Mounting losses and controversies: How the Brooklyn Nets devolved into chaos in a matter of weeks

Friedell: Nash's exit won't change Nets' fortunes (2:13)

Nick Friedell explains why Brooklyn's struggles may persist after parting ways with Steve Nash. (2:13)

THE BROOKLYN NETS have just completed their fourth official practice of the season inside their gleaming training center, 3 miles from Barclays Center, with a beautiful view of the Manhattan skyline. Kevin Durant, who had turned 34 a day earlier on Sept. 29, walks over to the assembled media and quickly tries to end the conversation about his summer of discontent -- one in which he asked for a trade, reportedly asked for coach Steve Nash and general manager Sean Marks to be fired, then reversed course and decided to stay in Brooklyn.

"Can we move on past that at some point?" Durant said, wiping perspiration from his face.

Although it was this exchange that created the headlines, the next one was far more telling -- about the future of the superstar forward and the organization that still signs his checks. Standing in front of a Nets banner in a corner of the practice facility, Durant pulls at the top of his sweat-soaked practice shirt, listening to a question about how the Nets can build camaraderie with basically the same core players who struggled to do so last season.

What do you mean camaraderie?

When he's told it means everyone is on the same page, Durant is quick with another response.

I mean, we were always on the same page, I think.

You think at the end of last year you guys were on the same page?

Did we have our whole team?

Although Durant disagreed with the line of questioning, Marks flatly admitted after last season, even before Durant's infamous trade request, that the Nets had to get their "culture" back, with team personnel privately acknowledging the Nets' issues were far deeper than whatever happened on the floor. The chemistry that had defined the team's rise back to respectability under Marks had eroded, with many around the organization seeing a disjointed group far too reliant on Durant and Kyrie Irving.

"Last year we kind of just came in and played pickup," said Nets guard Seth Curry, who was acquired in February from the Sixers along with Ben Simmons. "We skipped a lot of the steps as far as the basics of what we were doing defensively and offensively. We were just really out there relying on pure talent to try and win games."

So when it appeared all but certain that Durant was headed elsewhere and Irving's future with the team was unclear, the Nets were on the verge of the type of full-scale rebuild that would have wiped away every remaining element of what was supposed to be a championship reign with Durant, Irving and James Harden. But then Irving picked up his $36.5 million team option and Durant pulled back his trade request and the Nets were left in a unique position: Instead of picking up the pieces, they were left to see whether those pieces could fit together again.

Back inside the practice facility -- before the tumultuous 2-5 start, before Simmons' poor play, before the players-only meeting, before the controversy over his superstar teammate's social media posts about Alex Jones and an antisemitic movie and book, before Nash's departure as coach -- Durant continues to try to shape the narrative of the coming season.

"When you look at the grand scheme of things, we haven't been healthy at all for two years," Durant said. "Each playoffs [in 2021 and 2022], we didn't have major guys, not just role players but guys that make a lot of money. So when you got $50 million on your bench this last playoffs with Joe [Harris] and Ben and then the playoffs before that. ... I want to see what our team looks like in full, with guys being healthy. With us having a little bit of continuity."

In other words, the Nets aren't just betting on this year's team, they're doubling down.

IF NORMAN ROCKWELL were to have painted a portrait of a basketball team enjoying life in America, all he would have needed to see were the photos the Nets' social media team released after a team dinner at Brooklyn's Lucali restaurant in late September.

Sitting at one table are Simmons, Irving and Durant, enjoying a pizza together. Nearby, young guard David Duke Jr. shares a conversation with Brooklyn rapper Fivio Foreign. Curry and training camp invitee Raiquan Gray break bread, trying some authentic Italian cuisine. Young big man Kessler Edwards, Royce O'Neale and Patty Mills talk with local radio host Angela Yee.

"Those conversations, getting to know each other, getting to know everybody's goals of the season, how they respond to criticism, how you can talk to different guys is very important," Curry said. "We skipped that step last year. We came and kind of just showed up and played basketball and didn't really know each other."

Before all the drama in recent days, since media day on Sept. 26, player after player had echoed the same thing -- a feeling best described by young big man Nic Claxton: "The vibes are definitely better."

"It's the foundation of all successful championship-winning teams," veteran guard Patty Mills said. "The things that you can create off the court just helps with all the trust on the floor."

Since signing with the Nets last summer, Mills has become a trusted figure within the locker room, a role he cherishes given the lessons he learned during 10 seasons and a title run with the San Antonio Spurs. Marks also added veteran Markieff Morris, who, according to Nets personnel, has quickly developed into another strong voice.

