After so much turmoil to start the 2022 campaign, the Brooklyn Nets have finally begun to look like the contenders many expected. The Nets have had two different four-game win streaks since Nov. 27, winning eight of their last nine. Suddenly Brooklyn is five games over .500 (17-12) and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Even with all the recent goodwill this team has built, it’s still hard to trust them when it comes to truly contending for an NBA title. They’ve been great the past couple of weeks, but they still have a long way to go. First, they can start by making this four-game winning streak a five-game streak. They haven’t won five in a row in over a year.
In the Nets’ last 10 games, nine of which Kevin Durant played, he has averaged 32.4 ppg, shooting over 60 percent from the field and contributing 1.3 blocks per game. Durant is doing it on both ends and playing at such a high level. But it feels like we’ve seen this movie before in Brooklyn. Last year around this time, the Nets were 20-8 and looking like one of the better teams in the Association, led by Durant and James Harden. The mercurial Irving didn’t join his comrades last season until early January.
Irving’s first game last season was a win over the Pacers that put the Nets 12 games over .500 at 24-12. After that, it was all seemingly downhill the rest of the way for Brooklyn. Kevin Durant got hurt less than two weeks after Kyrie’s return to the team and missed half of January and all of February. Rumors about a rift between Irving and Harden had begun to circulate, followed by Harden forcing his way out of Brooklyn — to Philadelphia — at the trade deadline of Feb. 10. Once Harden was gone, it was just Irving without Durant, and the Nets began to free fall.
Sure, the circumstances are different right now, but there’s always something that seems to happen with this team that keeps them from reaching their full potential in the Durant-Irving era. It could be an injury, a star that wants out, or Irving taking a sabbatical. We’ve seen some of everything out of this Nets team over the past couple of years, and at this point, nothing they do is shocking.
One saving grace this time is the advantage of having an interim head coach, Jacque Vaughn, that’s qualified to be in that position and one that players respect. It never felt like the team truly respected Steve Nash as a coach, which is weird because he was such a great player himself. Once Irving claimed the Nets didn’t really have a coach almost immediately upon Nash’s hiring, it was over. Nash never stood a chance after that to get his stars to follow him, which would’ve forced everyone to follow suit.
Since Nash and the Nets parted ways and Vaughn took over, Brooklyn is 15-6. Vaughn, who also played in the NBA for over a decade, has earned his dues as a coach and didn’t just come into something he wasn’t ready for. Vaughn went into coaching almost immediately after ending his playing career in 2009. In 2010 he was brought on as an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. He was also a head coach in Orlando for three years and has been with the Nets organization since ‘16. Vaughn looks much more prepared to deal with stars like Durant, Irving, and even Ben Simmons than Nash ever was.
Still, it isn’t easy to trust this team to meet the lofty expectations they’ve been saddled with. This team was expected to be a championship contender from the second KD and Kyrie arrived, and it just hasn’t come to fruition. The closest they’ve come is being eliminated in the second round of the playoffs because Durant’s big toe was on the three-point line against Milwaukee.
There’s no more room for excuses. Brooklyn needs to make a deep run this year, or it’ll likely never happen. We hear the term championship or bust every year in each sport, but it’s never been truer than it is now for the Nets.