The Nets’ and Lakers’ woes show star players don’t make good architects
In his first interview as the permanent head coach of the Brooklyn Nets, Jacque Vaughn addressed the elephant in the room. “I guess I was the write-in candidate in the minds of elections right now,” he said before the Nets’ 112-85 victory over the New York Knicks on Wednesday. “But I’m OK with that. I said to my wife I might have not been her first choice, but we’ve been together 20 years so it could all work out, so off we go.”
If he was a second choice (with the Nets in this case rather than his wife), then who was the first? Well, according to previous reports, the Nets were all set to make one of the most inexplicable moves in NBA history. After parting ways with Steve Nash last week, insiders pegged his likely replacement as suspended Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka.
In another situation, Udoka would have been an ideal choice. The former Nets assistant, after all, took the Celtics to the NBA finals in his first year as head coach in Boston. The Celtics were even willing to let him walk for free.
That may have actually been the biggest red flag, considering Boston suspended Udoka for an entire year, citing multiple violations of team policy. They clearly weren’t sold on having him back. With the Nets already dealing with the aftermath of banning Kyrie Irving for promoting a movie filled with antisemitic propaganda, it would have been the height of hubris for them to bring in a head coach who was himself serving a lengthy suspension.
Even if one were to put aside the ethics of this particular situation, and the organizational mixed messages it would send, this would have been a disaster merely from an optics perspective. Adding Udoka would have been tossing a lit match into a gasoline-soaked building, particularly after the team had just released a statement declaring that Irving was “unfit to be associated with the Brooklyn Nets”.
Maybe it’s too cynical to say that the Nets backed off solely because they realized it would be a PR disaster. There’s a chance that they actually did something resembling “due diligence” and discovered more specifics about what happened with Udoka in Boston. We don’t know exactly what Udoka’s offenses were – the Celtics have kept quiet in order to protect the privacy of those involved – but it was enough for them to effectively cut ties with a coach who nearly led them to a championship.
Perhaps the Nets’ reluctance was a concession that the controversy of hiring Udoka would only be worth it if they were a head coach away from becoming true title contenders. Instead, the Nets were swept out of the playoffs earlier this year and are 5-7 this season. Udoka is a better coach than Nash, an all-time great player who appeared thoroughly out of his depth in his role with the Nets, but the difference between the two would not have been enough to propel Brooklyn to the top of the Eastern Conference.
It’s not like the outlook appears any sunnier going forward, after all. Irving may not play for the Nets again (although that could end up being a blessing). Kevin Durant asked for a trade in the offseason and it’s hard to imagine the start of the 2022-23 season has made him more willing to stay. Ben Simmons, whom the Nets traded for after the disastrous James Harden era came to an end, hasn’t scored in double digits since June 2021.
The good news is that Durant’s Nets aren’t alone in underachieving. After missing the playoffs altogether last season, the Los Angeles Lakers have begun this year at 2-9, with only the Houston Rockets having a worse record in the Western Conference. This is far from the same team that won a title in the historical oddity that was the 2020 NBA Bubble Season.
Some Lakers fans hope that the team makes big moves to give LeBron James and Anthony Davis more high-powered talent to play alongside. But early reports don’t make it sound like the Lakers are interested in sacrificing future draft picks to make that happen. In fact, the rumors have already begun that the Lakers may be open to hearing offers for Davis. Perhaps GM Rob Pelinka knows best: it’s quite possible that the chemistry is off with this particular Lakers team.
Both the Nets and the Lakers gave a HOF-caliber superstar the chance to have plenty of say in the team built around them. Since James signed with the Lakers, he has had a loud voice in determining who his teammates will be. In 2020, obviously, that process worked out fine, but the returns have been dismal since. The current Nets, meanwhile, were built upon a handshake between Durant and Irving back when they were playing for different teams.
In some sense, these two teams represent the most radical experiments of the player empowerment era. The Ringer’s Seerat Sohi argued during the summer that James and Durant had already over-extended the limits of their abilities. The early returns on the season have only reenforced that point.
While franchise players like James and Durant have earned a right to have a say in how their teams are constructed, having them act as de facto co-GMs while also trying to win games on the court may be too much responsibility. There’s a reason, after all, that NBA has moved beyond the player-coach era.
It’s early in the season, so it’s possible that the Nets and Lakers will tread water until the trade deadline, hoping that talent alone will be enough to turn their situations around. If not, and either team decides to blow up its roster, it could signal a league-wide shift in team construction. While the superteam model looks likely to stay, this might be the end of star players serving double-duty as team architects.