The Brooklyn Nets have hit a bump in the road. Or, the end is near! Fans choice.
It was just 37 days ago when the Nets had a Eastern Conference best 23-9 record. Since then, they’ve gone 6-13 and are currently sixth in the conference. Kevin Durant will be out for what feels like forever due to a sprained MCL. James Harden trade rumors are swirling around the basketball world like flies at a picnic. They don’t ruin the picnic, but everyone has to take note of them. Fan confidence in head coach Steve Nash and the team in general has been dropping as the Nets have lost six in a row for the first time since January 2020 when COVID-19 was two months away from being declared a pandemic.
It’s not pretty.
Is it time to hit the panic button? No. However, an argument can be made that the briefcase with the nuclear war codes should at least be fetched from Billy King’s house.
The Not Too Good
The most obvious reason Brooklyn is even in this position is Durant’s injury. Since Durant went down on January 15, the Nets have won two of nine possible games. That is the worst nine-game span in the “Big Three” era.
In fact, you’d have to go back to the 2019-20 season when both Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert were out for double-digit games to find a worse skid. It was the Garrett Temple and Spencer Dinwiddie show at that point, and Harden was still enjoying his time in the Houston sun and Texas’ state taxes (or lack of same.)
Still, it’s expected to be bad when you’re missing Kevin Wayne Durant and your other stars haven’t consistently been in the lineup. Kyrie’s vaccination status — rather his unvaccinated status — limits where he can play. That’s not going to change anytime soon. Harden has sat out games due to left hamstring tightness and a right hand strain. Still, he insists on pushing through. It’s been his mantra his whole career.
“Keep chipping away a day at a time. That’s all you can do,” Harden said following Wednesday night’s ugly loss to the Kings. “Come together closer, even tighter. It’s definitely frustrating. It’s definitely difficult but we got to find a way to get out of it [the current losing steak] as a group.”
Wednesday’s loss was one of the worst ones we’ve seen yet. The Nets gave up almost 60 points in the second half while scoring only 39 of their own against a 13th seeded Kings without their best player and their best big man. Harden had six turnovers; a number higher than his point total on the night: four. That was the lowest point total of his career when playing 30+ minutes.
Irving — who had a stellar game on Monday — finished the night with 14 points and four turnovers while shooting 33 percent from the field. He had his own two cents to chip in when asked about the recent skid from Brooklyn.
“I wouldn’t call it issues. We don’t want to make it bigger than just figuring out how to win a basketball game, cement that blueprint, and then being able to follow that into game after game,” said Irving. “This is a growth period that we’re in, and that’s the way I see it.”
Funny enough, it was the role players who did most of the scoring. Most notably, Nicolas Claxton finished with a career-high 23 points and James Johnson had 18. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, the injuries don’t end with the stars. The role players have been hit worse with the nagging injury bug who seems to have made a home in the streets of Brooklyn.
LaMarcus Aldridge who was having a renaissance this season has had a number of injuries, most recently an ankle issue. Aldridge’s frontcourt partner Claxton has played 24 of a possible 51 games. However, the worst injury among the role players has been Joe Harris.
He hasn’t played since November 4, and Brian Lewis quoted Harris’ agent, Mark Bartlestein of Priority Sports, Thursday on Harris’ situation. Not a lot of optimism there.
“So it’s possible that there could be one more procedure he could do that would fix the ankle once and for good. But we’re not sure if we need that or not. So the long-term prognosis is great, it’s not gonna be a problem; but it’s just do we need to do something additional right now or not, and we’re just trying to figure that out.”
Yesterday on ESPN’s Zach Lowe podcast The Lowe Post wasn’t optimistic about Harris’ role for the rest of the year for Brooklyn, as he thinks the situation is ‘worrisome’ and it’s not ‘a given’ he’ll return this year.
Bartlestein said we will hear a more definite answer in a week or two.
This lingering injury bug is something that will make or break the Nets’ season, and we can’t call over Spider-Man from Queens to come help us deal with it. Daredevil might be busy at the moment in Hell’s Kitchen. Captain America? Fuhgeddaboudit. He was born in Manhattan then regentrified to Red Hook. Sounds Knicksonian.
Harden trade rumors
All of that isn’t even mentioning Harden’s situation. Multiple reporters have replayed the narrative that Harden is not happy in Brooklyn, but Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer went into the most depth.
“...Harden has recently informed several confidants—including former teammates and coaches—of his interest in exploring other opportunities outside of Brooklyn this summer,” Fischer wrote last week. “According to multiple sources, Harden has not enjoyed living in Brooklyn, compared to his days as a central Houston magnate. Outside of the change in climate, the chasm between state taxes in New York versus Texas is quite obvious as well.”
Now since then, Adrian Wojnarowski has attempted to calm the waters by writing that Harden had repeatedly told Sean Marks and Joe Tsai that he’s committed to stay and Harden himself advised beat writers to believe it only when it comes from him, not anonymous reports.
