February 8, 2023

The Nets soap opera has been replaced by prestige drama

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Previously on The Brooklyn Nets…

The date is Nov. 1. The Brooklyn Nets season has been a downright disaster. They’re floundering at 2-6, Kyrie Irving is spontaneously combusting off the court, Ben Simmons is struggling to reacclimate. Steve Nash is getting rushed off the map and Ime Udoka is on the verge of inserting his melodrama into the Nets melange of off-court storylines.

(Fast forward to the present)

The championship contender’s edition of the Nets evaporated after James Harden was traded last February amid Irving’s anti-vaccine saga. They were imploding from within, one of the NBA’s worst defenses, manifested trade demands, reneged and then carried that negative energy into the first two weeks of the season. However, since Vaughn was appointed to replace Nash, the Nets have undergone a revamp and emerged with the NBA’s second-best record and the fifth-highest net rating.

Over the weekend, Fox Sports aired an interview with James Harden which took place five days before the firing of Nash. It’s unclear why they waited so long to release Harden’s comments. Maybe they thought it would get lost in the eye of Brooklyn’s tornado, but his comments are still instructive about what went wrong with the Nets. During the far-ranging interview, Harden didn’t hold back on the atmosphere within the Brooklyn Nets organization and it confirms everything you thought about the Nash-era Nets.

“I don’t mean to, like, just down talk to anybody or whatever. It was just, there was no structure and even superstars, they need structure,” Harden reflected on his year as a Net.

Harden’s critique of the Nets structureless internal environment was obvious to anyone with a keen eye, but that was partially the point of Durant and Irving’s reunion. Durant felt shackled in the confines of Kerr’s motion offense. Irving was a malcontent on a Boston squad that was on the precipice of an NBA Finals twice. They wanted to represent the highest level of player empowerment as proxy kingpins of a franchise.

That absent structure and lack of accountability arrived with the promotion of long-time Nets assistant Jacque Vaughn to the head coach’s role. Now that the Nets easily distracted stars have gone cut down on their Twitter time, turned their attention from Amazon Prime to hoops, ignored celebrity trials and buckled in, they’re back among the league’s upper echelon. Vaughn has facilitated much of that Nets resurgence and proven he’s more than just a sacrificial lamb.

The Nets offense have logged the league’s highest effective field goal-percentage for the second time. Their bottom-rung defense was a problem during Nash’s stint. Vaughn began by reigniting the Nets defensive intensity and reinstalling the switch-heavy defense Nash had abandoned. The availability of their defensive skeleton key Ben Simmons has afforded them the option to switch comfortably that wasn’t possible leading up to their doomed 2022 playoff sweep.

Aside from a brief reference to Ben Simmons during the Tory Lanez trial, the former No. 1 overall pick has concentrated solely on hoops with no outside distractions. He isn’t yet at his peak All-Defense Philly form, when players defended by Simmons shot 4.5% worse against than their average, during his final full season as a Sixer. On the positive side, he’s no longer fouling at a prolific rate. Availability being the best ability is especially true in Simmons’ case. We haven’t even had to mention Kevin Durant, who hasn’t lost a step and has remained a steady force through this season. There’s no reason to ever mention Durant because his succinct, but efficient MVP-caliber playmaking is the status quo.

At the beginning of their six-game winning streak, the Nets were still only one game over .500. Even beyond their current six-game streak, the Nets have won 10 of their last 11 games. Irving has kept his head down and reminded the league why he’s a generational talent.

Presumably, this trend should continue as long as the Nets stay underneath the radar beneath the radar. The Nets have been quiet as a mouse and slipped beneath the radar. The Nets have been quiet as a mouse and slipped beneath the radar. In Brooklyn’s case. Silence is golden.