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Nets' brand of basketball is almost as ugly as the team's off-court issues

I’d imagine the Nets would prefer we focus on the basketball they play on the court rather than their latest firestorm off it. That tends to be the messaging out of Barclays Center when one or another of their principal figures invites a fresh round of criticism, after all — and it’s when, not if; at this point, you can just about set your watch to the onset of new nonsense at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic — so, in the interest of fairness, let’s oblige them:

The Nets, at the moment, play terrible basketball.

They’re 1-5, just a half-game ahead of the perma-rebuilding Orlando Magic in the race for last place in the Eastern Conference. They field the NBA’s worst defense — a unit that ranks dead last in points allowed per non-garbage-time possession and defensive rebound rate, and that has allowed at least one member of the opposition to score 30 or more points in five of their six games. (They’d likely be 6-for-6 if the Pelicans hadn’t dominated them so much on opening night that Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson sat for the final few minutes of the blowout.)

The new addition intended to solve those point-preventing woes, former Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Ben Simmons, has had a rocky start to his stint in Brooklyn, struggling to tamp down opponents’ top scorers and fouling at a career-high rate as he slowly gets reacclimated to the speed and physicality of the game after spending 16 months away from the hardwood. The project of integrating Simmons hasn’t gone much better on the other end of the court, either. The three-time All-Star has scored 37 points in six games, has missed more than half of his 2-point shots and free-throw attempts and has continued to look tentative in attacking the basket; the only thing Kyrie Irving has said recently that had a near-universal approval rating was, “Shoot it, Ben!”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 27: Kevin Durant #7 talks with Ben Simmons #10 and Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at Barclays Center on October 27, 2022 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Mavericks won 129-125. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
The Nets' stars can't figure it out on or off the court. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Brooklyn has been outscored by 22 points in 128 minutes with Irving, Simmons and Kevin Durant on the court. The preferred starting lineup of that “big three” alongside center Nic Claxton and 3-and-D wing Royce O’Neale has barely scored one point per possession, a near-league-worst rate of production arrived at because opponents feel free to mostly ignore Claxton and Simmons, pack the paint, and dare the Nets to try to beat them with the midrange jumpers they fling more frequently than all but four other teams. That’s why, despite sticking with that starting five off the opening tip, head coach Steve Nash has started going away from it earlier and more often; the Simmons-Claxton pairing averaged nearly 20 minutes over Brooklyn’s first two games and only 11 minutes over its last two.

All that interior congestion and discomfort help explain how the Nets, despite being the only team in the NBA to feature two players averaging more than 30 points per game, sit smack dab in the middle of the pack in offensive efficiency. That’s how you get to 1-5, staring up at the Pistons and a Pacers squad that just beat Brooklyn shorthanded on the second night of a back-to-back on the road: A team constructed to flame-broil opponents with peerless shot-making and off-the-dribble majesty can’t succeed with a merely average offense.

Or, put differently: If your organizational ethos prioritizes Buckets and Vibes above all else, and you’re not providing enough of the former, then — as upsetting as it might be to a collective of basketball artisans who’d prefer we train our attention on the purity of the form — we’re going to start focusing on the latter.

Especially when what’s being served up there becomes rancid as hell.

On opening night, Nash talked about his team needing to raise its “standards of competition” to avoid getting blitzed by a hungry and physical team like New Orleans. Ten days later, after giving up 23 3-pointers to Indiana on Friday, he termed his team’s effort “a disaster,” devoid of the “will” and “connectivity” required to win.

Durant, who at least showed signs of defensive life in logging four blocks and three steals against the Pacers, emphasized the need for the Nets’ players to “take pride individually” in their effort. And then, perhaps inadvertently, Durant — who, less than three months ago, demanded Nets owner Joe Tsai either fire Nash and general manager Sean Marks or trade him — said a mouthful about where this team is: “Coaching matters, chemistry, all that stuff matters. But at the end of the day, we’re individuals.”

Those individuals came together to hold a players-only meeting following their fourth straight loss — the kind of come-to-Jesus moment you’d imagine a team with championship aspirations would’ve preferred not to have to hold six games into the season.

“It was honest,” Simmons told reporters. “We had a conversation that obviously I’m not going to talk about, but it was honest. That’s what winning teams do — hold each other accountable.”

“Accountability,” however, appears to remain a slippery concept in Brooklyn — especially as it pertains to Irving, who continues to undercut his offensive excellence on the court with his insistence on setting fires off it.

The latest: Irving shares clips and links that point to, and thus tacitly endorse, venomous conspiracy theories and antisemitism. When people — including the Nets, the NBA, team governor Tsai and Nike — push back on it, looking for Irving to take some responsibility for the messages he chooses to share with many millions of people, he says they’ve got him wrong, jousts with reporters over the definition of “promotion” and says he’s “not going to stand down on anything I believe in.”

Irving trumpets the importance of thoughtfully using the platform he enjoys as one of the most famous athletes in the world because he’s “in a unique position to have a level of influence on my community.” He does so while claiming to be “no different from the next human being” and taking media members to task when they “come in here and make up this powerful influence that I have.” He does so while also insisting that he’s “only going to get stronger, because I’m not alone. I have a whole army around me.

That support system includes the Nets, who aren’t expected to discipline Irving for his tacit promotion of stuff that builds its arguments in part off statements “believed to be said by Adolf Hitler in a secret document.” He’ll likely continue to slot into the starting lineup for a team that has decided it needs his 30 points per game enough to keep soldiering on through whatever headaches come with his commitment to exercising his freedom to post.

The bet seems to be that if Brooklyn can just ride out its latest maelstrom — just get to a softer patch in the schedule, just get a handful of contributors (Simmons, Joe Harris, Seth Curry, T.J. Warren) back to 100 percent after lengthy injuries, just get the offense back to top-of-the-league caliber, just get the defense into the vicinity of Just Good Enough — there will be brighter days ahead.

“I believe we can be the best team in the NBA,” Simmons told reporters on Friday. “I believe that.”

Such belief constitutes a heaping helping of faith — the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Because nothing about what we’ve seen from this Nets team — one in which Durant and Irving averaging 30-plus barely seems to matter, Simmons looks no different from the version we saw buckle in the postseason in Philadelphia, nobody can get a stop or a rebound, Irving remains intent on creating more problems than he solves and Nash can only say that everyone has developed an “immunity” to off-court drama, which, all things considered, is pretty ironic — suggests a championship ceiling. Or, frankly, anything even close to one.

Marks said this summer that the Nets’ culture isn’t “what it quite was” in the early years of Brooklyn’s rebuild, and that it’s the organization’s “job to pick that up.” Left unsaid, though, was the truth: When you import stars, those stars become your culture, and when you search for the heart of what Durant, Irving, and the rest of these Nets have built, you find nothing — just insufficient buckets, rancid vibes and a core that has yet, despite the presence of one of the greatest players of all time, to demonstrate the capacity to carry the weight of its own nonsense. Three years, one lone playoff series victory, and countless sagas after Brooklyn’s level-up, there’s still no there there. At this point, it seems fair to wonder if there ever will be.