Time never flies if you’re a Nets fan.
Steve Nash officially ended his two-year stint as head coach with the Brooklyn Nets a week ago after he and the organization mutually agreed to part ways. So said the press release but most believe that he was simply, if ceremoniously, dumped.
When the former two-time MVP was first called upon to lead this star-studded Brooklyn team in September 2020, no one knew what to expect considering he did not have any experience in the coaching department. He had been the GM of Canada’s national team and a consultant to the Warriors but that was it.
Although Nash was dismissed by Brooklyn, this doesn’t mean it’s the end of his coaching career nor does it mean that he is a bad coach. Steve Clifford, now head coach of the Charlotte Hornets and a Nash consultant last season, said as much before Saturday’s game.
“There’s always things you can do better as a coach, but the problem there was not coaching,” said Clifford. “Nor receptiveness to the way we did things. I totally disagree with any of that and sometimes it’s just health,” said Clifford.
Jeff Van Gundy, who admittedly dislikes almost any coaching change, agreed.
“I don’t want to speak for Cliff, but he really thought highly of just how good of a leader Steve Nash was through a very tumultuous year. And not because of anything he did wrong, but just circumstances that plagued the Nets because of some roster decisions and some personal decisions,” said JVG.
“You’re not finding anybody who doesn’t have the highest regard for Steve Nash in the league. And, I gotta say, I just don’t know who wouldn’t wanna play for him. His personality, his success, his outlook on life, his compassion, and his empathy for people. To me, he’s a model for what we say we want in leadership, and it’s a shame the Nets decided to move on.”
He certainly had his good moments with the Nets, but his bad moments were what many thought, even knew, are the ones that would lead to the ultimate result. The corollary question, of course, is whether he was a scapegoat?
Nash’s most impressive feat was leading a hobbled Nets squad to seven games with the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2021 playoffs. The Bucks would eventually win the series and go on to be NBA Champions, but their biggest test came when they matched up with Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
James Harden left Game 1 early with a hamstring injury. Despite losing the team’s premier playmaker, Nash managed to coach the team to a 2-0 lead over Milwaukee. Brooklyn was looking like a force to be reckoned with Harden. Well, until Game 3. The Nets lost in a close one by three, but still had more game on the road to go back home with a 3-1 lead.
By Game 4, Kyrie Irving went down with an ankle injury and it left Durant as the only All-Star left for the Nets. The Bucks would capitalize and win Game 4 by 11. This left Nash stuck between a rock and a hard place. Was it time to call on Harden who was clearly still hurt? This was the moment of truth.
By the time Game 5 began, Harden returned even though he was not at 100%. He was hobbling up and down the court, his body striped with kinesiology tape. Nash and the Nets took their chances with the crippled Harden for a vital Game 5 and it paid off. Nash had him log 46 minutes to complement Durant’s spectacular 49-point heroics. Harden’s efforts were just enough to help the team get a crucial Game 5 victory. The famous photo of Nash hugging Durant may be the most enduring image of Nash’s tenure in Brooklyn. The Bucks didn’t let up, though and went on to win Game 6 by a convincing margin of 19.
Then, came Game 7 ending one of the best playoff series’ of all-time, It took a big sneaker and an overtime for Milwaukee to seal the deal by four. The Nets may have been eliminated, but they certainly earned the league’s respect for their efforts while dealing with injuries to their stars. Nash’s schemes to even have the Nets compete despite it all also went under the radar.
Securing the Eastern Conference’s second best record of 48-24 — and the best winning percentage of any season in the Nets NBA history — during the 2020-21 season should also be remembered as one of Nash’s best moments. It cannot be dismissed.
The Nets never had a solid starting five for the entire season because of injuries and trades, but found a way to make it work. They recorded the league’s best offensive rating for that season with 118.3. In what was Nash’s rookie season, this was impressive to pull off. You can say it was because of Durant, Harden and Irving and you’d be right but it seemed like the three could never get on the court together to play. It was Nash who found a way to still get wins in the winning column to prepare for the playoffs. He may not have called enough timeouts and his rotations may have seemed odd, but he won.
Then came the 2021-22, with Irving refusing to get vaccinated and being banished, Harden’s slow and disheartening exit, Durant and Joe Harris’ injuries and who can forget the Ben Simmons up-and-down, in-and-out, end-of-season debacle.
