When you think about coaches in the National Basketball Association who could potentially be fired, your first thought probably is not the coach of a team that is in first place in a competitive Eastern Conference. The Brooklyn Nets are sitting atop the standings with Kevin Durant playing how one would expect the eleven-time All Star to perform. The problem is, nobody else on the roster is performing up to expectations.
The Nets have to operate under the assumption that Kyrie Irving will not return this season, with New York City announcing on Monday a new mandate for COVID-19 vaccines among private sector employees. Along with Irving, Joe Harris is expected to miss several months after undergoing ankle surgery. Losing those two for an extended period of time is devastating to a team that depends on spacing around its two superstars. The Nets have had over a quarter of the NBA season to make adjustments and have yet to do so.
The Nets, for whatever reason, insist on having James Harden rely on his supporting cast rather than his elite scoring ability that won him multiple scoring titles and a Most Valuable Player Award in Houston. James Harden is an elite playmaker and is averaging the second most assists per game in the NBA at 9.5, with a large portion of those being to DeAndre’ Bembry, Jevon Carter and Bruce Brown.
This formula works against teams such as the Thunder, Pistons and Magic, but when we look at some of the Nets’ losses — the Warriors, Suns and Bucks — these teams are exploiting their lack of spacing despite having Harden and Durant on the floor together. So what’s gone wrong and what, or who, is to blame for the lack of adjustments to teams exploiting such an obvious weakness?
The Nets roster was built around having Harris and Irving, but there has been an adequate amount of time to adjust. Patty Mills, who was supposed to be their tertiary ball handler, has been forced to take on Harris’ role as a floor spacer. The Nets are currently running a system built for Irving, Harris, Durant and Harden, but instead are running it with just Harden and Durant along with Bembry, Brown and Carter. This leads to career below-average shooters taking shots meant for two of the greatest shooters in the NBA.
The biggest problem is not the players themselves, it is with the coaching staff expecting these players to be serviceable in roles they are destined to fail in, and most of the blame falls on head coach Steve Nash.
Throughout 108 games as head coach, Nash has yet to show an ability to make in game adjustments as well as long term rotation adjustments, and this isn't new. Early in his coaching career, Nash struggled figuring out how to balance DeAndre Jordan and Jarrett Allen. Now we’re seeing Allen flourish in Cleveland, while Brooklyn is still struggling with rim protection. Nash cannot seem to figure out how to utilize Blake Griffin or Paul Millsap, two players who, if properly handled, could add a lot to this Nets team.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Nash came last Tuesday night in a win against the Knicks. James Harden posted one of his best games of the season, and postgame credited TNT commentator Reggie Miller for motivating him, having been reminded he’s one of the best players in the NBA.
Harden should not have to be reminded of that by an analyst to get motivated. This falls not only on Harden, but also the coaching staff for not doing their part to motivate their players and adjust their schemes to fit what makes Harden one of the best players in the NBA. Harden is statistically having his worst season since 2011, shooting a mere 40% from the field and an even worse 34% from deep, both of which are below his career averages.
The Reggie Miller quote is just one sign of Nash and his staff not getting through to the players. Nash has become a problem, showing no improvement since being named head coach in Sept. 2020. The Nets have championship aspirations and this would not be the first time a championship team has fired a coach midseason. In 2016, the Cavaliers, who eventually won the NBA Finals, fired David Blatt midseason and replaced him with Tyronn Lue.
So if he loses the job, who could the Nets replace Nash with? It would most likely be an internal hire, with it being midseason and having to be someone Durant and Harden approve of.
Steve Clifford has the most coaching experience on the Nets' staff and could provide a big voice in the locker room. David Vanterpool is someone who is highly regarded in the NBA and has been mentioned as a name to watch for future head coach openings. Jacque Vaughn took the head coaching spot when the Nets parted ways with Kenny Atkinson in early 2020, as well as having prior head coaching experience with the Orlando Magic.
No matter which direction the Nets decide to go, something needs to change, and from the outside looking in, Nash seems to be the logical first domino to fall.