This has been a haunted Nets season, plagued by the sense that the real Nets are lurking just off screen. For 82 games, the Nets were largely uninspiring, slouching into the play-in game with a 44-38 record. Before the franchise-rearranging James Harden trade, the Nets’ Big Three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden never shared the court together this year; after the franchise-rearranging James Harden trade, Ben Simmons, the newest tine of the team’s Big Three, has been sidelined by some combination of back problems and his own neuroses. Despite boasting a point differential that lags behind the Cavaliers and Hawks, the Nets still have the third-best title odds, according to Draftkings. This is a juggernaut that’s simply waiting for the right time to unveil their juggernaut-ness, or so people say.
But the Nets have Durant and Irving, so there’s a very real chance that nothing else matters. While other teams certainly have superstar duos, Durant and Irving are unique in their capacity to create self-sustaining offense; no matter the circumstance, they’ll be able to create—and make—a shot. They’re capital-h Hoopers, in the purest, most empirical sense, shot-makers who thrive because of their skill and savvy rather than through brutish force. Durant, in particular, conveys the sense that he’s mastered basketball— Durant may not necessarily be the best basketball player in the world, but he’s the player who’s best at basketball. When Durant and Irving play together, the Nets score 125.39 points per 100 possessions, which is basically impossible; you could put the late-season Portland Trail Blazers in an empty gym and they’d struggle to equal that mark.
In this sense, the Nets represent the NBA’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. At a time where players have bent franchises into their own personal concierge service and Adam Silver is begging players to, you know, play, the Nets are a monument to the aloofness of the NBA’s superstar class. Although he finally became a full-time player last month, Irving essentially disqualified himself from 53 games because he felt like it; Durant wantonly misses regular season games to preserve his knees and legs, which maintain a fragile, precarious equilibrium like a Calder mobile. A team with as much talent as the Nets should challenge for the league’s best record, but the Nets treated the last 82 games with such contempt that they still have to scrap just to make the playoffs. Notably, Harden, a player who isn’t exactly known for his professionalism, became so fed up by the Nets’ organizational moodiness that he forced a trade out of Brooklyn, just a year removed from forcing a trade to the Nets.
But still, the Nets are capable of playing such magnificent basketball that all this bullshit is worth it; it makes sense why the Bucks flagrantly tanked out of a top-two seed to avoid playing the Nets in the first round. Whereas Durant and Irving are the load-bearing elements of the Nets’ goodness, the Nets are so potent because of the different ways that their bench and supporting cast can be deployed around them. Seth Curry and Patty Mills are elite shooters who expertly slip into the defense’s blindspots for open threes; Andre Drummond gives them the interior heft to tussle with the likes of Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo; Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton are shots of adrenaline, jolting the team into action with their athleticism and motor. At their best, the Nets can assume a kind of amoebic quality, rearranging themselves around their nuclear star duo.
As such, thinking about the Nets requires ambivalence. This is a mostly mediocre team that deserves to be the seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs; this might be also the best team in the NBA. While there’s been some grumbling about this year marking the end of the superteam era, the Nets are proof otherwise—a less super team would’ve never been able to weather a season this messy and dumb. The Nets only withstood Kyrie Irving's galactic, unvaccinated weirdness because they had Kevin Durant and James Harden; they only stayed afloat after the James Harden trade because they had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
By doing so, the Nets proved that they're practically too big to fail, free to mop and pout and fight through the season because they hold the promise that they can access a level of basketball so transcendent that everything else melts away. At least, that's been the company line. But with the team staring down the ignominy of possibly missing the playoffs, the Nets are running out of time to realize their purported potential. Eventually, this team will make good—unless they don’t. Famously, Godot shows up at the end and justifies all that waiting, right?