The Nets dribbled into Charlotte on Tuesday night with 17 losses in their last 20 games. They were in ninth position in the NBA‘s Eastern Conference and in some measure of danger of falling out of even the play-in party.
But even as Sean Marks sat in a poorly-lit side room backstage at TD Garden in Boston the other day, there was a ray of hope shining on the enterprise he directs. Indeed, the Nets could be bounced in a postseason that lasts all of 48 minutes. Ah, but if the pieces strewn about by the storms of 2021-22 ever make it to the same table long enough for lunch, the aforementioned light could be blinding for the rest of the league.
And that’s more than a little crazy, when listing the dramatic turns reads like a script from The Real Basketball Players of Brooklyn:
- Kyrie Irving refuses to get the COVID vaccine and, because of local regulations, is unable to play in home games (or in Toronto or at Madison Square Garden).
- The Nets tell Kyrie to just not play at all.
- Then the Nets decide to bring Kyrie back as a part-time player.
- Kevin Durant misses 21 games with an MCL sprain.
- While Durant is out, James Harden decides he doesn’t want to be a Net anymore. He gets himself traded to Philadelphia for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond.
- As Harden lights it up in Philly, Simmons has yet to be cleared to play for Brooklyn.
Marks has dealt with the worst — at least he hopes the worst is behind him — and it’s left him at a point where he’s perhaps more cautious than optimistic.
“I think these last two years have taught all of us patience, poise,” the Nets’ general manager told Heavy.com. “You know, we’re still learning, but it’s also like, just around the corner. You just don’t know.”
‘You Can’t Fake That’
Marks continued, guided still by the uncertainty principle:
You can never take a sigh of relief — never take a deep breath and think, great, we’re gonna be okay, because you just don’t know. Like, the world we live in right now looks vastly different. And aside from that, it’s basketball and it’s a team sport, so camaraderie and chemistry play a huge part in this. So we have to try and figure it out, all of us from a coaching staff, performance staff, players, everybody. I can see it ratcheted up, their belief and just what they’re doing to try and get everybody on the same page as quick as we can. You can’t fake that.
So I don’t know. And I mean Kevin (Durant) I think was quoted the other day as saying it could be one game, could be 20 games. He’s right. You just never know. Do we have time this season? We have to believe we do. I mean, I think there’s enough talent there, but there are still things we’re waiting for. Will we be whole? Will everybody be healthy?
Though Marks can claim to have learned patience, he is nonetheless paddling like hell beneath the surface to get the Nets whole and prepared. The season is no longer a marathon.
“Everybody feels a sense of urgency,” Marks said. “I don’t think anybody’s sitting here going, well, we’ll be okay, you know, and it’ll be fine. Those words never come out. It’s a sense of what else can we do? Are we doing everything we can to get this group on the floor together as quick as possible, healthy, playing the right way together?”
The Nets may have thought they could play both the short and long games when they acquired Harden in January of 2021 to go with Irving and Durant, who’d decided pretty much on their own to form a supergroup in Brooklyn — “Two max slots!” But decisions by Kyrie and Harden and injuries to Durant and Joe Harris proved that windows of opportunity can be fleeting.
“I would agree,” said Marks. “The legacies and the dynasties of the Spurs, Lakers and Bulls and Celtics way back when, they’re tough to come by, you know, with the way contracts are structured. The way the CBA is, it’s not quite as simple to keep teams together for as long as you can. You have a window and you try and capitalize on that window. In our window, we know we’ve said it: It’s upon us.”
Lamenting the Nets’ Short-Lived Big Three
It seemed like it was wide open last year, as well, but Harden missed Games 2, 3 and 4 in the second round against Milwaukee with a hamstring, and Irving missed 5, 6 and 7 with an ankle. The Bucks squeezed by and went on to win it all.
The Nets triumvirate never really got a chance to fire its best shot. It had to hurt.
“One hundred percent,” said Marks. “Yeah, I mean, I think everybody including those three are frustrated that, golly, we didn’t get to see what that really looked like. And that’s … it’s like, what if? And you hate saying what ifs. You want to have concrete evidence. We didn’t have the sample size we would have obviously hoped for, but again, in this industry, like we just mentioned before, you’ve got to make hard decisions and you just don’t have time to wait. And I think this particular deal (Simmons-Harden), as difficult as it is, we’re obviously happy with who we have. We’re excited with these three new guys and the fit that’s potentially there.
“But again, it’s potential. We haven’t seen Ben with this group yet. We have some shortcomings, and the collective group of Ben, Andre and Seth, although we haven’t seen Ben yet with the group, helps plug some holes. I think we’ve seen it so far, but we’ve got a long way to go in terms of getting everybody on that same page and clicking and playing well together. But we’re obviously very happy with what we got.”
Taking a step back, Marks acknowledged that the Nets don’t exist in a volatility vacuum.
“At the end of the day, every team is dealing with a roller coaster ride these last two seasons,” he said.
True, but even one of the world’s most intense coasters, the famed Cyclone at Coney Island on the lower end of Brooklyn, would be afraid to ride the Nets.