- Nick Friedell is the Chicago Bulls beat reporter for ESPN Chicago. Friedell is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and joined ESPNChicago.com for its launch in April 2009.
NEW YORK — In the wake of their season-ending sweep by the Boston Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets formally acknowledged on Monday night what was apparent throughout their season: All the issues they dealt with off the floor had a big impact on how they played on it.
“I think it was just really heavy emotionally this season,” Nets guard Kyrie Irving said after their 116-112 Game 4 loss. “We all felt it. I felt like I was letting the team down at a point where I wasn’t able to play. We were trying to exercise every option for me to play, but I never wanted it to just be about me. And I think it became a distraction at times. And as you see we just had some drastic changes.”
Irving’s acknowledgement was noteworthy given that his decision not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 hung over everything the Nets did all season. They started the season under a cloud of uncertainty because of a New York City vaccination mandate that required all workers be vaccinated in order to go back to the workplace. The Nets declined to allow Irving to participate as a part-time player before reversing course in December after a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak. Irving returned to the floor on Jan. 5 but was able to play only in road games before New York City Mayor Eric Adams pulled back the mandate for athletes and performers in late March.
Aside from Irving’s in-and-out status, the Nets dealt with an ankle injury to guard Joe Harris that forced him to miss all but 14 games this season. An MCL injury to star forward Kevin Durant that forced him to miss six weeks. A trade at the deadline in February that sent James Harden to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond and two first-round picks. It was a move Harden later acknowledged was made in part because of Irving’s part-time status — and a deal that brought Simmons, who requested a trade out of Philadelphia last summer, to a Nets team that he would never play for after a herniated disk derailed the last two months of his season.
“I think that’s a big reason why we were in that position, a lack of continuity,” coach Steve Nash said of the distractions off the floor. “Kevin having to carry such a heavy burden to keep us in the playoff picture. All those things off the floor play a role in what happens on the floor as well. They’re tied, and there’s no question that it has an impact. Over the course of the season, there were just too many, too many things that held us back for moments and pockets.”
The Nets endured an 11-game losing streak without Durant, and a stretch through February in which they lost 17 of 20 games. Just when it appeared they were ready to turn a corner, another event would alter the course of their season. The Nets, picked by many before the season to win the NBA championship, finished with a 44-38 record, good for seventh place in the Eastern Conference — and a playoff berth solidified by a play-in game win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 12. Through it all, the Nets were never able to find the rhythm every great team needs in order to find playoff success.
“No regrets,” Durant said after getting swept for the first time in his career. “S— happens. No crying over spilled milk. It’s about how we can progress and get better from here. We see we’ve been through a lot this year. Everybody in the organization knows what we went through. So no time to feel regret or be too pissed off. It’s about how we can find solutions to get better, proactive, as an organization to get better.
“Even the great teams, they don’t dwell on what they do, they just try to continue to keep getting better. So for us, we know what our mistakes were, just try to turn them into strengths. But we can’t have no regrets on what we did. S— just played out the way it played.”
While the Nets were frustrated with the season, and how the series against the Celtics played out, there was almost a sense of relief that things finally ended on Monday night. All the pressure the Nets dealt with on and off the floor proved to be too much to overcome for a group that never hit the high ceiling many thought was possible.
“We lost a franchise player [in Harden] and we got a franchise player back [in Simmons],” Irving said. “But we didn’t get a chance to see him on the floor. There was no pressure for [Simmons] to step on the floor with us either. Ben’s good. We have Ben, we have his back. He’s going to be good for next year. But now we just turn the page and look forward to what we’re building as a franchise and really get tougher. …
“That’s why I said it’s some added motivation when you get swept like this. Didn’t necessarily play as well as I would have liked, but now we just look for the future as a team and what we can accomplish for the next few years and I get excited about that.”
So much of that future now centers around Simmons, who was not at Barclays Center on Monday night as he continues dealing with back issues, according to the Nets. For his part, Irving said, “I don’t really plan on going anywhere,” when asked about working out a possible long-term extension this summer. He has a player option this summer worth over $36.5 million.
“There’s no question about where I’m going and how this is going to happen,” Irving said. “I’m here with [Durant], but also I’m here to build a great team. I’ve averaged this many points, done this many things. Individually, been recognized for my greatness, but at this point in my career, I really just want to be part of a great team. And just dominate that way and not really focus on any individual accolades and achievements. Just really build something special — that’s my focus going into the summer is just building with my teammates.”
Durant also made it clear that he would like to see Nash return as coach of the Nets next season.
“Steve’s been dealt a crazy hand the last two years,” Durant said. “He’s had to deal with so much stuff as a head coach, first-time coach, trades, injuries, COVID, it’s just a lot of stuff he had to deal with. I’m proud of how he focused and his passion for us. We all continue to keep developing over the summer and see what happens.”
As the Nets embark on what could be an interesting summer, both Irving and Durant made it clear that they feel brighter days are ahead for the organization.
“When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together,” Irving said. “Alongside [owner] Joe [Tsai] and [general manager] Sean [Marks], just our group of family members in our locker room, in our organization. So it’s not just about me and Kev, I don’t want to make it just about that, we’re cornerstones but we have a few other guys on contract. I think we’ve just got to make some moves this offseason, really talk about it, and really be intentional about what we’re building and have some fun with it, make it enjoyable.
“And hopefully we get to start from day one just as a squad and as a family and we just really worry about us. Sometimes I feel like the noise on the external world, the outside noise, can seep in. I’m not the type of person to allow that to happen so as we build together as a squad, I just think we need to be tougher mentally and just more honest about what we want to accomplish. And just stick to the goal, stick to the mission.”
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