‘It Hurts’: Season Is Over Before Nets See How Good Big Three Can Be

Whether Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving could collaborate, share the basketball and play good enough defense to bring a championship to New York’s less heralded N.B.A. franchise were unknowns that nagged at the entire league.

Now, after being eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, the Nets cannot hush their skeptics until next year. After a 48-24 season and playoff ride that lasted only two rounds, the biggest questions about their three stars remain unanswered.

Injuries overrode potential basketball issues and neutralized the Nets’ status among Las Vegas oddsmakers as title favorites. Durant, Harden and Irving shared the floor for only 43 seconds in the Bucks series. In Game 7, with only Durant as a dependable offensive option and Irving in street clothes, Milwaukee outlasted the Nets, 115-111, in overtime at Barclays Center, which inflicted a searing pain of its own.

“It hurts,” Coach Steve Nash said, lauding the efforts of Durant, who scored 48 points in 53 minutes in Game 7, and Harden, who also played all 53 minutes, despite a hamstring strain. “I hurt for them more than anything.”

The N.B.A.’s 75th season will be remembered for its Covid-19 protocols, game postponements and empty arenas for months. But the Nets became the league’s biggest on-court story after their acquisition in January of Harden from the Houston Rockets. Five years after General Manager Sean Marks was hired to rescue a franchise devoid of elite talent and draft picks, Marks built a legitimate contender by assembling one of the most impressive offensive threesomes in league history.

The trouble for the Nets was not their defensive shortcomings, the depth they sacrificed to make the trade with the Rockets, the lack of available practice time during the coronavirus pandemic or Nash’s inexperience as a first-year coach. It was this: In the regular season, Durant, Harden and Irving were healthy enough to play together for only 202 minutes across eight games. Their 130 minutes together in a five-game dismissal of the Boston Celtics in the first round proved to be their only burst of continuity as a unit. Milwaukee won three of the final four games of the series after Irving’s nasty right ankle sprain in the first half of Game 4.

These playoffs were supposed to be the Nets’ chance to shift a slice or two of cultural relevance to Brooklyn from Manhattan in a city teeming with Knicks fans. In the end, neither Marks nor Nash really came away knowing what the Nets could really look like when whole.

Some key moments that brought the Nets to this point:

Durant and Irving Sign On

Entering the 2019-20 season, there was much speculation about where Durant and Irving would end up. Earlier in the previous season, Irving had committed to staying with Boston long-term, while Durant seemed to be on his way to another title with Golden State. As the world found out after their seasons unraveled — Durant’s through an Achilles’ tear in the 2019 N.B.A. finals — they wanted to play together.

The Nets had enough salary cap flexibility to sign them, as well as their friend DeAndre Jordan. The Knicks had the same wherewithal, but Durant and Irving chose the Nets and took Jordan, who finished the 2018-19 season with the Knicks, with them.

Nets officials made the moves knowing Durant would probably miss his entire first season as a Net while recovering from the Achilles’ injury. Irving wound up playing only 20 games in his first season in Brooklyn because of shoulder problems. Both are now halfway through four-year deals.

Nash’s Hiring

The Nets shook the N.B.A. again by hiring Nash as coach in September 2020. He had no coaching experience, even at the assistant level, but he won two Most Valuable Player Awards and was one of the best point guards in league history.

He was essentially chosen by Marks, his former Phoenix Suns teammate, who felt he had the gravitas and communication skills to manage the Nets’ two mercurial stars. Harden would not arrive until a few weeks into Nash’s first season on the bench. The Nets also brought in Mike D’Antoni, Nash’s former coach in Phoenix, to lend veteran guidance.

“I wasn’t hired to come in and be a tactical wizard,” Nash said on a podcast hosted by the N.B.A. sharpshooter JJ Redick.

Hiring Nash, who is white, nonetheless elicited criticism, given the dearth of Black coaches in the N.B.A., whose player pool is estimated to be nearly 80 percent Black. Nash’s hiring came after Jacque Vaughn, who completed the 2019-20 season as the team’s interim coach and had the Nets playing unexpectedly well without Durant and Irving in the N.B.A.’s so-called bubble in Florida. Vaughn, who is Black, stayed on as an assistant alongside D’Antoni and Ime Udoka. On ESPN, Stephen A. Smith called Nash’s hiring “white privilege.”

“Well, I did skip the line, frankly,” Nash said at his introductory news conference. “But at the same time, I think leading an N.B.A. team for almost two decades is pretty unique.”

