A Nets team that looked terrible at the start of the preseason was terrific in the end.
The Nets will now enter the regular season on the up, following their offseason drama behind and opening night on Wednesday against visiting New Orleans.
“I think you could feel us getting better, turning around a little bit,” coach Steve Nash said. “I feel really good about the energy of the group right now. They’re playing hard, they’re playing together, they’re trying to communicate and do the things we’ve been working on, and you’re starting to see a little growth in all of those principles.”
The growth throughout the preseason was evident, with Ben Simmons playing alongside Kevin Durant in every setup and with Kyrie Irving in all but one.
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The Nets had previously lost to Philadelphia and Miami sloppily, and they compounded it when the Bucks beat them physically. But they kept their heads, continued to work and finally found a foothold on the road. With improved effort and execution on offense, they led by 19 in Milwaukee and by 20 on Friday in Minneapolis and cruised to wins in both.
“I would sum it up in one simple word: patient,” Irving said. “We came in with a lot of outside noise, so we had to settle on that and then focus on showing each other why we deserve to win every day.”
All this outside noise was not entirely undeserved. Irving had contentious contract negotiations with the Nets and ended up opting into the final year of his contract. A few days later, Durant requested a trade despite signing a $192 million (A$309 million) extension and then tried to fire Nash and general manager Sean Marks. It threw the offseason into chaos.
The Nets spent the preseason cleaning things up. Durant fell out not only with team owner Joe Tsai, but also with Marks and Nash, the men he was trying to oust. Problems were aired and complaints were laid bare, most of them regarding what was a diminished team culture and lack of accountability.
During training camp and the preseason, the Nets made huge strides in rebuilding both.
“First it starts internally, in a team environment and being willing to be uncomfortable,” Irving said. “I think it’s even more than a sense of discomfort, it’s just a willingness to be flexible and adapt on the fly and learn things that will help us in the long run, not just right now. We are working out these details. The pre-season has been great and the word I would use is patience.”
If the offseason wasn’t testing everyone’s patience, it’s easy to see how it could be at the start of the preseason. Both Irving and Nash punished the Nets for their effort — or lack thereof — in the first two games.
New assistant coach Igor Kokoskov’s offensive antics also began to take hold as the Nets tried to shed their over-reliance on isolation. After posting 41 assists and 53 turnovers in losses to the Sixers and Heat, the Nets improved to 56 assists and 29 turnovers in wins over the Bucks and Timberwolves.
“Overall, as a team, I thought we played great. We moved the ball and we’re finding our identity,” Simmons said of the latest tuneup, a 112-102 win over the Timberwolves on Friday.
“I’m really happy for them that they’re starting to take steps,” Nash said. “But we must continue. We have a lot of growth and a lot of cohesion to build. We need it every day. We can’t take days off because this is such an amazing group.” An amazing group, but it’s at least showing positive signs of coming together just in time for the regular season.