Photo Credit: Erik Drost (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kyrie_Irving_-_51831772061_01.jpg)
As it turns out, the Los Angeles Lakers weren’t the only disappointing team in the NBA this year. That second dubious distinction goes to the Brooklyn Nets. Prior to the start of the season, loaded with three All-NBA talents in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the Nets looked to be the logical counterpart to the equally loaded Lakers. Except, just like the Lakers, things didn’t turn out the way Vegas prognosticators expected.
For one thing, James Harden isn’t in Brooklyn anymore. The thirteen-year NBA veteran was traded midseason to fellow Eastern Conference contender the Philadelphia 76ers back in February for a package that included Sixers guard Ben Simmons. Oh, and another thing: the Nets haven’t been all that impressive, finishing the regular season with a 44 - 38 record and needing a win in the NBA Play-In game to secure the 7th seed in the East.
To that end, at least, the Nets have been successful. Durant, Irving and the rest of the Nets (minus Simmons; more on him later) defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Play-In game 115 - 108. Irving was tremendous, pouring in 34 points and 12 assists in 42 minutes of play, going a scorching 12-15 from the field. Durant was his usual, excellent self, contributing 25 points, 11 assists and 5 rebounds in 42 minutes of play.
Still, how did a team with two superstars in Durant and Irving end up in the Play-In game anyway? For that answer, we need to look back to the beginning of the season.
Back on October 19, 2021, the Brooklyn Nets helped cut the ribbon on the new NBA season in a tilt versus the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks in Milwaukee. It was a star-studded affair. Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Kris Middleton, Jrue Holiday…that could be your Eastern Conference All-Star team right there.
“But wait, Ian, you're forgetting someone.” That’s probably what you’re thinking to yourself right now. Wrong. I know the name you’re thinking of, but I didn’t forget.
Kyrie Irving did not appear in the Nets opener against the Bucks. He was not injured. He was not dealing with a family emergency. He was not filming another Uncle Drew movie. He did not fall off the side of the totally, 100% flat-Earth. No, Kyrie wasn’t playing because he refused to get vaccinated for COVID-19, a violation of the NBA’s protocols.
Now, I’m not going to get into whether or not Kyrie’s within his rights to refuse vaccination. He’s a grown(ish) man, he can do what he wants as far as I’m concerned. However, something like this has to be pretty concerning to his teammates and his coach Steve Nash.
So, Irving never got vaccinated. Instead, once COVID protocols were relaxed around the nation, Irving was content to play ONLY in road games for the Nets, because New York City had not yet repealed its vaccine mandate. For an entire regular season, one of the Nets’ best players, one of the premier guards in the NBA, was only available in road games. How unbelievably, incredibly, and stunningly bizarre.
It’s no surprise, then, that Harden wanted out. At least, that’s what reports seem to suggest.
After gaining significant weight and playing poorly to start the 2020-21 season with the Houston Rockets, Harden was granted his trade-wish and was dealt to the Nets to join their burgeoning “super team.” There, reunited with Durant for the first time since their Oklahoma City Thunder days, and flanked by the ever-potent Irving, the Nets were primed to win it all.
That…didn’t happen. Instead, the Nets fell in a memorable series against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Durant, famously, seemingly hit a huge, go-ahead, game-winning three-pointer until replay showed his foot was on the line. The game would go to overtime where the Bucks would prevail.
Still, the Nets had faced down the eventual champions and nearly knocked them off. All of this despite having Irving and Harden available for four games apiece due to injury. They seemed the sure-fire contenders.
Instead, Harden grew tired of Irving’s act and was dealt to Philly. All of a sudden, Irving’s only true equal in strangeness was on the roster: Ben Simmons.
Simmons, for all the grief he’s (rightly) received, has been an excellent basketball player when healthy and mentally-right. It’s just that…well, to put it mildly, the guy has some issues.
The former #1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Simmons has averaged 15.9 points per game, to go with 8.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists. Those are some eye-popping numbers, especially for a player whose primary position is point guard. Did I mention that Simmons stands a whopping 6’11’’ and weighs 240 pounds?
For all of his physical gifts and talent, Simmons has struggled mightily when it comes to the mental aspects of being a professional athlete. Since entering the NBA, Simmons has not improved his jump-shot a lick. Now, for some players, this isn’t a problem. Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, Dwight Howard…these are all players whose career free-throw percentage can’t eclipse 57%. You know what else these players have in common? They are some of the most historically dominant centers to ever play basketball. You know which players typically don’t need to shoot well? Your dominant center.
Simmons, as it turns out, really needed to shoot the ball well to fit in with the Sixers’ roster he was on. With a historically dominant center of their own in Joel Embiid, the Sixers need space for him to thrive. Simmons on the court only made things harder for their generational big man.
The odd fit between Simmons and Embiid culminated in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals versus the Atlanta Hawks. The Sixers, who earned the East’s #1 overall seed in 2021, were heavy favorites over the upstart 5th seeded Hawks and their fearless young point guard Trey Young. It was bad enough for the Sixers that they were upset in seven games. To make matters worse, Simmons collapsed like a dying star, with the weight and pressure of Philly fans’ expectations and disappointment causing him to disintegrate.
In one of the seminal moments of Simmons’ career, he passed up a wide-open dunk while positioned directly under the basket, only to pass the ball to an unsuspecting Matisse Thybulle who couldn’t hang on and turned it over. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the end of Simmons’ Sixers career. Philadelphia fans couldn’t, and wouldn’t, forget this shameful display.
So, now Simmons is in Brooklyn. He stayed away from the Sixers during the season, citing mental health issues as his reasoning. He still has not suited up for the Nets. In fact, according to BasketballReference.com, he still doesn’t even have an assigned jersey number with his new team.
Ostensibly, Simmons has been out with a back injury, which begs the question: how does one injure one’s back when not actively playing basketball? The answer to that, we will probably never know.
Without Simmons, the Nets are going to have to rely on Durant and Irving to carry the load against a tough Eastern Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks haven’t gone anywhere. The Sixers are back and trying to make up for their dismal exit last year. The Miami Heat have looked strong as ever in earning the #1 seed in the East. Even the Nets’ next opponent, the 2nd-seeded Boston Celtics, have been one of the most impressive teams in the NBA over the second half of the year.
Even though they may have the NBA’s best one-two offensive punch, Durant and Irving may still not be enough to drag this Nets’ roster to the Eastern Conference Finals and an NBA Finals appearance. Defensively, the Nets aren’t threatening. They could really use a 6’11’’, 240lb athletic freak to take some pressure off Durant and Irving when on D. Now, if only they had a player like that…
In order for this Nets team to reach its full potential, they are going to need Simmons to contribute. That’s the scary part. Simmons, who, again, has not played all year, is going to have to find a way to put last year’s playoff nightmare behind him. He has to remember that he’s a borderline All-NBA player when things are right. If he can’t do that, the Nets are facing early elimination. Durant and Irving are special NBA talents, but like the Lakers showed us this year, talent doesn’t trump everything.