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The Nets’ super team became a super disaster

This is how the NBA’s preseason favorites went down in flames.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets were the heavy betting favorites to win the 2022 NBA championship entering the season. It was easy to understand the preseason optimism: last time we saw the Nets, Kevin Durant was nearly carrying the team to a Game 7 victory over the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks despite playing most of the series without injured co-superstars James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The Nets’ big three was about to have its first full offseason together to get healthy and gel on the court. There wasn’t a team in basketball with more offensive firepower on-paper.

Unfortunately, the Nets were always scarier on-paper than they were on the floor. Brooklyn’s season is now over after getting eliminated in a four-game sweep to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. While no one would have believed the Nets would go out so sad last summer, the reality is that the writing has been on the wall for this version of Brooklyn for months.

How did the NBA’s preseason favorite go down in flames? It’s the end result of one of the strangest seasons we’ve seen in recent NBA history.

Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get the Covid vaccine was the start of the Nets’ downfall

The Nets’ championship hopes faced their first challenge back in August when New York City announced it would be the first American city to require at least one shot of the Covid vaccine for activities like indoor dining and going to the gym. That vaccine requirement extended to its two NBA teams, and there was only one player in the city who refused to comply: Kyrie Irving.

The Nets kept Irving away from the team through 2021 until they eventually flip-flopped and decided to let Irving play in road games. Irving was a road-only player for the Nets until late March when the city finally lifted the mandate for athletes and performers.

By the time Irving was finally allowed to be a full-time player, James Harden had forced his way out of town and the roster around Durant and Kyrie looked totally different. Irving’s refusal to the jab was the beginning of the end for Brooklyn. Somehow, a star player refusing to get a vaccine against a deadly global pandemic was only the tip of the iceberg for how weird this Nets season would get.

James Harden forced his way to Philly

As Irving’s absence hovered over the Nets, Harden reportedly got sick of his teammate’s refusal to get the jab and get back out on the court. Harden started the season slow as he recovered from his hamstring injury in the playoffs and adjusted to the league’s early-season emphasis on cutting back shooting fouls. He eventually worked his way into All-Star form, but he never quite recaptured his status as one of the game’s very best players.

With Irving away from the team for road games and Durant facing injuries, Harden started to distance himself from the team. He decided he wanted a reunion with old boss Daryl Morey now in Philadelphia with another superstar in Joel Embiid who would reliably be on the floor. Ben Simmons’ bizarre holdout situation set up a natural trade package, and eventually Harden was dealt in one of the biggest trade deadline blockbusters ever.

The Nets didn’t want to lose Harden for nothing in free agency this summer, so they decided to move him for Simmons, Seth Curry, and Andre Drummond. Would Brooklyn have fared better this season if they just kept him until Irving was finally cleared to play full-time? We’ll never know.

Kevin Durant couldn’t stay healthy

The Nets were still off to a 27-15 start despite Irving’s regular absence and Harden’s diminished play. Then Durant went down with a sprained MCL in his left knee, and everything fell apart. Durant missed six weeks rehabbing the injury, and Brooklyn went 5-17 over that time, with Harden’s departure happening in the middle of it.

Before the playoffs, Durant cited his injury for the reason the Nets underachieved this season.

“To be honest, I feel like our season was derailed by my injury,” Durant told ESPN in April. “So I’m not looking at it like we’re just not a good basketball team. It’s like there wasn’t a lot of continuity with me and Kyrie [Irving] out of the lineup, that’s just what it is. When we’re all on the floor together, I like what we got.”

Ben Simmons couldn’t get back on the court after the trade deadline

Simmons came to Brooklyn as the headliner in the Harden trade. He hadn’t played the entire season for the 76ers after an offseason trade demand following last year’s playoff disaster, but it was assumed he would suit up for the Nets after the deal. Wrong. Simmons suffered a back injury in practice shortly after the trade, and never cleared the mental health hurdles he said led to his trade demand.

Simmons theoretically seemed like a nice fit next to Durant and Irving as a 6’10 forward who could add value with his ball handling, passing, and elite defensive ability. He just couldn’t get back on the floor despite the Nets teasing that could make his debut in the playoffs. We’ll never know how much he could have helped this team.

Joe Harris’ injury stung, too

Harris has been one of the best three-point shooters in basketball over the last four seasons, but he couldn’t stay healthy this year. He exited the lineup to have surgery on his ankle in Nov. with a 1-2 month timetable originally given. The rehab took longer than expected, and Harris eventually had a second surgery on the ankle that ended his year.

The Nets badly could have used a 6’6 wing to space the floor and knock down shots around their superstars, but Harris just couldn’t stay on the floor.

The Nets never looked like the preseason contender we expected

Brooklyn had the highest over/under win total of any team in the league entering the season at 56.5 wins. Instead, the Nets won only 44 games and had to earn their way into the playoffs via the play-in tournament.

Brooklyn earned the No. 7 seed in the play-in tournament, but a first round matchup with the Celtics was always a scary proposition. Boston had the size, depth, and defense that the Nets couldn’t match up with.

Boston focused its top-rated defense on shutting down Durant, and the result was one of the worst series of the star forward’s career. Durant averaged 26.3 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.8 rebounds for the series, but only shot 38.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three and also averaged 5.3 turnovers per game. Irving put up 21.3 points and 5.3 assists per game, but never made a huge impact.

The issues with the supporting cast around the two stars were apparent. Brooklyn was running three or four small guards on the floor most of the series. The Celtics easily picked on smaller and weaker defenders when they had the ball. Brooklyn’s defense had no answer for Jayson Tatum, and Brooklyn’s offense could never solve what Boston was throwing at them.

The Nets need more size and more shooting next season. Durant is about to turn 34 years old. We still don’t know what Simmons will look like when he eventually returns to the court. It’s unclear if Irving can still be counted on to help lead a potential title contender.

Ultimately, the Nets are the biggest failure of the season, a disaster that even exceeds the Lakers. Head coach Steve Nash could have his job on the line after such an inspiring playoff run. Every spot on the roster next to Durant and Irving should be under a microscope, and that includes Simmons. In the end, the Nets just couldn’t be as great on the floor as they seemed to be theoretically. It will probably be a long time before we see a stranger season from an NBA team from start to finish.