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After week of confusion, disappointment, even anger, fans deserve better

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Utah Jazz v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

On Monday night, as Nets fans exited Barclays Center, their dream of the Larry O’Brien Trophy dashed once again, they were a mix of frustration, confusion, even anger. They had done their job. The team had not. A 4-0 sweep by the Celtics was not the expected outcome of the first round.

But since then, things have actually gotten worse. In short order ...

  • There were reports, then confirmation that Ben Simmons has a “mental block” that “triggers” his back issues and that team officials were, take your choice, “disappointed,” “exasperated” or simply “fatigued.”
  • Kyrie Irving told the media that the Nets situation “really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe (Tsai) and Sean (Marks),” a comment that baffled ownership and once again pointed up what is most charitably called his mercurial personality.
  • KD got involved in a two-day long feud with Charles Barkley and the TNT on NBA crew over his time with Golden State. To some, it may have been considered harmless trolling, to others a strange response to a sweep in which Durant played only one KD-quality game.

Fans, of course, has a short memory and assuming everything gets rectified and there are no more shocks to the system (good luck with that!), they’ll be back ... despite big increases in ticket prices ... More bad timing.

But for now, the Nets despite all their talent are seen as a franchise with deep-seated issues. There have been multiple stories about how the Nets (and the Lakers) have proven the “super team” strategy of building a franchise may be outmoded. While the Nets have immeasurably more talent on their roster now, it’s also fair to say that they exceeded expectations when they went the “organic” route and produced a 42-win season in 2018-19, then didn’t meet them when they went full-on “superstar” and produced a 44-win season just concluded.

Yeah, yeah, the Nets had plenty of bad luck, plenty of unfortunate twists and turns, but as Isiah Thomas noted on NBA TV two nights back, the Raptors had to play a season plus in Tampa because of COVID and the Heat have done quite well with nine undrafted players on their roster.

The question to be pondered at higher levels is not so much who to blame, but what to blame, that is the team’s vaunted culture. It went from player-centric in the early days of Sean Marks tenure to player (aka star) dominant now. There is a difference. The strategy worked in getting the best of the best assembled in Brooklyn, but it hasn’t worked out on the court. One playoff series win since the “Clean Sweep” doesn’t cut it.

The culture puts a premium on player empowerment, but to a lot of fans, that can look like an abdication of responsibility by ownership and the front office. James Harden goes on a mini-strike to get out of an uncomfortable situation he saw going nowhere. Irving has one “situation” after another, a failure to talk about the severity of his injury one year to a leave of absence or whatever you want to call it another year, then the piece de gras, his refusal to take the vaccine because of his opposition to the mandates. His arguments may seem high-minded and due respect in some quarters, but he chose not to sacrifice for his team and instead became the face of a movement. Bad tradeoff. As for KD, he remains a great player, a great human being, but shouldn’t he have demanded his friend simply do what 99 percent of the players who donned NBA uniforms did this year? Get the shot. The Simmons situation remains uncertain. Mental health issues are private and we wish him the best but the manner in which was handled was confusing at best. More on that later.

In each case, there are caveats, of course, but the cumulative effect is what drove fans crazy this year. Perhaps nothing has sent so many around the bend as Irving’s comments about “managing the franchise” (note not the team, but the franchise).

Said one long-time Nets fan...

“Even though I wasn’t his biggest fan before he came here, nor did I hate him, I really liked that he was from New Jersey and legitimately grew up a Nets fan, and wasn’t quiet about it. Next, having not really paid attention to him throughout his career, I didn’t understand until I watched him play, how incredible he is on the court

“However, at this point, he’s worn out his welcome, and wanting to co-manage the team, is one step too far for me.”

The anger on many fans’ part is not so much about his desire to take player empowerment one step further. After all, he did say two years ago on a podcast with Durant that he could coach the team, Durant could the team. No big deal. It’s that he believes (knows?) there will be no consequences for any of his actions. Indeed, everything seems to be forgiven, forgotten and he’ll wind up with a contract that will pay him as much as a quarter billion dollars. Accountability much?

He is an incredible player, as the fan noted. His willingness and desire to help younger players develop is legendary and his personal charity may be unmatched among NBA players in how generous it is, how broad it is and how anonymous it is, whether it’s buying George Floyd’s family a new house or bringing clean water to a village in one of the world’s most arid places. He is also very, very intelligent but also just as manipulative. The management comment fits right into that.

But if fans’ disappointment, even anger, is centered on Irving, then the manner in which the Simmons saga (a phrase nearing trademark level) has played out is what drives the element of confusion. How much is on him is one issue, but it’s not the main one. It’s what you might call the WTF element.

At the heart of the Simmons issue, saga, is a lack of transparency which has led to the problems fans have. As we wrote up a chronology of the time from the trade deadline blockbuster to the revelation of the mental block, we noted that even after the MRI which Simmons had some time in late February or early March, the Nets referred to the issue keeping him off the court as “stiffness,” “soreness,” “a setback” or “a flare-up.” Presumably, they knew it was a herniated disc in the L4-L5 spinal segment which they ultimately confirmed after a leak.

