Ben Simmons smiled and chuckled in regards to the way he had been acting all day. It was the primary time in 16 months that he had played in a meaningful basketball game, and he seemed positively effervescent.
“I believe I used to be just too excited, truthfully,” he said Wednesday night at Barclays Center. “It was just great to be on the market.”
The outing didn’t go especially well. Simmons scored only 4 points and fouled out, perhaps a function of his enthusiasm, and his team lost, 130-108, to the Latest Orleans Pelicans within the N.B.A. season opener for each teams. Simmons was a bit rusty, having missed all of last season with mental and physical health problems. He began last season in Philadelphia before he was traded to the Nets for James Harden in February. But just the indisputable fact that Simmons played in the sport Wednesday was momentous.
His availability is emblematic of where the Nets find themselves in the beginning of this season. Kevin Durant remains to be on the team. Kyrie Irving must be available all season. And now Simmons is healthy. This season could offer a final word on what the Durant-Irving Nets might be, and the way they reply to the pressure of getting the pieces in place to be real contenders.
“Now you’ll be able to see who we actually are,” Nets forward Markieff Morris said. “Would you slightly be a team where you’ve got championship aspirations and plenty of pressure on you to win? Or would you slightly be a team that’s tanking attempting to get the No. 1 pick? You bought to choose your poison on this league. Twiddling with pressure is thing.”
It has been three years since Durant and Irving selected to affix the Nets in free agency. Their arrival demanded patience, at first because Durant was working through an Achilles’ tendon injury that may cause him to miss all the 2019-20 season. That season was also interrupted by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic; when most teams went right into a bubble environment in Florida that summer to complete the season, Irving didn’t join the Nets as he recovered from an injury.
The 2020-21 season was shortened by 10 games due to the pandemic, however the Nets finished it with the second-best record within the Eastern Conference. James Harden had joined them through a trade from Houston in January 2021. They lost the conference semifinals in seven games to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks.
Then every little thing unraveled.
Irving decided he wouldn’t get vaccinated against the coronavirus, which meant he couldn’t play any home games due to an area mandate. The Nets said they didn’t need a part-time player, until they did. They later didn’t comply with a maximum contract extension with Irving when they may have, and Irving affirmed his player choice to stay in Brooklyn for the ultimate 12 months of his contract.
Frustrated by Irving, Harden asked for a trade and got it, swapping places with Simmons, after which more patience became obligatory. Simmons, who hadn’t felt mentally in a position to play until the trade, missed the remainder of the season with a back injury that required surgery. He spent the off-season healing and said he felt fully healthy in the beginning of coaching camp.
This summer’s final drama for the Nets got here when Durant requested a trade in June. The Nets never found the fitting offer, if such a thing even existed for a player of his caliber. Reports surfaced that Durant had wanted General Manager Sean Marks and Coach Steve Nash fired. Durant has not confirmed those reports, and Nash referred to the entire episode as if it were a family disagreement.
The silver lining of an off-season that threatened the team’s stability was that the Nets were returning with two of one of the best players in the sport and a 3rd more talented than most within the league.
All that’s left is for them to prove they will actually do that.
Wednesday’s game offered an inauspicious begin to that quest. The Nets trailed the Pelicans by as many as 26 points and were outscored by 36-4 on second-chance points, a symptom of inconsistent effort.
“The identical plays that demoralize the fans at home, demoralize us as players,” Irving said.
Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, like Simmons, returned after missing all of last season, in his case with a foot injury. He looked less rusty than Simmons did, scoring 25 points, and Latest Orleans took advantage of his play.
“I believe they beat us in every category tonight,” Nash said. “Clearly, we began the sport a bit hectic, a bit bit rattled to begin the 12 months. Sometimes that’s normal. First night out excitement. Latest group. It was a bit clunky at times.”
Durant led all scorers with 32 points, making 11 of 21 shots, with 4 blocks, 1 steal, 2 assists and three rebounds.
If one were to overreact to a gap night result, one might say these Nets are in big trouble. But the best way they played Wednesday didn’t match how they played in preseason games, perhaps hinting at their ability to play significantly better.
There have been flashes of positivity in Wednesday’s game as well. On one play, Irving darted in front of Larry Nance Jr. to steal the ball and throw it to Simmons for a dunk.
But to compete within the East this season can be no easy task. Milwaukee, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, remains to be as formidable because it was two years ago when it won the N.B.A. championship. The Boston Celtics seem determined to enhance upon last 12 months’s finals loss to Golden State. The Philadelphia 76ers, led by Joel Embiid and Harden, may even challenge for supremacy within the conference.
Within the waning seconds of Wednesday’s game, Durant sat all the best way back in a seat on the bench with the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up tightly over his head. Occasionally, he turned to Simmons, who sat next to him, and said something as they watched the Pelicans complete their 22-point victory.
“We got 81 more of those,” Durant said later. He added: “It’s about just bouncing back, coming to work tomorrow and figuring it out.”