Steve Nash had not run a single practice as a head coach when he learned that the job of managing superstars can be harder than it looks. Kyrie Irving was on Kevin Durant’s podcast in the fall when he talked about building a relationship with Nash, and growing the Brooklyn Nets around a collaborative spirit.
Even in those pre-James Harden days, it was clear Irving thought Nash would be a better fit with Brooklyn’s box-office roster than his fired predecessor, Kenny Atkinson. Once Irving got to know the rookie coach, the point guard said, “You understand why he can coexist with us. Because we don’t need somebody to come in and put their coaching philosophy on everything that we’re doing and change up the wheel.”
Irving’s thoughts were hopeful, and fairly benign, at least until he said the words that launched a thousand talk-radio and talk-TV conversations on a slow news day. “I don’t really see us having a head coach,” Irving said. “You know what I mean? KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.”
You know how that went down. Given plenty of time to process his answer when finally asked, Nash reminded everyone how fortunate he was to coach two great talents, and maintained he had no problem with the headlines despite the fact he thought Irving’s comment “wasn’t meant the way it was taken by the press,” and therefore “doesn’t bother me at all.” He went on to predict that it would “be a blast” to coach the Nets this year.
It was Nash’s first correct prediction, not his last. When addressing the potential for fan misbehavior in Boston, Irving’s former base of operations, the Nets’ coach stated with conviction — and with a knowing smile — that his guy would be comfortable and productive in that hostile environment. “There is a line,” Nash said of crowd conduct, “but crossed or not, Ky can handle that.”
Yes, it took Irving all of Game 3 to get his legs and mind right as the fans profanely jeered him. But the explosive performance in Game 4 that silenced the crowd, and compelled one fan to get himself charged with assault and battery for throwing a water bottle that nearly hit the Brooklyn star in the head, advanced the notion that Nash is in near-perfect sync with his team.
Listen, they call the NBA a players’ league for a reason — the team with the best players almost always wins a best-of-seven series. Nobody did a better regular-season job than Tom Thibodeau, and yet his team is down 3-1 to the Hawks because Atlanta has Trae Young and the Knicks do not.
So after they are done with the Celtics, whatever the Nets do against Milwaukee and beyond will be determined by the play of their Big 3 — Durant, Harden, and Irving. No coach is as important as the talent, not even a coach who is a Hall of Famer and a former two-time MVP.
But Nash has been critical to the Nets’ success with a disarming, user-friendly style that allows veteran superstars a voice in the way things are run, a voice they’ve earned through achievement. Take the end of Game 4. Nash gambled big by leaving his best players on the floor after the result was no longer in reasonable doubt. Had a member of the holy hoops trinity gone down with an injury, Nash would have been destroyed on social and traditional media.
Asked why he kept the Big 3 in the game, the Nets’ coach cited the sloppy endgame play, the pickup in Boston’s scoring and his fear of a miracle Celtics rally. “And then also those guys didn’t want to come out,” Nash said. “So just let them go a few more minutes.”
Again, the head coach didn’t take out his players because they advised against it — not exactly a page ripped from the Vince Lombardi playbook. “We’re always looking to collaborate,” Nash had said in the early hours of the season. “We definitely do confer with the players constantly.”
That approach might be disastrous with a young team. With Brooklyn, it makes all the sense in the world. Nash understands star players, because he was one himself. He empowers those who have earned the responsibility, and as soon as Irving figured that out in December, he said, “I think I’ve got to take back my comments in terms of a head coach back a few months ago.”
Steve Nash didn’t use the power of his office to force Irving, or anyone else, to change his public take on whether the Nets had a real head coach. He did it with calm, inclusive leadership and by making it clear that he had no self-absorbed desire to turn the Big 3 into a Big 4.