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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Nets fell apart from the top


Joe Tsai had dreams of a championship when he assumed full control of the Nets in 2019, but a series of missteps has undermined his plans.

By Sopan Deb


Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant didn’t trade themselves from the Brooklyn Nets.


They didn’t hire Steve Nash to coach the team, even though he had no experience.


They didn’t trade for — and then trade away — James Harden.


They didn’t sign off on Irving playing only part-time because he would not get the coronavirus vaccine.


As players, they couldn’t have done any of those things. But team owner Joe Tsai and general manager Sean Marks could. And they did.


Over the past 3 1/2 years, the Nets’ ambitious plans to form a championship-winning superteam have fallen apart in fits and starts, finally imploding last week with the trades of Irving and Durant. Those two superstars had become the faces of the collapse, but the rubble of the franchise may reveal that the problem extends to the foundation — to the people who had the power to avert disaster many times and never did.


During a news conference last Thursday, Marks was asked whether he deemed the Durant and Irving era in Brooklyn a failure.


“I think it would be easy to look in from the outside,” Marks said. “And, you know, honestly, I look at it internally and say, ‘Wow, it didn’t work.’ Like, let’s be honest there. We did not reach the full potential of where we thought we could get to.”


‘We do have the pieces’


In the summer of 2019, Durant and Irving spurned the New York Knicks and joined the Nets in free agency. Tsai, a billionaire co-founder of the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba, assumed full control of the Nets and Barclays Center at a record-setting $2.35 billion team valuation. The Nets were primed to be not just the dominant basketball power in New York, but also in the NBA.


“I think the fans expect that we win a championship,” Tsai said in a YES Network interview months later. “And the good thing is, I believe that we do have the pieces in place.”


A coach with no experience


Coaching is typically considered a crucial piece for superstar-laden teams. Coaches must manage egos, maximize talent and manage workloads, all while winning basketball games. Only Golden State’s Steve Kerr has won a championship as a rookie head coach without having been an assistant coach first.


But for the Nets superteam, Tsai and Marks decided their head coach would be Nash, who won two MVP awards as an NBA player but had no coaching experience. They drew criticism for overlooking Jacque Vaughn, an experienced Black assistant coach, for Nash, who is white. The hiring, in September 2020, came at a time when only seven of the NBA’s 30 team head coaches weren’t white. Most NBA players are Black.


But Nash and Marks were teammates on the Phoenix Suns, and Nash knew Durant because he consulted for Golden State when Durant played there.


Irving almost immediately undermined Nash during an appearance on Durant’s podcast, saying: “I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean? K.D. could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.”


The Nets fired Nash in November and hired Vaughn.


Irving vs. Tsai


Nowhere were the cautionary signs for the Nets more clear than in the rift between Tsai and Irving. Irving declined to take the coronavirus vaccine as the 2021-22 season got underway, but Tsai was a vocal proponent of vaccines, telling ESPN that it wasn’t “a matter of belief” but rather a scientific “matter of fact.”


Irving became a liability. He was not allowed to play in home games because of a local vaccine mandate, and he showed no signs of changing his mind. Tsai and Marks allowed him to become a distraction. First, they said he would not be allowed to play in road games either, citing the harm to the organizational culture of having him play only part-time. But just two months later, they changed their minds, even though Irving hadn’t changed his and the team was in first place in the Eastern Conference.


It sent the message that Irving could play by his own rules.


About a year earlier, the Nets acquired Harden from Houston by trading away promising young players. But soon after Irving was allowed to return, Harden stunned the Nets by asking for a trade. Harden later told reporters that Irving’s decision to not get vaccinated had a “very minimal” effect on his trade request, but he acknowledged that “it definitely did impact the team.”


The Nets quickly acquiesced to Harden in February 2022 by trading him to the Philadelphia 76ers, the competitor of his choice, instead of riding out the season, since they were playing well, or giving themselves time to explore all of their options to be sure they were getting the best deal.


Last chance


Even after the Boston Celtics embarrassed the Nets last year by sweeping them in the first round of the playoffs, the Nets still had a shot to fulfill the promise of Durant and Irving this season. The Nets leadership attempted a culture reset — a public display that they would not be pushed around by stars anymore. When asked about Irving receiving a long-term extension, Marks demurred.


“I think we know what we’re looking for,” Marks told reporters in May. “We’re looking for guys that want to come in here and be part of something bigger than themselves.”


After Durant requested a trade in the offseason, Tsai tweeted support for the front office and coaching staff. A few weeks later in August, Durant backed off his request and Marks said the sides had “agreed to move forward with our partnership.”


Then in October, when Irving refused to disavow antisemitism or apologize after posting a link to an antisemitic film on Twitter, Tsai publicly rebuked him and suspended him.


Irving missed eight games. But when he returned, the Nets showed their tantalizing potential once again, going 18-2 in one stretch, only to unravel again as Durant got injured and Irving’s contract-extension talks fell apart and he asked to be traded.


“I want to be in a place where I’m celebrated and not just tolerated or just kind of dealt with in a way that doesn’t make me feel respected,” Irving said last Tuesday, a day after the Nets traded him to the Dallas Mavericks.


Two days later, the Nets traded Durant, too, to Phoenix. “We believe making this trade now positions the franchise for long-term success,” Marks said last Thursday in a statement.

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