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ESSAY: Is it that bad here? Kyrie Irving, James Harden comments can’t be dismissed

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, things are not going well in NetsWorld. In the last week, the team has traded two superstars after dealing the other member of the “Big Three” a year before. All three are first ballot Hall-of-Famers, two of them among the greatest scorers in league history.

So, while some may dismiss the comments by Kyrie Irving and James Harden in recent days as evidence of their real or supposed character flaws, having such negatives spoken by two NBA superstars in a matter of days is extraordinary, staggering. Moreover, the former Nets criticized the organization in angry, derogatory tones. Neither offered much in terms of positives about the experience and And no, neither of them took much if any responsibility for the team’s failure, either. In fact, Irving said he had been plotting his exit after his first season in Brooklyn. That would be 2019-20, three years ago!

On his relationship with the Nets, Irving put the blame for the divorce squarely on the franchise, saying they did not provide “transparency” or “honesty,” that he did not feel “celebrated,” but merely “tolerated” in Brooklyn, and ultimately “disrespected.”

”I cheer for them,” Irving said of the Nets, “but when things start to change and you’re not given transparency and honesty from people in the front office or people around you — I don’t know what person feels comfortable or confident in that type of environment,” he told the Dallas media.

He declined to go into details.

“I think that’s another day where I could really go into detail about it,” Irving said. “I’m not the person to really speak on names and go to someone behind their back and try to leak stuff to the media. That’s never been me. Now I’ve been an audience member, watching people say things about me that ultimately just fall off my shoulder. I’m really in a place that I’m grateful that I got to grow into over the last year and a half, two years.”

In the coup de grace, Irving said of Kevin Durant’s departure (news of which broke during his press conference,) “I’m just glad that he got out of there,” Irving said.

If anything, Harden’s commentary Saturday on his year in Brooklyn was even angrier, feeling he had taken the brunt of criticism when he asked out of Brooklyn, turning down, it should be noted, a quarter billion dollar contract, $248 million, which was still on the table. Ultimately, he took a lot less money to play elsewhere.

“There was a lot of things. A lot of dysfunction, clearly. There was a lot of internal things,” he told reporters after the Sixers beat the Nets on Saturday. “I’m not gonna just put it in the media or anything, and that was one of the reasons why I chose to make my decision. Now, fast forward to today, I don’t look like the crazy one. I don’t look like the quitter or whatever the media wanna call me.

“I knew what was going on and I just decided I’m not built for this. I don’t wanna deal with that. I wanna play basketball and have fun and enjoy doing it. Fast forward to today, they got a whole new roster.”

He, too, like Irving, declined to name names, declined to say if Irving’s decision not to get vaccinated, forcing him into a heavier load, was the main reason he wanted out.

“That’s not something I’m gonna answer, but the reason I made that decision to get out of my comfort zone which was to leave Houston and do everything that I did to get out of there was to come here and play with KD and Kyrie,” he said. “With that being said, that didn’t happen as much as I would have liked to or how much the organization would have wanted to. It’s just something I knew wasn’t gonna chance.

Harden referred to his time in Brooklyn as “frustrating.”

“I didn’t just ask to leave for no reason. I was in a really good place in Houston. Obviously, we didn’t have a chance to win the championship, but I was comfortable,” he said. “So for me to up and leave my family and all the things that I created there to Brooklyn for, what a year and a half? To just up and leave? It was for a real reason.”

So who’s to blame for this debacle which more than one pundit has called the worst management failure in NBA history? The owner, the GM, the “Big Three” themselves, Irving’s maddening and highly predictable brushes with controversy?

The easy answer — and it may be the right one — is that everyone is to blame. Zach Lowe on ESPN Thursday said the “biggest slice” of the blame belongs to Irving. Others say it’s Sean Marks, Joe Tsai, Steve Nash or Kevin Durant for a supposed lack of leadership. (The trade gave Charles Barkley another chance to identify Durant as a passenger, not the driver of a championship bus.) There was of course an element of bad luck, too, with injuries and COVID, etc. Durant, Irving and Harden played only 16 games together, Durant and Irving only 74 ... out of more than 200.

The New York Times, in an article written by Sopan Deb Saturday, has even taken note of the Nets woes. Being the Times, it looked at them through the prism of management and culture rather than what went on between the lines. Deb writes that the buck stops at the top, governor and BSE Global co-proprietor Joe Tsai. The article is entitled, “The Nets Fell Apart From the Top.”

