While both expressed their respect for Nash, Irving’s comments indicated that the Nets would need structure and accountability, since Durant and Irving were already resisting the traditional hierarchy. For his part, Durant responded to Irving and called the partnership with Nash “a collaborative effort.” It was a glaring instance in which leadership experience might have made a difference. After Durant requested a trade over the summer, he described a culture on the Nets that seemed adrift.
“I went to them and was like: ‘Yo, I don’t like how we are preparing. I don’t like shootarounds. I like practices. I need more,’” Durant told Bleacher Report in November.
He added, “Hold me accountable.”
The Nets fired Nash in November and hired Vaughn.
Irving vs. Tsai
Nowhere were the cautionary signs for the Nets more clear than in the rift between Tsai and Irving. Irving declined to take the coronavirus vaccine as the 2021-22 season got underway, but Tsai was a vocal proponent of vaccines, telling ESPN that it wasn’t “a matter of belief” but rather a scientific “matter of fact.”
Irving became a liability. He was not allowed to play in home games because of a local vaccine mandate, and he showed no signs of changing his mind. Tsai and Marks allowed him to become a distraction. First, they said he would not be allowed to play in road games either, citing the harm to the organizational culture of having him play only part-time. But just two months later, they changed their minds, even though Irving hadn’t changed his and the team was in first place in the Eastern Conference.
It sent the message that Irving could play by his own rules.
About a year earlier, the Nets acquired Harden from Houston by trading away promising young players. But soon after Irving was allowed to return, Harden stunned the Nets by asking for a trade. Harden later told reporters that Irving’s decision to not get vaccinated had a “very minimal” effect on his trade request, but he acknowledged that “it definitely did impact the team.”
The Nets quickly acquiesced to Harden in February 2022 by trading him to the Philadelphia 76ers, the competitor of his choice, instead of riding out the season, since they were playing well, or giving themselves time to explore all of their options to be sure they were getting the best deal.
In December, Harden told Fox Sports why he wanted out of Brooklyn.
“It was just, there was no structure and even superstars, they need structure,” Harden said. “That’s what allows us to be the best players and leaders.”