If we are highlighting Nash’s worst moments, the first round series versus the Boston Celtics in the 2022 playoffs has to be up there. He was completely exposed for not making any effective adjustments. Nash had the Nets relying on isolation plays offensively. In particular, he relied on Durant and Irving to pull off something heroic in each game to get the win. The Celtics were prepared for this and managed to sweep Brooklyn. Following the series, Nash was on the hot seat and was the scapegoat.
Said Goran Dragic, his long-time friend, in the perfect distillation of the season: “Every day there was something different, something difficult.” Dragic also said players were more interested in individual performance than winning for the team.
You would think things couldn’t get worse. Wrong! The worst moment that Nash had to endure as head coach was not completely winning over the franchise player: Kevin Durant. It was the oddest moment in an odd off-season, too. On August 7, KD told Joe Tsai in a London hotel room that he wanted Nash (and Marks) gone. It was odd because twice, including after the playoff sweep, KD had defended Nash,
“I mean, come on now, yeah,” Durant said in the post-game following Game 4 of the Boston sweep. “Steve’s been dealt a crazy hand the last two years. He’s had to deal with so much stuff as a head coach, a first-time coach: trades, injuries, COVID, it’s just a lot of stuff he’s had to deal with, and I’m proud of how he’s focused and his passion for us. We all continue to keep developing over the summer and see what happens.”
Although the Nets organization and Durant came to an agreement to continue moving forward, and there was a lot of positive comments about “family,” everyone was well aware of the ultimatum ... if not what drove KD to do it.
To add insult to injury, the Nets’ start to this season was all that was needed before the parting. Brooklyn opened up the campaign with a 2-5 record after even getting Ben Simmons back from injury. But that wasn’t the only thing. Kyrie Irving once again got into off-court trouble with his promotion of an antisemitic video.
Just as that scandal began to fester, five days after the offending tweet, the Nets decided it was time to dump Nash. After the seventh game of the season, Nash told Nets GM Sean Marks that the team was not responding to him. per Marks. It was clear that the players and he were not on the same page so it was best to go a different route for a head coach.
“When we’re having these conversations, he’s aware of, ‘Hey, they’re not responding to me right now’ or ‘That was not the performance I needed to see out there.’” said Marks, who has been a good friend of Nash’s for two decades.
There’s ample evidence of that of course starting with a 2-5 record marred by a seeming lack of effort. There were external and internal discussions of whether KD had lost a step, could still take over a game (concerns that seem comical only a week later.) Simmons looked average as he tried to get back to who he was. Defense was atrocious.
Moreover, Marc Stein reported after the decision to dump Nash that he was indeed being tuned out by his point guard, quoting advance scouts, those men and women who chart not just opponents’ performance but play-calling.
I heard from one club that, in one of Nash’s final games, there were in the ballpark of 10 easy-to-spot occasions that Irving ran something completely different after Nash shouted the play he wanted.
So, once again, there were extenuating circumstances, How much of a final straw was Irving’s tweet which came days before the decision to dump Nash, driving down things so badly that Marks said it was “understandable” that fans may not want to root for a team is such disarray? Was that issue a cause of the Nets mediocre beginning? In other words, again, whose fault was it?
Durant seemed to dismiss it all as part of the business of basketball.
“I mean, let’s be real. We’re pros. We’re veterans. You know, we had a tough start and a rocky year last year, rocky summer. We knew that everybody was being evaluated,” Durant said the day after Nash left. “That’s just how it is in the league. So I liked working with Steve. I liked working with the coaching staff. It was a roller coaster the last few years. But you know, the core of it, basketball is something that we all love to do. So regardless of the coach, regardless of the circumstances, you still gotta come to work. So I enjoyed coming to work with Steve.”
In the end, that’s probably right. It is how the league works. As for Nash, Clifford is also right that coaching wasn’t the Nets big issue. If we didn’t know that before, we know it now. Clifford is probably right as well about Nash’s chances of taking the coaching reins somewhere else. There’s never been a scandal associated with Nash. What happened happened.
A few days before he was dismissed, Nash was asked by the Wall Street Journal about how he deals with “media attention” and “noise.”
“That stuff for me is fairly normal. It becomes second nature in a way. A lot of that stuff I just totally tune out. I don’t even know what’s going on. I don’t follow the media when it comes to my work. I focus on my work, and I was the same as a player. It doesn’t really interest me to follow what’s going on out there.”
We should learn soon who will replace Nash. It may not be Udoka. Marc Stein is reporting that there have been some “strong voices” urging Joe Tsai to back off Udoka as Steve Nash’s successor “given the considerable turmoil Brooklyn has already faced this season.”
Sometimes, sports fans, you should be careful what you wish for.