The Brooklyn Nets have assembled a roster this is utterly unique and yet completely familiar.
The Brooklyn Nets have a long, illustrious history of being the New Jersey Nets. What was once a punchline is now buzzworthy. The century began with a couple of Finals runs and Jason Kidd triple-doubles. At one point, all of Boston’s championship aspirations were imported, and the trading in of green for black felt like an ultimate heel turn for the likes of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. There was Jay-Z courtside and a Russian oligarch somewhere in the shadows. There was precedent, I guess for what the Nets are now doing even within their own franchise’s numerous rebrands, restarts, and transformations.
But a snake shedding its skin is still a snake. There’s something very Junior Soprano about all this. The big come-up is very loud and audacious. Very nouveau riche. And very much in reaction to the reign of LeBron James. And maybe LeBron James brought this all on himself when he went south, when he went home, when he went back to Los Angeles. Having your brother hand out beatdowns is painful in a way that words can never express or rectify. It’s in the blood, and Kyrie Irving was for so long the little brother running and gunning with the King. But he got fed up. They both got fed up. Kyrie wanted none of it. He, in fact, wanted all of it. He made it to Brooklyn by way of Boston. He feels passed over. He has theories on why. He has a handle on the situation. He seems to be constantly under the knife and always squirming. You will most surely hear him on his way out to wherever he’s going, and he’s probably going recruiting.
We’ve seen these Brooklyn Nets before, but not like this
Kevin Durant was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics, but he was recruited by Rick Barnes at Texas and Draymond Green in Golden State. He was wooed by Brooklyn, by lights and handles. Somewhere in here is some thread of vengeance against the beholders who eye him as suspect, as something other than authentic. He is a man resting on other men’s laurels, and no matter how he tries to remove the label the more the label sticks. There’s the comeback from the Achilles injury that almost renders him heroic, but somehow helping Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn doesn’t quite fit the gunman rides into town and stands up for small farmers against brutish ranch hands model. But it all kind of feels like Kevin Durant is one of the brutish ranch hands, only overly sensitive and responding to criticism through a burner account.
James Harden probably should have another MVP. James Harden probably should have lots of things. He’s been in lots of crowded spaces during a pandemic and he is good at creating contact. He is as dazzling to watch as he is frustrating. His game is full of twists and turns and so is history. He has played on very talented teams in the past. He was in Oklahoma City when LeBron snuffed out their best chance at a title. LeBron did so with the help of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Everyone has a crew. The game has always been about individuals coming together. The game is more than ever about putting a crew together. There is an intended ruthlessness to all this. Cuts have to be made. The roster only has so many slots. There are only so many pieces of the pie. James Harden and Kevin Durant know this. Not only did LeBron teach them this but so did Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. They were introduced to this lesson as teammates and they studied it as opponents. And the lesson stretches back to before they were drafted into the NBA.
Super teams and Big Threes have had a very long run in this league. In fact, the league’s history can be told in runs of assembled All-Stars. The best teams tend to win, and the best teams tend to have more talent. The Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs boasted multiple Hall of Famers. But there is also a difference and maybe it means something and maybe it’s nothing at all.
In San Antonio, the winning etched the status. In Boston, the status led to the winning. There’s probably something of an egg and a chicken in all that. But the examples extend beyond those successful examples. In 2004, the Los Angeles Lakers unsuccessfully added Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the championship duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but that well was mostly dry already. Years later, the Lakers would try to prop open the Kobe window by bringing in Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, but that effort is mostly parodied by the Sports Illustrated cover that launched it. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen needed Dennis Rodman for that second three-peat. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played with talent. Bill Russell won with talent. Jerry West lost and won with talent.
Talent more than scheme or coaching is the surest bet to a legacy, and yet as Charles Barkley can attest, assembling talent is all about timing. And more to the point, how that talent is perceived has to do with not only the act of assembling but who is doing the assembling. Barkley is more likely to be chastised than Hakeem or Pippen, and the Lakers are more likely to receive a pass than the Nets.
There is a zero-sum game being played here between a handful of franchises, but to a large extent, that’s how the league’s history has unfurled. A franchise either has banners or it doesn’t.
The Nets have added Blake Griffin. They are adding LaMarcus Aldridge. They have an appetite for winning now, which makes sense because while not entirely ancient, none of this talent is entirely young either. Kyrie Irving is, after all, almost always ailing, always ruminating on the dimensions of space and time. But it’s difficult to feel like putting this team together can be explained by the nostalgia of getting the band back together. If this group is a band, then it’s something akin to The Traveling Wilburys, which is to say that all the parts were more fun and interesting on their own. The people will watch this because it’s Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Tom Petty all on stage together, but the very fact that all these players are here together in Brooklyn is a reminder that they are not with the Portland Trail Blazers, the Los Angeles Clippers or Detroit Pistons, the Houston Rockets, the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder. They feel a bit like imported merchandise. They feel a bit like they were lifted off a truck on the Jersey turnpike. They seem a bit too hungry and lean for men either in their thirties or approaching that mark. And yes, this is all clutching at pearls. But it’s a sadness too.
We’re watching this in a country that struggles to tell finished stories about coming of age. We think through James Dean lenses. We gravitate toward Tupac and Biggie. We miss the Ice Cube from Straight Outta Compton and Friday. Settling down and patient virtue make for quiet stories. If we’re playing the stock market, then let’s play it the way Martin Scorcese warned us not to. After all, we know how The Sopranos and Goodfellas end. We know how all these stories end. And we also know how in all these mob universes old guys are never really out of the game. A man can be covered in blood and reaching for his inhaler while driving his car into a billboard stanchion. Then he is removed from the board.
This can all end ugly, but it could be beautiful too. The Nets have assembled a lineup that resembles any Western Conference All-Star lineup from the last half-decade or so, and yet that’s exactly why their championship run is taking shape as a wild scene from The Jerk. Cloaked in an untied bathrobe and pants around the ankles, here are your Brooklyn Nets reaching for that paddle with a string leading to a red rubber ball. Here they are stretching for a lamp and a chair and whatever else they can grab. All they need is this. All they need is that. Happiness is just one more All-Star individual or former All-Star added to the roster. It’s buffoonery. It’s brilliance. It’s the end of history. It’s oil industry farce. And it’s perfect for the times in which we live. And love them or hate them, there is a reflection to be had.