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Championship favorite to swept in first round, Nets a historic disappointment

Michael Smith and Michael Holley discuss Kyrie Irving's postgame comments regarding "co-management" in Brooklyn and disagree over how much of a coaching problem the Nets have with Steve Nash at the helm.

The Nets assembled a big three not only unlike the NBA had ever seen, but well beyond what any other team featured entering the 2021-22 season. As the league shifted into a big-two era, Brooklyn united three stars: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. No wonder the Nets entered the season as clear championship favorite.

But, especially in hindsight, fissures were obvious.

Asked at media day whether a championship was the sole goal, Harden said: “I think the entire organization feels that way.”

Posed the same question Durant said: “I don’t like that type of question. … Of course, we hate losing. No team wants to lose. But there’s still some good things you can pull from the season regardless of the outcome.”

Irving took a longer-term approach: “We know that the future is on our side, sort of say, just being able to maximize our potential in these next coming years to make a few runs at this championship.”

Notably, Irving was not actually present at media day. His decision not to get vaccinated coupled with New York’s vaccine mandate left him ineligible for Brooklyn home games and other team functions in the city. That was just the start of a discombobulated season.

Irving and Harden didn’t get along. Neither did Durant and Harden. Durant got hurt. Harden forced a trade. Paul Millsap asked out. The centerpiece of the Nets’ return for Harden, Ben Simmons, never played. Joe Harris, expected to be Brooklyn’s fourth-best player, missed nearly the entire season due to injury.

Championship favorite to begin the season, the Nets got swept in the first round by the Celtics.

Brooklyn is the first preseason title favorite since 1985 (as far back as Sports Odds History has records) not to win a playoff game. Here are the outcomes for each preseason favorite in that span (including years with multiple teams tied as favorites):

  • Won championship: 18
  • Lost NBA Finals: 9
  • Lost conference finals: 4
  • Lost second round: 6
  • Lost first round: 4

The four first-round losers:

  • 2021-22 Nets
  • 2020-21 Lakers
  • 2007-08 Mavericks
  • 2006-07 Mavericks

The seventh-seeded Lakers got up 2-1 on the Suns last year, and Anthony Davis claims Los Angeles would’ve won the series if he didn’t get hurt. The top-seeded Mavericks infamously lost to the “We Believe” Warriors 4-2 in 2007. The next year, Dallas lost 4-1 as the No. 7 seed to the New Orleans Hornets.

But at least those teams won a game in the playoffs.

All Brooklyn has to show for its playoffs is the combined 18-point margin against Boston being the third-smallest ever in a four-game sweep. (Cavaliers over Pacers in 2018 and Warriors over Washington Bullets in 1975 were each decided by 16 points).

This letdown might say as much about the modern NBA’s unpredictability as it does the Nets. The last three preseason favorites lost by the second round (including the 2021 Lakers and 2020 Clippers). The prior 10 preseason favorites made the NBA Finals.

But it still says plenty about Brooklyn.

In an extremely telling quote, Nets general manager Sean Marks described Harden’s trade request as Harden felt Brooklyn wasn’t the right place to win a championship. Though he and the 76ers are stumbling, Harden is still alive in the playoffs and favored to advance.

Perhaps, Irving’s preseason assessment will be correct that the Nets have a multi-year window. They should have shown more urgency in a year both Durant and Irving were healthy for the playoffs. But Irving wants to run it back. Brooklyn still has elite top-end talent (even if Simmons doesn’t return to productivity, but especially if he does). As silly as he sounded when bemoaning the team not jelling when he was at least partially responsible, Irving and the Nets won’t necessarily as significant problems next season.

“Hopefully, we don’t run into any barriers and we can just start fresh and be realistic with out own expectations,” Irving said after Game 4.

External expectations aren’t disappearing, not with Durant and Irving on the roster. Barriers will come up. Every team faces them.

But it’d be hard for the 2022-23 Nets to fall as far below as expectations as 2021-22 edition.