-ticket holders in February when asked about the team’s expectations.

The window to fulfill those expectations isn’t closed. But it is getting smaller, and the roster is only going to get older and more expensive. Durant is signed through the 2025-26 season. Irving has the ability this summer to opt out of his current contract and sign an extension, which he has indicated is his plan.

“When I say I’m here with Kevin, I think it really entails us, you know, managing this franchise together alongside [managing partner] Joe [Tsai] and Sean, “they got Monday night.

Would the Nets be thrilled about signing a 30-year-old guard with a history of inconsistency to a mega contract? No, but it’s also not their choice. Durant and Irving are a packaged deal. The Nets aren’t going against the wishes of their star.

Now it’s up to Marks to surround the two with more talent, youth and size so that they don’t have to trot out playoff lineups featuring multiple undersized guards such as Goran Dragic and Seth Curry.

This is where Simmons comes in and why, if and when he does return to the court, he has the potential to be a difference-maker for this group. He’s big and fast and a lockdown defender and a good passer and a generator of easy shots. These are all traits the Nets lack and all deficiencies the Celtics exposed.

“Ben is good. We have his back,” Irving said of Simmons on Monday. “He’s going to be good for next year.”

Some have called for the Nets to make a coaching change. Durant scoffed at the idea Monday, saying, “Steve’s been dealt a crazy hand for the last two years. He’s had to deal with so much stuff as a good coach, a first-time coach: trades, injuries, COVID. It’s just a lot of stuff he’s had to deal with, and I’m proud of how he’s focused and his passion for us. ”

But the Nets could benefit from adding some veteran coaches to Nash’s staff. They’d also be wise to stack the bench with young wings, as opposed to the former All-Star big men on their last legs.

In other words: It’s time for them to start focusing on the little areas of team building, to meld their two most recent eras. They went all-in on the stars, and so far, it hasn’t worked. That doesn’t mean the plan is destined to fail.

It does, however, mean that it is time for the Nets to alter their approach.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports“Follow him on Twitter at @YaronWeitzman.

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