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Where does Nets culture go from here?

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Brooklyn Nets Media Day Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Corporate culture is both what drives an organization internally and what it shows to the outside world. It is driven by a multitude of values and how they interact. Those in charge of the culture say it needs to be constantly evolving, updating, like an organism, That’s the mantra, but it is not easy to accomplish. And while overarching values can be imposed from the top-down, maintaining — and growing — them requires buy-in from the bottom-up.

That difficulty in maintaining and growing the core values that make up a culture has been evident the last few weeks in the NBA. The culture in Phoenix was ugly: a 1970’s work environment might be one way, a kind way, of describing it. In Boston, it was the head coach rather than the owner who was accused of failing to adhere the organization’s values. And in Golden State, the incident between Draymond Green and Jordan Poole, then the leak of the ugly video showed that even in the best of cultures, things can and do go wrong.

The Nets, whose culture was questioned and yes, ridiculed, over the summer, has not faced issues anywhere near what teams in Phoenix, Boston and Golden State are dealing with. Holdouts, testy contract negotiations and trade requests, even ultimatums, don’t rise to the level of toxic workplace environment, sexual harassment or violence ... and apparent disloyalty.

Still, as both Brian Lewis in the Post and John Hollinger on The Athletic write this weekend, the Nets culture took hit after hit last season, then again in the off-season. It may look like Kumbaya right now, but everyone understands there’s a need to rebuild things ... and with it an understanding without that, don’t expect much better results.

“Did we take a step back? Without a doubt. The culture isn’t what it quite was. It’s going to be our job to pick that up,” said Sean Marks in his and Steve Nash’s end of the season press conference in May. As Hollinger notes in his Nets season preview, that was before the off-season!

Hollinger does a good job of laying out how last season’s individualism, for the want of a better word, was a culmination of years of cultural deterioration, at the center of which was a willingness to give in to superstars.

The Nets traded culture for talent … and so far, they’ve lost. Yes, the Nets have made the playoffs three straight years and were a toenail away from knocking out eventual champion Milwaukee in 2021, but they also won zero playoff games in the other two seasons.

He, like a lot of fans, look back fondly at the Nets success in 2018-19, the very success that lured Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn in the first place. No one questioned that culture. While as Hollinger writes, no one is pining for D’Angelo Russell, the compromises the Nets made from Day 1 with KD and Kyrie laid the groundwork for the disheartening results fans are all too familiar with.

Brooklyn traded that ethos almost immediately, without a fight, before Durant and Irving were even officially Nets. The Nets agreed to wildly overpay their friend DeAndre Jordan (a four-year, $40 million deal that they ended up paying the Pistons to take off their hands two years later) and months later fired Atkinson for having the temerity to pay the clearly better Jarrett Allen ahead of Jordan.

The culture, such as it was, was left to Durant and Irving to determine, with what appeared to be shockingly little pushback from management.

That may be oversimplifying things but there is truth there. Hollinger also suggests that the player development ethos that found and matured Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie (and to a certain degree, Russell) has been missing, somewhat because of circumstances.

The commitment to player development that was the hallmark of the Atkinson era mostly shut down too. This was partly because of a lack of players to develop as the roster transitioned to over-the-hill veterans on minimum deals, but even the Nets’ better young players had an unusually hard time gaining traction. And with so many vets around, Brooklyn can no longer afford to use back-end roster spots on Harris-Dinwiddie type reclamation projects.

Now, of course, things seem different ... but are they? Nets ownership may have won the day in the off-season by getting Durant to (begrudgingly?) rescind his trade request and Irving to opt in to his final year but there are so many questions still out there, as Lewis notes simply by quoting Durant and others from their Media Day interviews.

“I feel like we don’t have any respect out there on the court,” Lewis quotes Durant. “And that’s what I want for us: respect amongst the NBA community as a team on how we play on both ends of the floor, from GMs all the way down to the equipment manager.

“I want that respect, and you do that by how you work every single day. We skipped some steps in how we worked throughout the year last year because of the circumstances — vaccine mandates, people disgruntled, injuries. We could’ve kept pressing forward, and that’s what I try to do as a player. I’m not preaching something I don’t practice. I come in here, every rep matters to me, so I want everybody to feel the same way.”

“I agree with what he said: They [were] soft. Just point blank, period,” said Markieff Morris. “When we played up against them, they were soft. Just go right up in their chest. And that’s what we did.”