Deb doesn’t mince words. His first few paragraphs read like an indictment, a count-by-count listing of transgressions.

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant didn’t trade themselves from the Nets.

They didn’t hire Steve Nash to coach the team, even though he had no experience.

They didn’t trade for — and then trade away — James Harden.

They didn’t sign off on Irving playing only part-time because he would not get the coronavirus vaccine.

As players, they couldn’t have done any of those things. But the team owner Joe Tsai and General Manager Sean Marks could. And they did.

His failings, Deb wrote, were not that he was a “cheap owner,” since Tsai has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his team. Instead, Deb writes, he let his players make decisions that often blew up in his face.

He waffled on key decisions, signed aging veterans who were little help and tolerated behavior that eroded the team’s culture.

Tsai of course did a number of things for his players that drew kudos from his players, but criticism elsewhere, like finding a company that could test Nets players for COVID when such tests were hard-to-find as well as chartering planes for his Liberty players in direct violation of WNBA rules. While all that may be seen as exemplary, it had a downside, Deb writes. “Catering to players can backfire, as Tsai found out.”

He then catalogues one instance after another where things went south, writing about Steve Nash’s failure (and the Nets decision to hire a white head coach instead of a black one), the Irving vaccine saga with Irving first being sent home then allowed to return for road games before finally getting the all-clear when the city dropped one, then two mandates, the antisemitic video.

Deb doesn’t write about another issue NetsDaily has been told was a problem, particularly for women employees: the attempted hire of Ime Udoka, just a month after Udoka began his one-year suspension for inappropriate (at best) treatment of women employees in Boston. That was something Kevin Durant wanted. Never mind how it might send a signal to your own women employees in such a male-dominated world. Cooler heads prevailed and the Nets ultimately made the right decision in hiring Vaughn.

Durant has not spoken since the trade. Knowing him, he will not treat questions about the Nets with the same tenor as his former teammates, but he was unhappy enough to not once, but twice demand a trade, unhappy enough to want Nash and Marks fired.

Before last night’s heartbreaking loss, there was an era of good feelings as “The Twins” — Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson — wowed the media in their introductory press conference. Both are very good players with Bridges having a chance at being a great player. Both are solid citizens as are Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith. But in the end, literally, the Nets lost, at the buzzer. There was no KD, Kyrie or James to close things out. Bridges scored 23 points, but none in the last 16 minutes. That’s not a criticism of him, just a comparison with what the future Hall of Famers who preceded him used to do. The last quarter is always going to be the time when the Nets miss KD, Kyrie and James the most.

It is not wrong to say the Nets got a decent haul in both the Kyrie and KD trades, considering the circumstances. Besides getting those four good players all in their prime, they have also re-armed with draft picks — 19 first and second rounders through 2029 — and Marks has a very good record with picks, even low first rounders, whether it’s Caris LeVert at 20, Jarrett Allen at 22, Cam Thomas at 27 or Nic Claxton at 31. He and his front office are also very good at finding diamonds in the rough like Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris, who went from the G League to $20 million-a-year contracts. The development ethos remains strong.

But the question is whether the Nets can do what they did with the Clean Sweep in 2019: attract superstars, future Hall of Famers, to the franchise after the “Big Three” all left unceremoniously and, yes, with bitterness about their Brooklyn experience.

As one league source told NetsDaily, Brooklyn will be a “fun team” the next few years, but he isn’t sure how soon they’ll be able to convince a superstar to come to Brooklyn. “That’s going to take some time,” he said.

Some may say, “that’s fine, we want the Brooklyn grit, not the Manhattan glitter.” That’s fine, yes, but you do not win titles in this league without a superstar. It simply does not happen.

So should the Nets, meaning Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, carry out a housecleaning? They’ve done that more than once on the business side. Hire a management consultant to examine the ways things went wrong — and what can be done to make sure lessons are learned? Simply do nothing? There’s no indication that the Tsais have given up on the superteam concept. The Liberty just changed the WNBA by signing three of the 10 best women’s players in the world.

And not long after the game, Tsai tweeted this out...

Those big decisions will probably wait till the summer. They will be hard decisions, but better the Nets figure out why some of the best players in their history wind leaving and are bitter afterwards. It’s not just the “Big Three.” D’Angelo Russell publicly expressed similar feelings about the front office after he was dealt to Golden State.

When Deron Williams was bought out and waived (that’s another story for a different time), Joe Johnson famously said, “it’s not that bad here.” No, it’s not, but it is not good either.