The Brooklyn Nets went into the last two seasons as favorites to win the NBA championship.
Last year, they lost a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks, a series that could have gone either way. It was the final frustration of a season in which the team’s big scorers — Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving — were rarely on the court together.
This year, the Nets were the first team eliminated from the playoffs, swept out of the first round by the Boston Celtics. From beginning to end, the 2021-22 Nets were a team of promises never kept.
Many explanations will be offered but it’s really simple and everybody knows it — the Nets never came close to living up to expectations because Irving chose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Irving’s decision, and the question of whether his individual freedom should override the interests of a team paying him $36 million to play this season, have been debated for six months now. But in the wake of their seventh-place finish and quick playoff exit, there can be no debating the direct consequences of his choice. It changed the Nets from a championship contender into an also-ran. Irving’s decision meant he could not play in home games (and some road games) until New York City’s vaccination requirements were lifted. It set the stage for the Nets’ season. Irving would play in 29 games. He would miss 53 games.
With the exception of Harden, who saw what was happening and engineered his trade to the 76ers, nobody on the Nets blamed Irving publicly. They tried to understand. They remained hopeful that the restrictions would be lifted by playoff time, which they were. They knew Irving was under contract for next season, and they saw what a difference he could make when he did play, like on March 15 when he dropped 60 points on the Orlando Magic.
Just two nights before, in a game watched by the sidelined Irving, Durant had scored 53 against the New York Knicks. When Irving followed with his career high in Orlando, the Nets were jubilant. It was their fourth straight win and they thought they were on their way.
But they weren’t. They had to win their last four games and win a play-in game to nail down the seventh spot. By then Durant, forced to play extended minutes on 33-year-old legs just to get them there, was exhausted. A career 50% shooter, he shot 38.6% in the playoff series, missing many mid-range jump shots he usually makes. Irving didn’t do very well either, making only two 3-point shots in the final thee games.
While the Nets were getting rolled by Boston, coach Steve Nash kept blaming a lack of “continuity” for their disappointing season, which was a way of blaming Irving, whether Nash realized it or not.
The Celtics, who had used the regular season to develop the kind of continuity the Nets never had, were a nightmare of a first-round matchup for Brooklyn. It was a nightmare that could have been avoided. The whole point of the regular season is to earn as high a playoff seed as possible, and it’s hard to do that when one of your best players is in and out all season long, mostly out.
But at least the nightmare didn’t last very long. By the time the end came Monday night, the Nets were prepared. Irving acknowledged that his vaccination status had been a “distraction,” which may have been the understatement of the year. Assuming the pandemic will be over by October and the implications of his choices will be in the rear-view mirror, he talked about next season and a fresh start.
That’s the great thing about having a big, long-term guaranteed contract. It means never having to say you’re sorry.