The roller coaster ride of the Brooklyn Nets

For the Brooklyn Nets, the past three years have been filled with uncertainty, drama and heartbreak.


Max Van Hosen

The Brooklyn Nets have spent the last three years dealing with unexpected departures and injuries. (Illustration by Max Van Hosen)

Adam Covey, Staff Writer

For the past three years, no NBA team has seen as much turmoil as the Brooklyn Nets. Frankly, no team in recent history has had as many highs and lows in such a short amount of time. Let’s take a look back at the last 39 tumultuous months in Brooklyn.

June 30, 2019 was supposed to be a day to remember for Nets fans — the day that superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both agreed to four-year contracts with Brooklyn. The future appeared to be bright. Brooklyn was fresh off a playoff appearance without these two elite talents, and a championship seemed to be in store. To say that things have not gone according to plan would be an understatement. 

When Durant signed with the Nets, it was known that he would likely miss all of the 2019-20 season. While Durant was in rehabilitation for a torn Achilles tendon after an injury in the 2019 NBA Finals, Irving was supposed to hold down the fort. Instead, Irving’s season was marred by injury, as he played in just 20 games. Amid the Nets’ regular-season struggles, head coach Kenny Atkinson was fired in a rather surprising move, and less than a week later, the NBA shut down through July due to the pandemic. Once the NBA finally resumed, an overmatched Nets team was eventually swept by the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.

On Sept. 3, 2020, former MVP point guard Steve Nash was hired as the head coach of the Nets. Nash’s hire and the returns of Durant and Irving from injury led to massive expectations for the success of the team. After starting the season slowly, Brooklyn sent shockwaves throughout the NBA in January by pulling off a blockbuster trade for superstar James Harden. Acquiring Harden gave the Nets arguably the most talented scoring trio in NBA history. While Durant, Harden and Irving — who missed seven games due to a mysterious sabbatical in January — didn’t get much time to play together during the regular season, Brooklyn was nonetheless able to earn the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a 48-24 record

The 2021 playoffs began well for the Nets, who bested the Boston Celtics in five games during the first round. However, Harden and Irving both battled injuries in the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks. With both players either inactive or playing while hurt, the Nets scrapped their way to a fateful seventh game in Brooklyn, becoming one of the biggest “What if?” moments in NBA history. Down two points with six seconds left in the game, Durant hit what appeared to be a game-winning 3-pointer, but replay review revealed Durant’s toe was on the 3-point line, meaning the game was tied. Brooklyn went on to lose in overtime, ending their season in heartbreak.

While the 2020-21 season ended tragically for Brooklyn, there were high hopes for a title run heading into the next season. Unfortunately for Nets fans, a major issue came to light before the season even started: Irving refused to get vaccinated for COVID-19, making him ineligible to play home games. While the mercurial Irving eventually was granted permission to rejoin the team for road games in December, it would become evident that irreversible damage had been done.

In January, the Nets were faring well until Durant suffered a sprained MCL, and the injury ended up significantly altering the course of the Nets’ future. With Durant sidelined and Irving a part-time player, Harden grew increasingly frustrated, and trade rumors involving Harden started to appear with more and more frequency. On Feb. 10, the Nets pulled the plug on the Harden experiment, trading him to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for disgruntled star Ben Simmons, along with more players and draft picks. Simmons, who hadn’t played all season due to mental health issues, is still yet to suit up for the Nets, as he is also dealing with a back injury.

Durant’s injury and Irving’s part-time playing status affected Brooklyn’s record, and the team found themselves battling for a spot in the play-in tournament for much of the later portion of the season. While the vaccine mandate was lifted in late March, allowing Irving to play in home games, his decision to not get vaccinated prevented the Nets from establishing any sort of team chemistry throughout the season, which would later prove to be costly. 

After beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-in tournament game, the Nets were set up for a rematch of the 2021 playoffs, once again playing the red-hot Boston Celtics. Pundits predicted a memorable seven-game series, but what actually happened was a disaster. The Nets were embarrassingly swept by Boston in four games, and Durant and Irving appeared unengaged in several instances throughout the series. Boston’s defense, led by Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, stymied Brooklyn’s two star players during the series. 

Heading into another offseason after a playoff defeat, the Nets were determined to improve their roster for the 2022-23 season. Everything changed on June 30, when Durant requested a trade from the Nets less than one year after signing a four-year extension with the team. For nearly two months, the question of whether or not Durant would be traded dominated discussions among fans and analysts. Ultimately, the Nets failed to find an offer they liked, and Durant gave Nets owner Joseph Tsai an ultimatum on Aug. 8: either trade him or fire coach Nash and general manager Sean Marks. After Tsai reaffirmed his commitment to his staff, it became clear that he was not going to concede to Durant’s demand. Ultimately, Durant rescinded his trade request in late August. The drama surrounding this trade request and its influence on the Nets moving forward remains to be seen.

Now that the dust has settled, the Nets appear poised for a deep postseason run with Irving and Durant ready to go along with a supposedly healthy Simmons. While the Nets have been destined for this playoff run for the last three years, the question still remains — will this finally be the year they put all the drama behind them? 

Contact Adam Covey at [email protected].