Dear Brooklyn: What Is Your Identity?
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
It sounded like a statement from a self-help playbook and the look on Steve Nash’s face made you wonder whether it was words he treated as gospel or was being offered as a tongue-in-cheek aside.
"It’s good to get a little tension," Nash said last week. "We’ve got to get comfortable … being uncomfortable."
Make of that what you will, but over the first two weeks of his opening season as the Brooklyn Nets head coach, Nash has seen his team look comfortable, uncomfortable, unpredictable, unbelievable and, during a particularly poor stretch over the New Year, barely understandable.
It’s been a wild ride so far and it would be tempting to put the early tumult down to the season-opening settling-in process. Don’t be so sure. The most entertaining drama of this NBA campaign is just getting started. Buckle up.
Kevin Durant’s pairing with Kyrie Irving was announced 18 months ago, but given Durant’s long recovery from an Achilles injury, this is the first we have seen of the duo, and it has already ridden the full spectrum of storylines and emotions.
"We’ve had a bit of a tough run and a cloud forming over us," Nash said. "We are going to continue to experiment. We need to find out who we are (and) what we are."
It’s a good and appropriate question to ask: what are the Nets exactly? Just two games into the new campaign they were apparently the awe-inspiring Beasts of the East, a bona fide power surely headed for the NBA Finals. The NBA community is admittedly prone to over-reaction but it was hard not to get caught up in Nets fever.
On opening night, they torched Durant’s old pals on the Golden State Warriors and then did the same to Irving’s former Boston Celtics cohorts on Christmas Day. As billed, it appeared that an unstoppable new tandem had been formed.
But when the festive leftovers got cold so too did Brooklyn, slumping to four defeats in five games and looking generally dismal while doing so.
Defensively, the Nets have been somewhat farcical. Durant has preached that his teammates were over-helping on defense when he didn’t need it, creating holes and spaces elsewhere. During the bleak stretch, Irving was routinely left exposed and once got so frustrated that he called a time out on his own accord to talk things over with Nash.
Mistakes were abundant. "I am turning the ball over too much," Durant admitted. To cap it all off, Durant and Irving each missed a potential game-winner in the closing seconds of a defeat to the lowly Washington Wizards on Monday night. Cue gloom.
"In the closing situations they are looking at one another, ‘are you going to do this or am I going to do this?'’’ said Skip Bayless on FS1’s Undisputed.
It was bemusing and to make things worse, Durant -– who tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the year -– got placed into a seven-day quarantine after being exposed to a person who had the virus.
And then, with the script having been flipped, the Nets went right ahead and flipped it back again.
Irving caught fire against the Utah Jazz, rattling off 29 points in just 30 minutes of action as the Nets burst into an early lead and never looked back. Allen rose to his new opportunity, hauling in 18 rebounds, precisely the area the team had struggled with most.
FOX Sports NBA analyst Chris Broussard said that Nash’s personnel switch showed he is not afraid to "pull his own weight" and risk upsetting his two biggest stars.
"Steve Nash has the heart and the guts to coach the team the way he wants to," Broussard said. "He goes ahead and starts the team he wants to. Nash understands ego and chemistry."
There is a lot bubbling in Brooklyn. Durant’s time out takes away time for the roster to knit together as quickly as it would like to. Nash is still learning the ropes and must find a way to get two of the league’s biggest performers to share the load in the most efficient way.
There is time and talent at his disposal, but turning the Nets into real contenders is no simple task, not with so many well-established opponents standing in their way. Questions abound.
Can Durant and Irving smoothly co-exist? Who will take the next last-second shot? Who is the true leader of the team? Can Nash integrate the right amount of grit to mix with the flair?
Some teams are going to find the antidote and some won’t. Brooklyn’s season is shaping up as being an exercise in guesswork, both mystifying and wildly entertaining. It could be the most fun story to come out of the season because nothing gets our interest like unpredictability, and what is not to love about a team that could explode with productivity or fall into a hole on any given night?
Just make sure you’re sitting comfortably. Whatever Nash says, there’s no point being uncomfortable if you don’t have to be.