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The Nets Are an Embarrassment

From Kyrie’s shameful comments to the team’s pitiful play, there’s no bigger disaster on or off the court in the NBA than Brooklyn

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The Brooklyn Nets are 1-5, with a net rating that makes even the Los Angeles Lakers look down at them with pity. Their 30th-ranked defense looks hopeless. The offense that was supposed to be their saving grace is statistically just average and aesthetically tepid. Brooklyn’s starting five stinks and its depth is either too young or one-dimensional to positively contribute on both ends.

Thanks to a critically thin frontcourt, the Nets rank dead last in defensive rebounding rate and can’t utilize Ben Simmons (more on him later) at the 5 as much as they probably should. When he plays next to another non-shooting big, Brooklyn’s spacing is compromised. But even though moving Simmons to center may loosen things up, doing so will exacerbate the team’s more significant weaknesses on the other end.

It’s a frustrating roster despite the big names. On paper, they can make a deep playoff run. In reality, they’re the basketball team equivalent of George Costanza braving the winter cold in a Russian sable hat while neglecting the importance of a coat. To put this imbroglio into perspective: Kevin Durant is averaging 32 points per game, making over half his shots, and posting a career-high usage rate. He’s also minus-67 in 225 minutes. That’s this season’s fifth-worst plus/minus, among 436 players who qualify.

If these problems sound like a lot, they are. But compared to the unresolved chemistry and identity issues that stem from Brooklyn’s willingness to be led by three highly volatile and unsteady superstar personalities, they also seem peripheral.

Kyrie Irving, once primarily known as a supremely gifted basketball virtuoso, can now be most accurately described as a crass, incoherent provocateur, not only prone to believing every conspiracy he absorbs online but also motivated to share them with his millions of followers, regardless of how baseless or hurtful the beliefs might be. On Saturday, as he fielded questions about his decision to tweet a link to the 2018 documentary Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, a film that endorses antisemitic messaging, he was antagonistic and defiant.

“I’m not going to stand down on anything I believe in,” Irving said. “I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone. I have a whole army around me.” It’s hard to take any NBA franchise that employs him seriously at this point.

How the Nets got here—as an on- and off-court embarrassment—can be hard to digest, but it’s easy to understand. They’ve spun through so many different iterations since Durant and Irving first climbed aboard and set fire to the self-sacrificing culture that attracted them in the first place. The initial James Harden trade was a seismic deal that set the wheels in motion, costing Brooklyn three first-round picks, four pick swaps, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen (painfully ideal for these Nets), Taurean Prince, and Rodions Kurucs.

The early returns led to, literally, the greatest offense in NBA history—an unguardable superteam that seemed destined to float down Flatbush Avenue, chewing unlit cigars and passing around the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Instead, horrible luck hit hard in the 2021 playoffs: Harden pulled his hamstring, Irving sprained his ankle landing on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot, Durant’s toe cost them what would’ve been a series-clinching point, and the Nets were eliminated by the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in seven games.

Months later, Harden decided to seek greener grass in Philadelphia partially because Irving convinced himself that life-saving vaccine mandates are unfair and couldn’t play. So the Nets traded Harden for a debilitated Simmons and were then swept in the first round. Fast-forward to three months ago when, in a dysfunctional crowning stroke, Durant followed up one of the most aggressive trade requests in NBA history by asking Nets owner Joe Tsai to fire his head coach and general manager. He didn’t. Nor did Tsai trade Durant. And now here the Nets are: aging, small, fresh out of trade assets, and way too dependent on a talented trio of injury-prone malcontents, in a conference that’s more competitive than it was a year ago.

Things are bleak, but not over. Yet. There’s still some cause for optimism, albeit attached to some caveats and wishful thinking. Joe Harris and Seth Curry are back on the court, but still not 100 percent recovered from their respective ankle surgeries. As two of the most accurate 3-point shooters who ever lived, both really matter, even if neither offers a firm solution to the team’s defensive woes. T.J. Warren has yet to suit up and it’s unclear when he will—he’s logged zero NBA minutes since December 29, 2020—if he ever does.

Simmons is a key figure in all of this, six games into restarting a career that was derailed by back pain and mental distress. He looks like a shell of his former self, rarely looking at the basket, let alone attacking it how he used to. According to Second Spectrum, Simmons is averaging 3.5 drives per game. In 2021, he was at 9.27. In 2018? 15.58.

A glass-half-full assessment would be that he’s overly committed to carving out a selfless role beside Durant and Irving, and there might be a kernel of truth to that. Simmons has nearly doubled his previous career high in screens per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum, which is a good sign for a team that needs him to be active off the ball.

But the Nets need him to be more of the aggressive, physical presence he once was. His passivity is detrimental, not altruistic. Taking 5.7 shots per game with a turnover rate that’s over double his usage won’t cut it. Neither will converting only 45.5 percent of his 2-point shots and 46.7 percent of his free throws. During a recent loss to Dallas, Simmons was fouled underneath the rim and several Mavericks tried to convince the referee that he was in the act of shooting. (He wasn’t.)

So much of what Simmons does is too safe, stripped of the risk that made his idiosyncrasies so dangerous in Philadelphia. The Simmons of today is ordinary, even boring. Anyone can hit Durant with a chest pass as he curls off a down screen. Now, again, it’s early. Without becoming a prisoner of the moment, there’s always a chance Simmons will embrace an expanded role and realize he’s always either faster or stronger than whoever he’s matched up with. Maybe his elite on-ball defense will come back, too.

On the whole, patience is key. So is the schedule. Brooklyn’s loss on Saturday night against the rebuilding Pacers was, according to Steve Nash, “a disaster.” It also led to the team’s first “players only” meeting of the season, and it’s always a great sign when that happens before Halloween. But the Nets have also been dealt the league’s third-toughest slate so far. These are reasons to be optimistic about a situation that doesn’t currently deserve it. The next steps are unknown but wide-ranging. Maybe Sean Marks will fortify the frontcourt by signing Dwight Howard or DeMarcus Cousins. Maybe Irving will be cut a week from now.

The most entertaining fake trade that’s existed ever since news of KD’s unhappiness first broke is a straight star swap: Durant for Anthony Davis. The Nets would get a younger big man who can improve their defense and maybe even one day resemble the megastar he was a couple of years ago. The Lakers would get someone who can (really) shoot, complement LeBron James, and be unbothered by the roster’s complete and total disregard for spacing. No one transaction can solve either team’s myriad flaws but options are limited and stasis equals, at best, a fool’s-gold appearance in the play-in.

Some things in life aren’t worth saving, though. Firing Nash won’t lift anyone’s spirits or allow someone else to come in, wave a magic wand, and implement defensive principles. The Nets are probably too expensive to get blown up, but how valuable can any investment be if all it does is bleed misery? Maybe, despite being down all those future picks, starting over isn’t the worst path forward. It’s not like we haven’t seen that movie before. Or maybe something less dramatic is in the cards. Or maybe nobody knows what will happen in Brooklyn, where the Nets could lose or win 15 games in a row and nobody watching would bat an eye.