The Harden Blockbuster

Harden entered this season as a disgruntled member of the Rockets. He wanted out after D’Antoni and Daryl Morey left the team without an established coach and its top front-office executive, and Harden pushed for a trade to the Nets to reunite with Durant, his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate. It was an audacious move for someone with three years left on his contract — and it cemented the Nets as league villains when it worked.

Harden reported late to training camp to apply pressure on the Rockets to trade him. Appearing to be in less than optimal shape made his disinterest palpable during the eight regular-season games he played. The Nets, off to a 6-6 start, ignored Harden’s checkered playoff résumé and the rampant skepticism that one ball would not be enough to satisfy three high-volume scorers, and proceeded with trade talks.

In a four-team trade, Marks agreed to surrender control of the Nets’ top draft pick through 2027 to the Rockets and deal two young fan favorites, Caris LeVert (to Indiana) and Jarrett Allen (to Cleveland), to land Harden. As a bonus, the trade kept Harden from landing alongside center Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, after the 76ers offered the Rockets a deal involving Ben Simmons.

The deal remains a gamble for the Nets. Every year without a championship will increase the scrutiny and pressure. Management must decide whether to pursue contract extensions with Durant, Harden and Irving that would cost hundreds of millions in salary and luxury tax or risk seeing any of the three opt for free agency after next season under their current contracts.

“This is just the start of our journey,” Joe Tsai, the Nets’ owner, said on Twitter after the Game 7 loss. Known as one of the league’s wealthiest owners alongside the Los Angeles Clippers’ Steve Ballmer, Tsai certainly has the financial might to keep the core together.

Irving’s Absences

During the pursuit of Harden and after his arrival, Irving missed seven games in January for personal reasons. Marks said Irving’s sudden unavailability and the acquisition were “completely separate.” Yet the Nets felt it was urgent to maximize Durant’s championship window and made the trade with that in mind, according to two people familiar with the club’s thinking who were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The Nets knew they wouldn’t have a training camp to try to assimilate Harden into the team, but figured that by bringing in a durable player, they would almost always have two elite players on the floor. It also became clear, soon after Harden’s arrival, that he was best suited to be the team’s playmaker, according to one of the people. Clear, even, to Irving.

“We established that maybe four days ago now,” Irving said in February. “I just looked at him and I said, ‘You’re the point guard and I’m going to play shooting guard.’ That was as simple as that.”

Cries that Harden was a luxury item for the Nets faded fast. The team went 29-8 in the regular season in games that Harden played and 12-11 without him.

Injuries

Health woes began almost immediately; Spencer Dinwiddie was lost to a season-ending knee tear just three games in. Dinwiddie averaged a career-high 20.6 points per game the season before, and he was expected to be yet another scoring threat on a team full of them.

Durant overcame his Achilles’ tear in a big way, ending his season with 49 points against Milwaukee in Game 5 and 48 points in Game 7. But he wound up playing in only 35 of the Nets’ 72 regular-season games because of a hamstring injury. Harden, who was dealing with his own hamstring injury, missed more time in the regular season (21 of the final 23 games) and playoffs than he had in any previous season.

The Nets were rocked in April when LaMarcus Aldridge, a former All-Star they had signed after he negotiated a buyout with the San Antonio Spurs, retired at age 35 because of a longstanding heart condition. Nash used a franchise-record 38 starting lineups in those 72 games and four separate ones in the Bucks series, leaning upon the well-traveled Jeff Green; Blake Griffin, a former All-Star who joined the team in April; and Griffin’s former Detroit Pistons teammate Bruce Brown.

For the playoffs, the Nets finally seemed healthy — for one round. Harden missed all but the opening minute of the first four games of the Milwaukee series and lacked explosion or lift in his legs when he volunteered to return for Game 5 after Irving’s ankle sprain. Green’s plantar fascia strain kept him out of the first three games with the Bucks.

“It’s been a really difficult year,” Nash said. “We’ve had a lot thrown at us.”

Even with the injuries and Milwaukee’s stars healthy, the Nets came within an inch of advancing to the next round. With one second left in regulation in Game 7 and the Nets down by 2 points, Durant made a contested shot from the right wing that appeared to be a 3-pointer for the win. But his toe was on the 3-point line, and it counted as a long 2, sending the Nets to overtime instead of to the Eastern Conference finals.

“My big ass foot stepped on the line,” Durant said. “I was just seeing a little screenshot how close I was to ending their season on that shot. But it wasn’t in God’s plan, and we move on.”

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