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Nash figures to be better off after parting ways with dysfunctional Nets

It was a big surprise when Steve Nash was hired to coach the Brooklyn Nets prior to the 2020-21 season.

Sure, he had a sterling reputation and a Hall-of-Fame playing career over 18 seasons, but he’d never been a head coach at any significant level before he was given what seemed like the cushiest job in the NBA: guiding superstars Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and — eventually — James Harden (and later Ben Simmons) to what many predicted would be multiple championships.

But when it was announced Tuesday that he and the Nets were parting ways barely two weeks into his third season after constant off-court tumult and never-ending on-court disruption and zero playoff series wins to show for all of it?

No one was shocked, nor could they be.

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The Nets ownership and executives have everything from hundreds of millions of dollars in luxury tax money to their professional dignity and credibility — not to mention draft picks out the wazoo — tied up in their superstar-laden team winning not only now, but yesterday.

They have started the season 2-5, rank last in defensive efficiency and just 16th on offence, even with the strange brew of Durant and Irving averaging 62.7 points per game combined.

Coaches have been fired for less, and the expectation was that if the Nets struggled out of the game, a goat would have to be sacrificed. In this case it was Canada’s GOAT.

Even when the Raptors were in Brooklyn in the first week of the season, there was a hint in the air that Nash was on thin ice after the Nets no-showed in their home opener against New Orleans.

Yet in private conversations with journalists Nash has known for decades, there was no hint that he was worried. He gave every indication that he believed the ‘vibes’ around his club were good, things were heading in the right direction and as soon as Simmons could shake off the rust from nearly 18 months without basketball, Brooklyn would begin to roll.

It sounded good and was consistent with the energy Nash has always been able to project outwardly: steadfast, positive, resolute.

But then you’d bump into a league source who would relate stories about veterans talking about actively working to get Nash fired — in pre-season — and superstars telling fellow players simply: “We [the Nets] suck.”

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The reality is in the NBA the money is often just a means to buy a sturdy enough umbrella to deal with the crap that inevitably is going to come down on someone’s head. Nash can afford a good one.

Now — reportedly — it will be former Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, suspended for the year by the team for what ESPN and The Athletic have reported was an improper consensual relationship with a female staff member, who will get a chance if he can manage the next storm coming.

And keep in mind when we’re talking about the Nets and Irving’s bizarre and disturbing political and religious views and seeming need to share them, or Durant’s injury history and (barely) surface-level commitment to the organization or Simmons’ well-chronicled health and mental health issues, there will be more storms.

Was Nash – who got a five-year contract for a reported $45 million and will see every penny of it – a good coach or bad coach? The source of the Nets’ problems, a potential solution or just a retired guy who stumbled into a lucrative post-career hobby?

The only honest answer is: ‘who knows?’

Evaluating coaches is at the best of times an inexact science. An average coach can win an NBA title with the right roster; even the greatest coaches can get their butts kicked if they don’t have the horses.

Where did Nash fit on that continuum?

Well, in his 161-game coaching career he had to roll out 83 different starting lineups, 43 of them last season. And yet the Nets made the playoffs each season, and in each case performed credibly — maybe even impressively — while short-handed.

In 2021, the Nets took the eventual NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks to a seventh game in the second round and might have eliminated them had Durant’s big toe not been on the line for what turned out to be a game-tying, buzzer-beating two rather than a series-ending three. The Nets lost in overtime but given they were playing with a greatly diminished Harden, who pulled his hamstring barely a minute into the series and missed nearly all of the first four games before playing as a half-speed decoy for the rest of the series, no one was pointing any fingers at Nash then.

Even that season when the Nets’ ‘Big 3’ played only eight games and 200 minutes together due to COVID-19, injuries and the fact Harden only joined the team after agitating his way out of Houston to join what seemed like a sure winner, Brooklyn played at a respectable 55-win pace.

At times, they looked devastating.

Last season was even more upside down. Irving refused to be vaccinated and ended up playing just 29 games because of mandates in New York; Harden — reportedly frustrated by Irving’s refusal to be vaccinated — forced his way out of Brooklyn for Philadelphia at the trade deadline and played just 44 games, and not many to his standard. Durant played just 55 games between injuries and super-sniper Joe Harris played just 14 games due to an ankle injury. Ben Simmons, the centre-piece of the Harden trade, played no games for the Nets last season (and has been a shadow of his former all-NBA self so far this year).

Yet the Nets finished 43-39 last season, and while swept in the first round by the Celtics, still at times looked like a dangerous team if they could ever shed the baggage they kept piling onto themselves.

The load got heavier still in the off-season. In making perhaps the most audacious trade demand in NBA history — Durant asked out on June 30, the day before his four-year $194-million contract extension kicked in and two months after giving Nash his support following Brooklyn’s playoff ouster — the Nets star reportedly made it known that for him to stay in Brooklyn he wanted both Nash and general manager Sean Marks fired.

Nets owner Joe Tsai refused to acquiesce, and a truce was eventually brokered in August, but even then the word in league circles was that it was a temporary fix, and that Nash would be the one headed overboard if the ship began to take on water.

Time will tell if the Nets do, in the end, sink.

Will Nash still be viewed as the problem then? Likely not. The reality is that Nash’s coaching career — for reasons largely outside of his control — never had a chance, which is ironic given how can’t miss it seemed at the start.

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But with three years left on his contract, all the money guaranteed and all the time in the world to hang out with his growing family and binge on the upcoming World Cup, Nash is a very good bet to be the only member of the Nets to come out a winner this season and maybe beyond.

Steve Nash will be fine, we can all be sure of that.

The Nets? We can be sure of nothing.

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