NEW YORK — While no one on the Brooklyn Nets will tell you it’s championship or bust, the sense in 2022-23 is exactly that.
This version of the Nets is again in the crosshairs of the Eastern Conference, a group of talented players that have underachieved.
The purpose is the same, but the pieces are different.
At this time last year, Brooklyn was entrenched as a title favorite with a loaded roster including three of the world’s best players in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.
The Nets were the conference’s No. 1 seed as late as mid-January, but things quickly fell apart.
Irving’s continued unavailability due to his refusal to take the then-city-mandated coronavirus vaccine became a nuisance to his teammates, and Durant missed 21 games due to a left MCL sprain, sending them spiraling down the standings.
The season finally took a thud when they were mercilessly swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Boston Celtics.
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Months after that embarrassing defeat, the team congregated at its training facility for media day and the changes are obvious. The uncertainty is still there, as with the other 28 teams that didn’t win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
But what is missing is James Harden, who was jettisoned to the Philadelphia 76ers at the trade deadline after being disgruntled and dismayed at the franchise’s direction, and talk show host David Letterman, who all but hijacked last year’s media day news conference to provide fodder for his Netflix show.
The summer of discontent started with Durant, who asked for a trade in late June, hours before the league’s free agency started, reportedly giving ownership an ultimatum: fire head coach Steve Nash or ship him to a place of his liking.
That request lasted all of six weeks, as the four-time scoring champion again met with ownership and announced he was all-in for this season. Durant now says he wasn’t surprised or disappointed that he wasn’t dealt, even though the team tried to honor his request.
“I know I’m that good that you’re not just going to give me away. I know who I am,” he said.
Durant expounded on his summer and why he is going to be in a Nets uniform for the foreseeable future.
“Well, there was a lot of uncertainly around our team last year,” Durant said. “I committed to this team for four years last summer with the idea that we were going to play with that group. We were building something towards the future.
“Then as the season went on – you saw what happened last season, guys in and out of the lineup, injuries, just a lot of uncertainty, which built some doubt in my mind about the next four years of my career.”
Another storyline builds around Durant’s relationship with Irving. Durant denied that he controls the inner workings of the organization, including having input on Irving’s fluid contract situation or input on roster moves.
“I only control my job. My job is to be a player,” said Durant, who averaged 29.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 55 games. “I’m getting older. I want to be in a place that’s stable and try to build a championship culture. We came to a mutual agreement that we should keep moving forward.
“I am not the liaison between Kyrie and the organization. I waited until the offseason to tell people how I felt. We are professionals; we know how to adapt.”
Durant didn’t leave without addressing the Nets and their expectations this season.
“I don’t feel like I’ve got to prove anything to Nets fans after three years. I’m committed to moving forward with this team. If you’ve got doubts, that’s on you.”
Irving, who is the final season of a four-year, $136.4 million deal and will make $36 million in 2022-23, played in only 29 games because of the vaccine mandate and said his personal feelings about the vaccination played into his contract negotiations with the team.
But Irving said he used the summer to do a lot of reflection, not only about the relationships with his teammates, but how his vaccine status impacted the team. He said the Nets were supposed to have the issue resolved before training camp last season and that he was close to not being with the team, saying there were “a few offers” but nothing materialized.
“There were options but not many because the stigma of whether or not I wanted to play or whether or not I’m committed to the team, which I thought was really unfair at times,” Irving said.
“I felt like I was forced with an ultimatum of whether or not I had a contract, or whether or not I could be around the team. So, it was tough conversations that were had, and I understand where they were coming from. I gave up four years and $100-something-million deciding to be unvaccinated and that was the decision. I had to deal with that real-life circumstance of losing my job.”
Irving said he is still smarting from the playoff sweep by the Celtics, not only because he played two seasons in Boston but also there were stretches during the series where the team wasn’t competitive.
But Irving said Brooklyn is the right place for him after opting in this season, noting the offseason was “awkward and a cluster(expletive).”
Replacing Harden in the talented triumvirate is three-time All-Star Ben Simmons, whose last appearance in an NBA game was June 20, 2021, for the 76ers in Game 7 of Eastern Conference semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks.
Simmons was roasted for his inability to hit a free throw in the series and passing up open shots (he didn’t attempt a shot in the fourth quarter the last four games of the series) and when coach Doc Rivers said he didn’t know if Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team, it all but signaled the end of his time in Philadelphia.
The Nets signed veteran T.J. Warren and traded for Royce O’Neale and return the services of Seth Curry, Nic Claxton, Patty Mills and Joe Harris, who missed all but 14 games in 2021-22 after multiple ankle surgeries.
Simmons admittedly went through mental struggles and a recurring back injury but says he has been cleared to play and has been practicing with Durant and Irving. He said he was prepared to play in Game 4 of the series against Boston but woke up “on the floor,” experiencing pain from his glutes to his foot. Simmons finally had surgery to fix the issue.
“I don’t care about narratives,” Simmons said. “I don’t care about people saying certain things because I can’t control that. I’ve been working on myself this past year to get back on the court and play at a high level. I deserve this opportunity.”
Simmons has been also criticized for his lack of a long-range game, forgoing shooting the 3-pointer in favor of using his height to drive to the basket.
So, what will the new Nets look like?
A lot of running and shooting 3s and improving on the defensive end, especially with the addition of Simmons, who is a two-time first-team All-Defensive selection.
But is Simmons going to be one of the ones hoisting 3s?
“(Expletive), who knows,” he said.
Follow Scooby Axson on Twitter @ScoobAxson