"We do the same things that you guys do to get closer to your co-workers," Irving said. "You hang out on the weekends, hang out when we can get away from our families. When we're at practice, we talk about what's going on in the world, but our focus is really on the mission here. And that's getting us ready every single day for a championship run.

"So on and off the court we have to be very open to learning about what our teammates do and don't like, and that takes time."

Marks, for his part, was asked how he believed the culture could grow given the low turnover across the organization. In his answer, he said culture within any team is "constantly evolving." Nash was more verbose.

"I was on a lot of teams that got along," Nash said. "You can draw a diagram by the greatest team-building expert in the world, but if the personalities don't fit or don't adopt or buy into that, to the group concepts, it's pointless. Personalities are really important. I think we got some good ones this year."

THERE IS NO stronger personality in the Nets' orbit than Irving. He is one of the most talented players in the game, but multiple team sources believe Irving's decision not to get vaccinated, compounded by his unreliability, contributed the most to the Nets' unraveling last season. But Nets personnel, from the coaching staff to the players, have raved about Irving's change in demeanor.

"He's bringing a totally different energy this year," Claxton said. "He's definitely been locked in. He's ready to make an impact."

"All I can judge is his effort and his attitude, and both have been exceptional," Nash said during training camp. "So we've been really proud of his application, but also his leadership. He's done a great job mentoring younger players, trying to bring the group together, and those components are invaluable."

Despite all the recent compliments coming his way, Irving said he isn't concerned about changing the narrative that has defined his star-crossed career.

"I can't even pour energy into that," Irving said. "What I think the reality is, is that we're here, and for the last year you guys asked my teammates a bunch of questions about me specifically, and why I'm not here. And now that I'm here, we get to see the consistent effort that I would have put forth last year and the year before that if everyone started off the season healthy and we had a good start from the beginning."

But good vibes fill most Septembers and Octobers.

"Who knows what the vibes will be if we hit a skid or we're not playing well or if somebody gets injured," Durant said. "It's how we stick through those times. So it's easy to be cool and everything is positive right now, but we'll see as the season goes on."

IT'S OCT. 21, the season is on, and the Nets are clinging to a one-point lead in the waning minutes of a back-and-forth game against the Toronto Raptors. For now, at least offensively, the Nets have regressed. On back-to-back possessions, there's little ball movement, little offensive flow, just Irving and Durant taking -- and making -- difficult iso-jumpers. As the final seconds tick away, the Raptors, full of rangy 6-foot-8 defenders, lock in.

With Toronto forward Scottie Barnes guarding Irving, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet slides over for the double-team, leaving O'Neale, who had shot 1-for-6 on the night, wide open in front of the Toronto bench. Instead of forcing up yet another contested shot, Irving changes course, dishing it to O'Neale, who promptly swishes the game clincher.

Perhaps it's a sign, an illustration of the kind of basketball and culture the team has bet heavily it can build. Or perhaps it's just the right play at the right moment.

Either way, "it feels good," O'Neale said after the game in the Nets' locker room. "Who wouldn't want to hit the last-second shot or game-winning shot?"

Sitting at a nearby locker, Irving interjects.

"Trust!" he said.

"Trust," O'Neale said, smiling. "Like he said."

EIGHT DAYS LATER, all the good vibes that have been building since training camp are officially gone. It's been quite a week -- even for a Nets team that has grown accustomed to playing as drama unfolds around it.

The Nets have just dropped their fourth straight game, a 125-116 loss to an undermanned Indiana Pacers team playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Nash just called the loss a "disaster" and questioned the team's commitment. And Irving is embroiled in another controversy, this time answering for a tweet he posted about "Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America," a book and movie featuring antisemitic tropes.

As the Pacers loudly celebrate as they head down a small hallway into the visiting locker room inside Barclays, Nets players do the opposite, slowly trudging off the floor toward their own locker room on the other side of the arena, where the door remains closed for an unusually long time.

Just 10 days and six games into the regular season, the team is holding a players-only meeting, early for even the most dysfunctional teams.

"We got to be accountable on the defensive end, and we're not," Simmons said. "Guys are coming in here and putting up career highs each night -- and we're just not clicking defensively. We've got to hold each other accountable. We had a talk in the locker room, and that's what it comes down to: Guard your man, and come in here and be the best version of yourself."

Nash, for his part, said the team struggles with its own adversity.

