They had a 21-9 record, were fresh off an impressive win against the Philadelphia 76ers that Kevin Durant completed with a dagger jumper over Joel Embiid that was followed by him gesturing toward players on the visitors bench that they should go home. Brooklyn was in first place, three games clear, with Durant and James Harden locking in All-Star nods with their play.
But when Irving returned to the team, the mood changed. Some of it was bad luck -- just then the winter COVID wave affected the Nets, forcing them to shut down. Then Durant missed 20 games with a knee injury. Then Irving's relationship with Harden collapsed and contributed to Harden asking to be traded.
"I think it was just really heavy emotionally this season," Irving said after the Nets were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics on Monday.
"We all felt it. I felt like I was letting the team down at a point where I wasn't able to play. We were trying to exercise every option for me to play, but I never wanted it to just be about me. And I think it became a distraction at times."
For his part, Goran Dragic, who didn't join the team until late February, said: "Every day there was something different, something difficult."
Now consider what coach Steve Nash said on Dec. 16 after the win over Philly, the night before the Nets announced they'd changed their mind about letting Irving play part time.
"The spirit has been outstanding," Nash said then. "These guys are playing for one another, playing the right way and sticking with it."
Then consider what general manager Sean Marks said on Oct. 12 when he drew a line regarding Irving's playing status.
"We will not permit any member of our team to participate with part-time availability," Marks said. "It is imperative that we continue to build chemistry as a team and remain true to our long-established values of togetherness and sacrifice. Our championship goals for the season have not changed, and to achieve these goals each member of our organization must pull in the same direction."
The Nets' failures this season go deeper than Irving's situation and the New York City laws that forced him to the sideline. Add on the fact that Ben Simmons, acquired for Harden, never played.