As things moved along, that lack of transparency proved counter-productive. There was imprecise language as noted, but also competing leaks and competing narratives. The Nets lost control of their own player’s narrative. It was left to Shams and Woj and Ramona and Windy and Brian, etc. etc. to come up with their own diagnosis, their own timeline, their own prognosis, all of it based on anonymous sources. Steve Nash may have (rightly) charted out the milestones Simmons needed to cross, but no one seemed to believe him in the face of all the tweets, appearances on TV and podcasts. That’s on the organization. Moreover, the same day Shams and Woj reported —within minutes of each other — Simmons was nearing a possible return in the playoffs, the Nets put out a video that showed him moving freely, shooting, running, etc. It sure looked coordinated to create optimism beyond just hope.

Then, there was the series of stories surrounding the Shams report Tuesday that a “mental block” had “triggered” his back pain. As noted, the Nets were described as “disappointed,” “exasperated,” “fatigued” in national media. How was that helpful? Where did it come from? It would seem that this was the exact opposite of what Simmons needed. Nash spoke compassionately about his player’s situation, how the Nets would support him in any way that was needed but again his message was overwhelmed by the noise.

This is certainly not an indictment of the reporters, particularly the national ones. It’s their job to try to find things out, based on talking to their sources. The highly competitive nature of the business also can set things awry. We don’t know the full extent to which the Nets organization went in trying to tamp things down after ramping them up, if indeed that’s what they did, but the final result, losing control of the narrative and confusing the fanbase, is bad.

Dealing fulsomely with injuries and illness, particularly mental health issues, is a tricky business. There are HIPAA regulations and yes, players do not want all the details of their health, their lives exposed, but there has to be some middle ground in the transparency debate. The Nets culture is secretive and it can be argued that it’s for the best. Better that players not have to answer questions about every piece of minutiae, avoiding the dreaded “distraction.” But it sure as hell didn’t work this season.

As for KD’s trolling of Barkley, it’s in the eye of the beholder how much that works in his — and his team’s — favor. He had fun, engaging not just the with lords of NBA coverage but random fans. And he was justified in defending himself against what is one of the stupidest narratives in sport, that despite being the MVP of the NBA Finals twice, he was a bus “rider” not the “driver.” Still, he was debating his tenure with the Warriors which ended three years ago. Shouldn’t he be just a little humble after what had happened to the Nets hours earlier? (Yes, there are areas where you can be too forward leaning and yes, compared to the other issues, it’s trivial.)

Then there is the issue of whether the Nets “Big Three” is becoming unlikeable. That’s not the worst thing that can happen to a franchise. Those old enough to remember the great Yankee teams of the late 1970’s can recite all the animosities that created headlines but didn’t stop them from winning multiple World Series. In the days since the Nets sweep, there has been a chorus of media attacks on Irving’s management comment, Simmons’ mental health status, etc. with some of the latter very, very ugly and unfortunate.

Nets players with all their fame and notoriety are bound to be hated. Durant and Irving left two franchises in the lurch, Simmons one. Everyone hates the rich and powerful. However, a recent BetOnline.AG survey of negative Twitter comments about NBA players found that four players who wore the black-and-white this season were in the top six of “hated” players. LeBron James was easily the most “hated” according to the survey but Durant was No. 2, Harden No. 3, Irving No. 4 and Simmons No. 6. Dismiss it if you will and note their jersey sales would seem to rebut the notion they’re truly “hated”, but it’s likely that a lot of this “hate” has to do with divisive off-court issues. Those are not as easy to resolve and all this divisiveness, all this controversy — what Goran Dragic called “everyday, something different, something difficult” — could have an effect on the Nets attraction to fans but also free agents.

Said Barkely after the sweep, “How are they going to find those other pieces is the question. That’s going to be the question going forward. Who’s going to want to play on that team?”

Sean Marks sent out a message to Nets fans Wednesday acknowledging how “disappointed” the Nets were “to not continue our journey in the NBA playoffs” while noting, accurately, that the Nets have “some of the most elite and talented players in the league set to return next season.” He also promised a “pivotal” off-season and suggested the “best is yet to come for the Brooklyn Nets.”

The Nets do have a well-spring of good feelings among their fans to draw from. Joe Tsai and Marks are revered by the fanbase. KD and Kyrie are indeed among the most elite and talented in the NBA and whenever Ben Simmons steps on the court in a Nets uniform, he will be met with a thunderous ovation, great encouragement. That’s who we Nets fans are. As also noted, hope overcomes despair the closer you get to training camp. It is, in the words of former Nets executive Irina Pavlova, “irrational exuberance.”

Late Thursday on ESPN’s NBA Today, Ramona Shelburne said the Nets want to get back to their “blue collar” culture that drove their rise through the 2019 “Clean Sweep.”

“People I spoke to in Brooklyn have a pretty resounding message,” she told Richard Jefferson and Brian Windhorst. “We need to get back to the Brooklyn Nets culture, We need to get back to this blue collar, ‘We’re from Brooklyn’ ... this is how they built that team in the first place. ‘We can’t have drama, No like we’ve had this year.’ There can be no situations like they got themselves in this year, really the last two years, but this year especially. They want to reset the culture. Easier said than done.”

But in the meantime, it looks like the Nets have issues with their fan base, issues of transparency and culture, what to do about the downside of player employment. What should they do? Better might be the best answer.