There was a moment when the Brooklyn Nets, having assembled an unstable yet white-hot core of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, appeared as if they might need only two of their three stars to win an NBA title. Or maybe just one-and-a-half: KD plus a gimpy Kyrie or Harden. This is not to discredit the eventual champion Bucks, but the Nets were almost certainly going to beat them in the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals before Kyrie blew out a tire midway through Game 4. As he entered the injury report, Harden was forced off it earlier than he would have liked, and played poorly and injuredly for the next three games. (We've seen Harden come up small in the postseason before. This wasn't exactly it. Dude was laboring.)
Even then, the Nets were KD's big toe away from taking the Bucks series in seven. Instead, they lost the deciding tilt in overtime, and though we didn't know it yet, that was the end of an extremely short era. Harden showed up for this season out of shape. Vax-free Kyrie hardly showed up at all. The trio logged 16 games together—not this season, but in total—before Harden was traded to the Sixers in February.
The Beard made the right call to flee for Philly. The outer borough vibes grew grimmer in his absence. Be careful of easy diagnoses, especially applied to teams that nobody likes, but: the Nets seem as if they were recently swept by the (by the way, dazzlingly locked-in) Boston Celtics in the opening round of the playoffs due to a bone-deep or perhaps cosmic apathy. A crisis of definition. How does an entity that doesn't truly feel like a basketball team win basketball games? Well, they don't.
Also Kevin Durant shot the ball terribly. Then Charles Barkley called him a "bus-rider," which no matter how correct or incorrect, contains the incontrovertible truth of an insult that lands flush. Durant tried to counterpunch, as only he and anyone else with a Twitter account can, by posting and—it's up to you what you make of it, but calling yourself "the god" after a 13-for-31 elimination game performance scans to me as a little bit embarrassing.
Meanwhile, Kyrie is fully off the rails, dabbling in racial critiques of the league and its captured media that would be somewhat valid if he weren't relaying them in his patented mystic first-year undergrad register, and pretty transparently using them to insulate himself from perfectly acceptable criticisms of his play and the fact that he left his team out to dry for most of the year because he wouldn't get a damn shot. He's not making much sense, because he doesn't think he's obligated to please anyone except himself. As ever with Kyrie, there are things to admire about him but they are all incidental to the larger fact that he's intensely self-absorbed and self-impressed and kind of a jerk. And erratic. I am not feigning concern here: he doesn't seem to be doing great, and if he were my friend, I would be texting to check in on his wellbeing.
[Here is where the paragraph on Ben Simmons would go, if he were an active NBA player.]
The Lakers didn't make the playoffs, and that was a relief, because they were nothing but a bundle of grievances and bruised egos by the end of the year. This Nets squad looked like they might get themselves together and definitively did not manage to do that. Like the Lakers, the news cycle will soon leave them behind, and focus more sharply on teams that are achieving stuff and learning new tricks and feeling good about themselves. How 'bout them Pelicans, huh?
The Nets' elimination is the exorcism of the last unpleasant thought from the NBA's collective consciousness. (Yes, okay: the Boston Celtics. You make a fair point.) This is not to sound like a late 90s columnist-crank complaining about the size of these young men's pants, but there is an irksome Misery Beat in the NBA. At any given time, half of the best 30 or so players in the league are Upset or Disrespected or flatly depressed for reasons that often read as bratty or insignificant. It is hard to be famous, and it is doubly hard, as many NBA stars are, to be Black in America, and labor is entitled to the full fruits of its work, but sometimes you do want to tell Dame Lillard to ask for a trade or shut up. The whinging and constant angle-working get aggravating. Complaints of the rich and talented, even valid ones, don't have purchase with regular people, who worry about rent and their jobs and whether they are worth anything at all.
We are getting down to, finally, the best part of the league calendar, when the games are too important for much of anything else to matter. We can simply enjoy ball, enthuse over dunks and get red-assed about pick-and-roll coverages. There is no melodrama, just investment in something essential and trivial and, at its best, deeply transporting. After the Warriors knocked off the Nuggets on Wednesday night, Draymond Green told Nikola Jokić that it was "an honor and pleasure to play against someone so skilled." It is satisfying, to know that sometimes players feel the same about playing as you do watching them, that simultaneously, you and Draymond might have the same thought: I'm glad I'm here, because this is a hell of a game.