Still, Harden’s frustration with the losing has been evident. He volunteered after the Kings’ game that he had never been on a six-game losing streak in his 15-year career. There are also some recent quotes like, “I think we’ve done too much talking,” when asked if the Nets have had a players-only meeting only adds to the growing fire. That negative narrative will hold true to the NBA fandom even if Harden doesn’t have any mal-intent behind it, which is doubtful.
And in that treasure trove of bad news for Nets fans, the Zach Lowe podcast, the ESPN reporter also said this “This team does not look like it’s in a good place right now, I have not heard fantastic things about the chemistry.”
Kyrie Irving vs. New York City
And of course, the elephant in the room ... or the Zoom.
Kai has played stellar since Durant’s injury. He averaged 28 points, five rebounds, six assists, and only 2.5 turnovers per game while flirting with a 50-40-90 shooting split; 50.8 percent from the field, 38.6 percent from three, and 91.7 percent from the stripe.
There’s no indication whatsoever that the city or Irving is going to relent on their standoff over the COVID vaccine. Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports was on TNT during the Suns game with an update after speaking with the Office of Mayor Eric Adams.
“There are currently no plans to amend the mandate. The spokesperson also added we will continue to follow the science and the guidance of public health professionals to keep New Yorkers safe. We encourage all New Yorkers to get vaccinated and boosted to stop the spread.”
And while Irving keeps suggesting that the NBA should work something out, the NBA isn’t party to his problem. It’s between him and the city. Maybe when the new city medical director takes over in a few weeks and if infections continue to drop, there will be an update, but that’s a thin reed.
At this point, Kyrie will only be eligible to play in 13 of the Nets remaining 31 games. And assuming that KD comes back right after All-Star Break and Harden’s hand is okay, the “Big Three” will have, at most, eight games together. (As for replicating the Opening Night starting line-up of Durant, Irving, Harden, Harris and Claxton, that seems like a pipe dream.)
However, the players are staying optimistic, at least in front of the cameras.
“We can’t be fragile,” said Irving after the recent Warriors loss last Saturday. “People are going to come at us. Nobody is going to feel bad whether this guy is in the lineup or this guy is not in the lineup, every team is competing for those top four positions with one of those teams having aspirations of playing down in the late postseason. These games right here, you’ll remember them because you’re going against a Western Conference team that can potentially see you down the line. You never know what can happen.”
Kyrie makes a good point here, whether it was intentional or not. In the nine games since Durant’s injury, five of them have been against teams who are the seventh or higher seed in their conference. Three are the fifth seed or higher, with Golden State and Phoenix being the two best teams in the NBA record-wise.
Of course, there’s teams like the Kings and Spurs who are competing for a high lottery pick, but the fact remains the Nets have had an overall tough set of games the past few weeks. That won’t get any easier, with the Nets playing Utah tonight, but the schedule does eventually open up a little bit. We all knew that the schedule at the beginning and end of the season worked in the Nets favor. The middle was always going to be a grind.
Our other favorite Australian has found his groove again. Patty Mills, during the same stretch of games, he averaged 16 points a night while shooting 45 percent from deep. That’s a stark difference from the first half of January, where he averaged nine points and shot 36.7 percent from three.
Then, there’s the kids. When you pick at Nos. 27, 29 and 44 and get three rotation players and two starters, you did very good in assessing and developing players. Finally, will Sean Marks pull a rabbit out of his hat again at the deadline? That’s an unknown unknown six days before the clock strikes 3 p.m.
The Bottom Line
There’s no denying it and no way around it. The Nets are struggling. Bad. Durant, Harden, Irving, and Harris — who account for 78 percent of Brooklyn’s payroll — have played zero games together. Whether it be due to injuries, vaccine limitations, or anything along those lines, Brooklyn needs some combination of the four to be back to compete for a title.
As fans we can only hope the injuries work themselves out without any setbacks and that the players who are available play with hunger. If the Nets can limp their way to the All-Star break reinforcements will be on the horizon, with the NBA’s leading scorer set to come back sometime then. Hopefully we can hear back about Harris for sure by then, but it’s not looking good.
Until then, the men in black and white (and we certainly don’t mean the refs) have to defend the ‘Clays and bring the business to away stadiums no matter who’s eligible. After all, you can’t worry about who’s not on the floor when you’re in the middle of a game. Adversity is a part of growth, and the Nets have to work through it if they want to raise the Larry O’Brien come June. Nash probably put it best.
“I think it’s our job to make sure these guys recognize it’s about improvement,” Nash said Saturday. “It’s about growth. We’re undermanned, and hopefully we win a bunch of games undermanned, but if we don’t, it’s about growth, it’s about getting better, and it’s about us putting ourselves in a position down the line that’s further ahead, and when we do get reinforcements, we’ll be much better for it.”