It hasn’t yet sunk in for Steve Nash, the enormity of the job, the responsibility of steering this powerful but possibly teetering Brooklyn Nets ship to its desired destination.
The pressure hasn’t been applied on the first-year coach, and he still approaches these games with a youthful appearance compared to the strain and stress that’s sure to be around the corner.
The only consistency has been inconsistency, with Nash’s presence the only constant thus far and he’s the novice who hadn’t even been an assistant before being handed a team with championship expectations.
“There is [a lot] to be a coach in this league, connecting all departments and all people trying to lead. All those things take up more time than coaching, in a sense,” Nash said. “So I think, you know, early on in the season, I just tried to embrace everything that gets thrown at us and try to grow from it.”
It’s a privilege in a sense, the expectations without the weight ... so far. Part of it is simply due to the Nets not having a tangible footprint in NBA lore, operating in the shadow of the perpetually-wayward Knicks, where the pressure would’ve been applied before anyone played a game.
“I haven't necessarily had a chance or maybe won't even take the approach of feeling if it's enormity or whatever it is of coaching a team with high expectations for me,” Nash said. “That's exciting.”
The roster has fluctuated, players shuffled in and out of town through trade, injury or illness.
Practice time has been scarce, continuity and chemistry hard to build organically on the floor or off.
And yes, we’re all still in this deadly pandemic which makes all of the norms abnormal and temporary, taking away whatever creature comforts any new coach dreamt of enjoying.
It could be why the eye of scrutiny has focused elsewhere than on Nash, a display of humanity and grace not often given when Hall of Fame players take their first trip down the sideline, inheriting Hall of Fame talents.
“The challenge is similar in that, if you've never coached, you have a lot to learn,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Saturday night, before playing the Nets. “And I definitely had plenty to learn that first year, just as Steve does this year. So similar challenge, but very different team.
“It just gives you a chance to get your feet on the ground as a coach and kind of learn the ropes, but win games, you know, because of the talent while you're doing that. And that's much easier than, you know, having to try to learn the ropes and lose every night.”
Between the skepticism and questions surrounding his hire, there was also an air of sympathy, given the belief that coaching Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving would be more trouble than reward, more “he can have that job” than the envy that usually comes with coaching top-level talents.
And that was before the trade for James Harden — a move that seemed to be of excess and player privilege — made things even trickier.
The talent is overwhelming, the ceiling higher than any team in the East and perhaps anyone out West. When all three are available, Nash has to facilitate balance — a test he passed when Harden decided to be more dime-dropper than single-minded scorer. When two are missing, the remaining one can flex, like Harden did when leading the Nets from a 24-point deficit against the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night.
Defense notwithstanding, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t blow through everyone to get to the Finals.
As a Sun, Nash has had his valid MVP’s questioned by those with a microphone, unfairly eschewing context of what the game was like before he opened the door to this new souped-up era of offense.
But he’s also escaped the charges multiple-time MVP’s have been levied with. Some legends are more castigated for not breaking through or living up to their regular-season excellence. Nash is viewed more as a sympathetic figure, thought to be one Robert Horry hip-check away from a championship in 2007 that would put some necessary shine on that sterling resume.
As a player, Nash was the ultimate conductor. He wasn’t the one-man pressure cooker like Luka Doncic or the physical magnetism of LeBron James, but there was a gravitational pull to his game. He compressed, spread out and spread thin defenses that were not built for the mind-bending geometry he imposed.
This job is far less about pressing the limits but keeping the limits manageable and preparing a group for adversity.
“There's a lot a lot to this job for sure,” Kerr said. “But I think Steve would tell you, just like I would, I'll take talent over the rebuilding situation any day. It just gives you a chance to get your feet on the ground as a coach.”
The personalities provide the greatest cover, and the roster holes present the most pragmatic reasons why this team shouldn’t make a deep run.
Kyrie’s too flighty and unpredictable. Harden has too many postseason stinkers where he disengaged from the moment or couldn’t rise with it. Durant is perceived as the ultimate second-best type behind the LeBron’s and Steph’s of the world, even if he’s their equal.
Protecting three otherworldly talents from their worst devices is a job Nash has knowingly embraced but he shouldn’t be free of culpability just because the dynamic personalities are volatile.
History often scrubs away doubts or invalidates credible questions, but every eventual champion had reasons to be questioned until the triumph. These recent Lakers had role players who couldn’t be trusted around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and a coach in Frank Vogel who’d yet to be more than a bridesmaid — until proven otherwise.
The first incarnation of the dynastic Warriors weren’t playoff proven, not even making a conference final before romping through a 67-win regular season. But jump-shooting teams hadn’t won a championship in this NBA, and Kerr had to endure calls of being outcoached by David Blatt through three games of the 2015 Finals.
Then, out of near desperation, Kerr turned to the Death Lineup and the NBA hasn’t been the same since.
Erik Spoelstra was a Pat Riley disciple, Gucci’d down to the socks, but without Riles' championship panache in the early days of LeBron and Wade.
In hindsight, it all seems foolish and the results feel inevitable.
The only inevitable here are the expectations and the weirdness of this season, and the fatigue that’s sure to come if the fairness makes its way to Nash.
“I realize that there's time for me to grow and to gain comfort and confidence in who we are, what I do and what I can bring to helping this team see its best form,” Nash said. “Because it really is about the group. It's not so much about me, it's about us as a staff coming together figuring out how we can, you know, provoke the best performance out of this crew continually until we get to the end.”
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