Inside the Nets' curious path to fix their ailing franchise

The whispers began over the weekend. Steve Nash’s tenure as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets was in jeopardy.

That smoke proved to be a raging fire come Tuesday afternoon. Nash piloted Monday night’s victory over the Indiana Pacers, but Brooklyn management had already determined his fate prior to tipoff, sources told Yahoo Sports.

Nash’s close ties to general manager Sean Marks were at the root of his unorthodox hire from the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign, with the executive believing the Hall of Fame point guard and two-time MVP — with no true NBA coaching experience — had unique credentials to oversee a roster of mercurial stars. Particularly Kevin Durant, who has been inaccurately labeled as the catalyst for Nash’s hire, but his connection to Nash from their overlapping tenures in Golden State was an absolute factor in Marks’ choice, sources said.

There have been nothing but trades and trade requests ever since, a quick hello and even quicker goodbye to James Harden, as well as endless headaches stemming from the actions and words of Kyrie Irving.

After Brooklyn’s postseason debacle last spring, going winless in the first round of the playoffs, several people close to Nash considered it possible he would resign from his tumultuous post. So after Durant infamously lobbied for Nash’s and Marks’ dismissal while attempting to navigate his own departure from the franchise this summer, and following a 1-5 start to another season laced with title aspirations, it should be no surprise Nash is exiting stage left. The now-former Brooklyn coach had been in ongoing dialogue with Marks about his effectiveness reaching Nets players.

All the while, Brooklyn officials were moving forward with handpicking the next head coach to rule their sideline. While Quin Snyder, the former Utah Jazz play-caller, had been widely mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Nash, there was no substantial contact about Snyder’s interest in the position, sources said. Marks wanted to hire Ime Udoka, in what may amount to Brooklyn’s final attempt at winning with Durant and Irving headlining this roster — and Marks orchestrating the franchise’s basketball operations.

Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka during an NBA basketball game, Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
The Nets appear to be forging ahead with their plan of hiring Ime Udoka. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Marks denied to reporters Tuesday evening that Brooklyn had concluded its coaching search. And while there has been no official hiring, the wheels were already turning toward Udoka’s name over the weekend, and he spent Tuesday afternoon at Creative Artists Agency’s offices in Los Angeles, sources said. Udoka was a finalist for Marks’ first coaching hire that eventually tapped Kenny Atkinson in 2016 and later became a Nets assistant during the 2020-21 season. He and Marks also worked together in San Antonio and share the same representation in CAA. The parties are said to be in the final stages of contract discussions, which are expected to conclude in the coming days, with Udoka possibly coaching by the weekend.

The Nets are hoping Udoka can help fortify Brooklyn’s porous defense and command respect from the roster. His authoritative presence purportedly left an imprint on Durant and other Nets players, not to mention the Celtics’ turnaround from a below .500 record in late January to the NBA Finals in June. From shared Brooklyn and Team USA days, along with other various connections, Udoka was one of the main proponents of Durant’s interest in being traded to Boston amid his offseason request to be dealt elsewhere.

And yet, to conclude Udoka is the clear choice to right this ship, as these Nets have sank to the depths of the Eastern Conference, while he’s serving a season-long suspension in Boston for misconduct regarding a reported inappropriate sexual relationship with a subordinate, has certainly rankled personnel across the league.

If there is any indication of the precarious footing underneath Marks and his Nets lieutenants, this is it. The swiftness to hire such an embattled coach, as the team disappoints many in league circles for allowing Irving to dodge accountability after posting the link to a grossly antisemitic film on Twitter … well, that sentence bares all. Brooklyn has chosen the path of least resistance when it comes to Irving’s latest, allowing him to “simmer down,” as Marks said Tuesday night, instead of reprimanding him. The franchise is choosing to suffer reputational consequences in sacrifice of championship aspirations rather than adding more fuel for any further breach from Irving.

Multiple high-ranking executives told Yahoo Sports their teams’ due diligence into Udoka’s background would have ended their interest in pursuing the coach’s services. If firing a head coach of a struggling NBA team is akin to relieving a CEO of his or her duties, any organization selecting a replacement with Udoka’s public grievances would at least be liable for an explanation to its employees.

Brooklyn, as evidenced by its expected hiring, has little qualms about Udoka’s past. The Nets began their due diligence into his Boston missteps shortly after the suspension was levied, sources said. There was no original intent to remove Nash. Few front offices get to hire three different head coaches and then survive to tell the tale. But Brooklyn executives were quietly assembling a list of best-available candidates in the event a change was necessary to achieve this team’s lofty goals.

From Marks to ownership, where Joe and Clara Tsai are heavily involved in Nets decision-making, Brooklyn purportedly believes in Udoka’s character despite his issues in Boston. It believes his season-long suspension in Boston may have fit the wrongdoing for the Celtics, but it believes misconduct with a junior employee should not end a person’s career.

The rest of the situation is muddled in privacy and perspective. There are complicated and troubling power dynamics at play when a male superior becomes romantically involved with a female lower in the organizational chart. And the inherent dangers to any workplace environment that behavior creates, they may not be so obvious around an industry that has historically been short on female staff.

Those around the league, and on social media, who are lamenting Udoka’s imminent hire will continue to do so. Those who maintain their support in his integrity and qualifications to coach this Brooklyn roster have been championing the Nets’ decision-making behind the scenes. There are few objective NBA minds who would disagree this coaching change will likely make Brooklyn better on the court. Udoka harbors preexisting relationships with Durant and Irving, as well as Ben Simmons from his year in Philadelphia. There is a prevailing school of thought in NBA coaching circles that the task simply boils down to maximizing a team’s star players. And there has been no taller task than with these Brooklyn Nets.

Boston is not expected to seek compensation for Udoka’s departure. It was determined in September the team wouldn’t block him from coaching opportunities elsewhere, sources said. While he was serving only a suspension, Celtics staffers spoke of his ultimate termination as a foregone conclusion. His time helming the Boston bench was all but over, and the Celtics’ confidence in interim head coach Joe Mazzulla has rung loudly.

Jacque Vaughn will serve as the Nets’ acting head coach until Udoka’s expected hiring is completed. Vaughn replaced Atkinson for the remainder of the 2019-20 season, but was not given the interim title this go-around. Vaughn stands as one of the more recognizable head coaching candidates on benches across the league, but instead is charged with keeping the Nets’ first chair warm for another member of the Spurs’ tree that first grew Marks into a candidate to lead Brooklyn.

The Nets decided they needed a new voice, regardless of the chorus of naysayers their decision will continue to bring. If this isn’t a Hail Mary, it is one final dart throw. Anything short of a bull’s-eye, whether that be a banner in Barclays Center or merely a return to contending status, could end these Nets' game of thrones all together.