The Brooklyn Nets are 10-5 so far through games of November 16, having been clobbered 117-99 on their home floor by the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night.
Their five losses have been against Milwaukee, Charlotte, Miami, Chicago, and the aforementioned Warriors, and the closest of those losses was by 13 points. That’s your defending NBA champions and three teams regarded as contenders, along with the ultimate wildcard of a Hornets team.
And while Brooklyn is still third in the East and just a game behind surprising Washington for the top record in the conference, questions surround the Nets and whether they can actually beat the teams they’re likely to face in the playoffs. The only real quality wins they have this year are against Philadelphia and Washington.
Of course no discussion of Brooklyn’s problems is complete—or, indeed, you can’t start a conversation about Brooklyn’s problems—without talking about Kyrie Irving.
Irving is in his 11th pro season since Cleveland drafted him first overall in 2011, and at some point we’re going to have to look at his legacy and wonder if he’s not the biggest clubhouse cancer of a player of the 21st century other than Allen Iverson. Irving started out as a Great Stats Bad Team guy, had a magical run in the 2016 Finals alongside LeBron James, then alienated LeBron and got traded to Boston in 2017 for the draft pick that became Collin Sexton.
Irving, in Boston, is perhaps best known for the “Ewing Theory” run the ’18 Celtics had when he was injured (for more on the Ewing Theory, see Bill Simmons’ early body of work for ESPN way back in the day, but the short version is that some so-called superstars have a funny habit of having their teams perform better without them than with them.)
The Celtics made the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals without Irving. In 2019, they manhandled the Pacers in the first round but crashed out against Milwaukee in the conference semis, a severe downgrade from the previous season.
Boston got rid of Irving ahead of the 2019-20 season and ended up back in the conference finals with Kemba Walker in what had been Irving’s role as the point guard. Sure, Boston finally crashed and burned last year, but they made the conference finals three times in four years, and the one year they fell short, they had World B. Flat creating a constant media distraction.
Now, in Brooklyn, Irving is not with the team because he insists on remaining unvaccinated against COVID-19. On the other coast, Andrew Wiggins realized that the needs of his team are greater than the need for his personal liberty to spit in the face of science and professional requirements, and he’s having the best season of his career, finally over .100 WS/48 for the first time. He is a big part of why the Warriors look as good as they’ve looked in years—ESPN even drew parallels between the way the 2022 Warriors look and the way the team looked in the fall of 2014 as they were on their way to their first championship and first of five straight Finals appearances. Whether Golden State is for real is still an open question—one this site just asked and tried to answer on Sunday, in fact—but the obvious contrast between Wiggins and Irving is the elephant in the room.
Speaking of Brooklyn’s chemistry problems, James Harden—posting an all-time low in scoring since he became a starter in 2013, incidentally, while turning the ball over nearly five times a game and putting up his worst advanced stats since 2011—is another guy infamous for causing locker room problems, one reason Houston was such a revolving door in the eight seasons (plus eight games in 2020-21) he played there. We’re still waiting for a definitive answer to the question of whether Harden and Irving can get along on the court—injuries and COVID protocols left that question largely unanswered last year. Irving missed the last three games of the conference finals, including a Game 7 where Milwaukee became the first road team to win a game in that entire series, eliminating Brooklyn on their own floor.
If you want to see the cautionary tale that is accumulating talent without being able to cultivate chemistry, the 2020 and ’21 Nets might just be that cautionary tale. Other than Kevin Durant, who has his bona fides permanently secured thanks to the 2017 and ’18 Warriors, Irving and Harden have question marks swirling around their legacies.
Irving has a ring, yes, but everyone and their brother acknowledges that was LeBron’s ring—his GOAT-securing ring, if you’re on the Team LeBron side of the debate over James and Michael Jordan. When he’s tried to be the alpha dog, his teammates have largely been better off without him—just look at the 2018 Celtics or any Cavs team before LeBron came back to Cleveland.
The wildest thing about the Nets, though, is how they abandoned what was becoming one heck of a young core in order to chase marquee free agents in 2019, ultimately ending up with Durant and Irving.
You could debate until the cows come home whether that 42-40 2019 Nets team had enough talent they could develop into a winner, but it was an exciting young squad of up-and-coming talent!
Instead, they now roll out a squad with four starters older than 30 (plus Bruce Brown, who is 25), three older bench contributors (Patty Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Paul Millsap, 32, 36, and 36 respectively), and a third member of a would-be Big Three who’s too busy ginning up idiocy in the media to do what he’s supposed to be paid almost $35 million to do, which is try to help his team win basketball games.
The Nets are a smoldering piece of kindling on the breeze just looking for a Dumpster to land in to start a full-blown dumpster fire, and their inability to beat genuinely good teams—and worse, their tendency to get blown out by good teams—is going to sink the franchise before the season is over.