No one, not KD, not Marks, not Nash, believes that the cultural issues are resolved and Marks made it amply clear that player empowerment, from treating players’ families with respect to seeing superstars as partners, remains a core value, if not the core value, driving the Nets culture.

Kyrie Irving, whose refusal to get vaccinated in the face of a city mandate was at the core of both last season’s disappointment and the off-season’s chaos, offered this assessment ... seemingly without irony.

“There was a level of uncertainty in this building, not just for last year, but for the last few years,” Irving said, also at Media Day. “And that accountability [Durant] asked for should be available and accessible at all times. We should have that type of environment. So I echo the same sentiments, and I felt the same way. I just felt the awkwardness.

“It’s going to be a long journey ahead of us because there are those obstacles. Questions on health. The [healthiest] team wins every single year … In order to be healthy, it can’t just be physically. It has to be mentally, it has to be emotionally, and we have to have synergy as a team where we understand our highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses. … We don’t know what this team is going to paint on this canvas this year as of yet.”

There are, as both Lewis and Hollinger write, lowered expectations this year compared to last year, when they were sky-high, with three future Hall of Famers in their prime seemingly ready to compete for a championship. But Harris, the veteran, the Nets culture’s ultimate success story, thinks that is a good thing, as Lewis recounts.

“We’re not looking as far ahead,” Joe Harris said. “Last season, we had such high expectations for ourselves that we looked to the playoffs a lot even in the very beginning of the season. It felt like even in some of the games early on where we’d win, [we] felt like we weren’t winning by enough or we weren’t at the championship caliber that we had the expectation for ourselves. So a lot of the stuff now is just being as attentive and focused just on the day-to-day stuff and not trying to look too far ahead.

“When you think about championship teams, if you come in and you watch practice a lot of times, you can feel it because you know how attentive guys are, how focused they are, locked in every practice — you feel the importance of that every day,” Harris said. “Not that we weren’t doing that last year, but it was a little bit of looking down the road, feeling the loss from the prior year in the playoffs and wanting to get back to that point, and looking past some of the games that we had in the early season instead of being attentive and focused on the present.”

In other words, the culture wasn’t strong enough to carry them through adversity. Is it any stronger this year? A lot of that will rest, as it should, on Nash’s shoulders. He is the Hall of Fame player with the needed communications skills, but as Hollinger writes, “Nash needs to better, frankly” with the x’s and the o’s. And while the roster has its share of bench leaders like Morris and Patty Mills, the culture will depend on the usual suspects: KD and Kyrie, Marks and Nash.

There are, frankly, other issues with the culture. It can be insular, a little too much “us vs. them,” with the “us” limited to a narrow bandwidth inside the walls of HSS Training Center and the “them” being everyone else. Criticism from the outside can all too often be dismissed as “noise.” Cynicism can be the ultimate result and that is bad for any culture (or fan base.)

Three members of last year’s team have thrown shade on the situation in Brooklyn last season in comments since signing elsewhere. Goran Dragic said there was too little team play.

“I played with some stars, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and I have to admit that it was quite difficult because the focus was not the team, but more the individual performances of the individual players,” Dragic told a newspaper in his home country of Slovenia after he signed with the Bulls.

”New York was kind of crazy. I’m happy to be here.” Bruce Brown told reporters at the Nuggets Media Day.

And this week, Blake Griffin in talking to Boston writers made it clear — without mentioning the Nets by name — that Celtics vibes are better than Nets vibes.

“I’m actually very — not surprised, but the amount of maturity and welcomingness,” said the 14-year veteran. “It’s a different atmosphere than I was sort of used to, in a good way. They were very welcoming. Everybody, one through 15. Practice today was focused, very encouraging, [and] helpful. I think you kind of take that for granted because it’s not always the case everywhere you go.”

In the end, we are told, winning cures everything and as Hollinger notes, talent is talent and the Nets sure have a ton of that. There are holes in the roster that he foresees, like depth at center, and at the wing which could be helped if T.J. Warren returns anywhere near the form he showed in the “bubble.” He’s got questions about Royce O’Neale, Edmond Sumner and Cam Thomas, etc.

The culture, both he and Lewis write, will likely tell the tale this season: how accountable will everyone be, how will they mesh, how will they deal with the inevitable adversity, how will the superstars demanding more of everyone lead? Watch this space.