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The Nets’ Making Was Their Undoing

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 25: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts in the first half against the Boston Celtics during Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs against the Boston Celtics at Barclays Center on April 25, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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You already miss the Brooklyn Nets, don’t you? Kyrie Irving surely does.

“I think it was just really heavy emotionally this season,” Irving said after the Nets completed their seven-month mirror-gaze with a 116-112 loss to the too-good-to-know-their-own-luck Boston Celtics. “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.”

And with that, Irving spoke the team’s epitaph more completely than Kevin Durant’s more succinct yet less explanatory “No regrets. Shit happens.”

Irving at least acknowledged that the Nets created and guided the shit that happened to them because in his view, only the Nets could wreck the Nets. The Celtics might well have beaten Brooklyn Normal anyway because Boston saw itself in its own mirror in mid-January and decided to change its Knicks-like trajectory by reining in the urge for self-absorption. Thus cured of the urge to leave their bodies so they could get a better look at themselves, the Celtics won 27 of their last 34 games including the last four beating the Nets swiftly, joyfully, clinically, and powered by the nation’s collective sense of schadenfreude. They earned their sweep with oak leaf clusters because they were where the Nets are now and squeegeed their collective third eye for a greater goal.

The Nets, on the other hand, never could decide whether shit had happened or whether they self-administered it with two coats and primer. Durant was their nuclear core but his absence through injury created a vacuum filled by, well, nobody. Whether it was Irving’s vaccination status, James Harden’s disgruntlement, or the arrival but not appearance of Ben Simmons, the Nets never fully achieved simply being available, whether by circumstance or, more maddeningly, by choice. Durant was in the end alone as he has essentially been all year, scoring 39 points and doling out nine assists playing all but 81 seconds, and while Seth Curry added 23 as the so-far only useful part of the James Harden trade, the rest of the game felt like Nic Claxton was its model—making all six of his shots but missing 10 of his 11 free throws. Irving seemed alternately engaged and inert, playing nearly 45 minutes but with bursts of contribution surrounded by stretches of persistent ennui.

In short, the Nets exited as they arrived: some in, some out, most confused. They got as close as one point late but could not get the game-shifting stop that the Celtics performed routinely. They finished their season not as promise unfulfilled but reality brought home with a hammer, the oversold seven-seed that performed exactly as the standings and metrics had advertised.

It almost doesn’t matter how they went out, though, as much as it matters what they represent: a level of unstructured narcissism that people who hate player empowerment will use as a cudgel against the entire concept. That’s the biggest defeat here, that players given the wherewithal to show how well it could work bollixed it up so badly by failing to read the room they had designed and furnished themselves. It wasn’t the concept of choice that failed. It was the choices themselves, from Durant’s choice of Irving to Sean Marks’s choice of Harden to Harden’s choice to leave because of Irving to Marks replacing Harden with a lotto ticket with a bad back. None of it worked right, ever. The Nets are worse and worse off than they were a year ago, when the only failure was the length of Durant’s foot.

Or, as head coach Steve Nash, who did a better job of watching “shit happen” than arresting it, said afterward, “All those things off the floor play a role in what happens on the floor as well. They’re tired, 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.”

That he didn’t and wouldn’t cite any examples tells you a lot, because he was one of the examples himself, one of the many who could not command the room for even the one moment that demanded crystalline clarity from its inhabitants. Too many people misunderstood that empowerment carries with it more than just willful self-determination, starting with label-shopping owner Joe Tsai, who supervised the entire Chernobyl-with-kicks, working through Marks and Nash and down to the locker room and its preening denizens. They watched plenty of video this year, but it was of themselves and how people reacted to them, which is the greatest time-waster of them all.

But that’s vague psuedo-psychic hoop-de-blah that this team won’t begin to fully comprehend until the end of the summer, and then only if they can stop self-diagnosing themselves long enough to recognize that there’s no point in oversight if you can’t see. Which brings us back to Irving, surveying the scene of the not-so-accidental accident.

“When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together,” he said in an explanation of who’s in charge without clarifying what they’re in charge of. “Alongside Joe and Sean, 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.”

But that’s the point. All they ever did was “worry about us,” and being mesmerized by “the noise on the external world,” as though they didn’t play their home games in Brooklyn but in the Fortress of Solitude. They wanted you to love and admire them but at a very great distance, and never find fault with their inability to accomplish. They thought the accomplishment was in the assembly when that is always just the beginning. They bought the Bugatti for the looks but never figured out that even an expensive car is more than paint and styling and jealous/admiring neighbors. It eventually needs to be taken out of the driveway by someone who knows how to drive.