The Brooklyn Nets have the 27th most difficult remaining schedule, and it would be a pretty good time for them to start winning. Since Kevin Durant returned to the lineup last week, they haven’t done that yet, and are currently on a four-game losing streak. Their window to win their way out of the play-in cohort may have just closed, with the six-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers now 5.5 games ahead, which is quite the gap to make up with just 17 contests left.
Winning enough to stay ahead of the 11th place Washington Wizards and guarantee themselves some taste of playoff action is not a high bar to clear, and the Nets probably will. But getting into the top half of the play-in bracket, where they can secure themselves the opportunity at a seven-game series with a single victory, should be the bare minimum for such a talented group. Talent, though, has run into many obstacles in Brooklyn this season, and that gauntlet of annoyances is not even yet over.
Durant has missed 27 games, and at least that brand of adversity seems to be at an end for them. But Kyrie Irving remains a part-time player because of his thoughts about medical science, having competed in just 16 of 65 Nets games. The recently acquired Ben Simmons has played in none, either for the Nets, or the Philadelphia 76ers before them. Citing back soreness, the Nets are keeping Simmons off the floor seemingly until at least after they’ve traveled to Philadelphia for a much-hyped post-trade grudge match.
It’s hard to blame Simmons for not wanting to face an army of haters that takes its orders from the most bilious of sports radio, podcast, and social media freaks, especially given how much time they have spent fixating on his likeness as the chief target for their emotional mayhem. Passionate, big-city fanbases that haven’t won a title in around four decades can be a scary thing; hang around outside one of those stadiums after a bad loss, do a tally of how many of the people walking out appear ready to put their whole body into a fight, and then ask yourself how many thousands of those fellows you feel comfortable failing in front of.
It’s one of the least desirable homecoming scenarios any of us can recall. But the Nets need Simmons, and soon; and, given the way the seeding landscape is looking, they may need him for a full series against Philadelphia this April. He is too good of a defender, pace-pusher, rebounder, and all-around physical force to leave on the shelf for much longer. And the Nets have to have Simmons, Durant, and Irving together on the floor with the supporting cast for at least a handful of tune-up games before they enter do-or-die territory.
If they can achieve that much, and if the combined talents are anything on the hardwood like they are on paper, the Nets could enter the postseason as arguably the most potent low-seed contender we’ve ever seen. The odds are much more strongly on the side of this year’s campaign being a doomed affair—it’s just too hard to figure out so much stuff, so quickly—but if Durant’s inspired, nearly successful one-man army display against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks last year is any indication, then Simmons, Irving, and the rest of the team only need to do so much to give their generational star the opportunity to lift them through the muck that remains.
Winning big on the heels of such a sloppy season would, in some ways, be the ultimate validation of Durant’s unusual sensibility, and the very public struggle he has had with his fame and with the paradox of choice granted to him by how coveted his talents are. After leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the everything buffet and choosing maybe the greatest team ever in the Golden State Warriors, Durant found himself oddly unsatisfied, and pivoted to Brooklyn where he and his friend Irving could construct a contender in their own way.
The third member of their trio, James Harden, left for Philadelphia in a style equally comic and dramatic, and now Simmons and Irving make for a duo that leaves Durant with little predictability. It’s all been par for the course for a Nets era that, mostly by coincidence, seems built in the emotionally ramshackle vein of Durant’s id; here is a man who, for all his talent and all his achievements, seems to be the most tormented NBA star we’ve seen since Jerry West. His championships with the Warriors did not fill the hole in him, and were largely clean, surgical, undoubtable things—not at all similar to the turbulent, often star-crossed arc his career has taken since. Getting a Larry O’Brien trophy with the Nets, this way, with a couple of befuddling super-talented misfits, would be a truer, more triumphant expression of the fascinating human we have watched Durant become.