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Even though the recently eliminated Brooklyn Nets rarely looked like contenders, many still thought of them as one. Why was that idea so hard to let go of?
In Game 2 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Brooklyn Nets demolished the Bucks 125-86, and I assure you the game was even more lopsided than that score makes it appear. Even without James Harden, that Nets team appeared unbeatable. They did not seem to run plays, operating in a structureless space where their freedom to create and innovate, based on whatever space the defense gave them, appeared limitless. And they were good enough to take full advantage of it. Watching it, it felt like a watershed moment for Brooklyn, the emergence of what had long been imagined and hoped for. It turned out to be an aberration instead, the high-water mark of this era of the Nets. Irving got injured and a not-fully-healthy Harden took his place and the Bucks won 4 of the next 5 games before going on to win their first title in 50 years.
You are probably aware of what has befallen the Nets since that series. Kyrie Irving refused to get vaccinated, making himself ineligible to play home games; James Harden asked for, and received, a trade; Joe Harris was lost for the season; Ben Simmons was acquired and was never able to suit up due to lingering back issues; Steve Nash never found it necessary to install a coherent offensive or defensive system. And yet, in spite of all that, the Bucks who defeated them last year, who are defending champions, still appeared to try to avoid them in the first round.
Entering the season, I thought the Nets would win the championship. I have not thought that for a while, but there was a time that I found their combined firepower impossible to argue against. In terms of pure, unadulterated basketball talent, one could have easily argued that the combination of James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving was the best trio of the last five decades. Such people might have been right, but that turned out not to matter.
Talking about this Nets team turns me into someone I don’t really recognize or like, someone who waxes poetic about “heart” and the need to “take charge,” about how important it is to have a “winner’s mentality.” And the thing is that, if pressed, I don’t think I believe any of those things, but when watching the Nets collapse, in spite of all that they could have been and all they were capable of, such bromides seem more immediately sensible than Kyrie and Durant just not being good enough to win a single playoff game. Even accounting for all the reasons this happened, it still does not seem to make immediate sense.
Whether you loved or hated these Brooklyn Nets, it was all hypothetical
This happens all the time. Many teams are better in theory than in practice. And also, this Nets team, despite the recent addition of Simmons is not particularly young and sometimes eras shift so subtly we can only recognize it in hindsight. Perhaps Tatum and Brown outplaying Durant and Irving so thoroughly is nothing but another version of Durant and his former teammate Westbrook taking down Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol on their way to the Finals in 2012. Maybe this all says more about the Celtics than the Nets, but even if that’s true, it still must say something about Brooklyn and its stars.
Looking ahead to next year, it’s not especially difficult to imagine a version of the Nets that could be what many imagined this year’s team would be. A team with a healthy Durant and Joe Harris, an available Kyrie, a rejuvenated Simmons, and at least one viable wing could be really good. The best possible version of this team remains tantalizing, but sometimes potential just goes unfulfilled.
If there is a lesson to be found here, it may be the value of not suspending one’s disbelief so easily. When stars join forces, their odds of winning a championship certainly tend to increase, but nothing is inevitable. When those teams do win titles, it is not only because of the heavy lifting done by the marquee players. It is also due to creative adjustments by coaches, bench players who can keep the team from falling in a hole when the stars sit, wings who can make three’s and big men who can protect the rim. These are the sorts of things that the Brooklyn Nets did not have.
No one should be surprised by the Nets’ shortcomings and early playoff exit. Nothing devolved inexorably from opening night to now. These things were always there, waiting to be exploited by a better, more well-rounded team. The lack of a coherent identity; the need for more depth; the disregard for defense; none of this was new. They did not emerge because of Boston’s performance; the Celtics merely exploited them. The idea of Brooklyn being a championship contender was always flawed. But that didn’t make it any easier to let go of.
I still think about that game against the Bucks sometimes and when I do, I get why so many continued to hold on to the idea of the Nets being a contender long after reality proved them not to be. One can only talk about how good a team will be “once they put it together” so many times before it becomes clear that they are indeed never going to put anything together. It’s just so easy to imagine what could be. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, no matter how cynical or hopeless one may be, there is often still some part that wants to not just hope for the best, but believe in it.