"When things don't go our way, we haven't had enough resilience to fight through," he said. "And that's what we're seeking right now is the resilience and character ... to play for each other and do the little things, the selfless acts, that it takes every day to try to get possessions in your favor, get stops, get rebounds, help your teammates. ... Without that sustainability and effort and that will, it's not going to turn, so we got to make some decisions."

Less than five minutes later, as his teammates quietly shower in the locker room and the building is simmering in self-inflicted turmoil, Irving sits down at the postgame lectern. Within the past 24 hours, both Nets owner Joe Tsai and the NBA had issued statements condemning his post.

The questions Irving and the Nets knew were coming begin flowing. First, he explains how he found out about the movie and book in the first place. Then, he is asked to explain why he posted a video about conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

"That was a few weeks ago," Irving said. "I do not stand with Alex Jones' position, narrative, court case that he had with Sandy Hook, or any of the kids that felt like they had to relive trauma. Or parents that had to relive trauma. Or to be dismissive to all the lives that were lost during that tragic event. My post was a post from Alex Jones that he did in the early '90s or late '90s about secret societies in America of occults. And it's true.

"So I wasn't identifying with anything of being a [campaigner] for Alex Jones or anything. ... It's actually hilarious because out of all the things I posted that day, that was the one post that everyone chose to see. It just goes back to the way our world is and works. I'm not here to complain about it, I just exist."

Tensions rising, Irving then defends his most recent post. He begins by saying he has a "unique position to have a level of influence" in his community, then later accuses the media of making up "this powerful influence that I have."

Irving does not directly answer whether he has antisemitic beliefs. He takes umbrage at the characterization that he is "promoting" the book or movie, and dismisses the idea that posting a link to the movie indicates promotion or support.

Then, after a member of the Nets' public relations team ends the news conference, Irving has a message as he takes the short walk back into the team's locker room.

"I wish we felt the same about Black reproductive rights," he said. "And all the things that actually matter than what I'm posting." Just before the door shuts behind him, Irving has one more message. "Change your life, bro."

Publicly, players still believe they have the ability to turn things around. "I believe we can be the best team in the NBA," Simmons said. "I believe that."

Privately might be another matter. But as has become custom throughout his time in Brooklyn, it is Durant who offers the most honest assessment about the state of his team. He is the last member of the team to speak and offers a succinct answer when asked whether the attention surrounding Irving's social media posts has had any impact on the group.

"Absolutely not," Durant said. "The only impact is you guys and everybody outside the locker room."

But in the wake of another loss, the 2014 MVP is asked whether he believes Nash's message is still getting through. In the moment, Durant provides an unvarnished view into the psyche of a team that appears to be splintering into chaos.

"It's on the individuals," Durant said. "Coach can do so much and tell you what to do, but he's not playing for us. I know coaching matters, chemistry matters, but at the end of the day we're individuals. So we got to do better as individuals, and then we'll bring that to the group and figure it out. But each guy's got to just dig down deeper and just be better. That's just what it is."

IT'S LATE ON Oct. 31 and Nash is walking down a long hallway in Barclays Center, carrying his 3-year-old daughter in his arms, after his beleaguered team had snapped its four-game losing streak in a 116-109 win against the Indiana Pacers. As he arrives to a waiting car, he can't help but break into a small smile when he is asked about the tumultuous past few days.

It is the same look Nash wore throughout much of his 2½ years on the job in Brooklyn. Nets staffers appreciated the way Nash tried to handle the organization's daily business, but since the spring, several saw the mild-mannered Canadian's demeanor begin to change.

As Marks acknowledged during his news conference Tuesday night, the decision for Nash and the organization to part ways hadn't just happened the night before. It had been brewing for a while.

Nash came to Brooklyn hoping to coach Durant, Irving and the rest of the group to an NBA championship, but according to team sources, he grew increasingly tired of the drama off the floor. The stress from having to be the public face of a team weaving in and out of different controversies took a toll on the 48-year-old, culminating in Tuesday's announcement.

"I think that was probably the unique thing with Steve and I," Marks said. "We talked daily, if not hourly, on a variety of different topics, subjects all the time. Enjoyed the conversations. I learned a ton from him. He's an incredibly intelligent man, and has a great feel and a great poise. His character is impeccable.

"When we're having these conversations, he's aware of 'they're not responding to me right now' or 'that was not the performance I needed to see out there', and so forth. So we were open with that dialogue always happening. And so you know, over the course of, you know, the last week, 10 days, we've just been talking and talking and I think it came to a head."