I used to have a friend with a volatile immunodeficiency. This enthused him as often as it knocked him on his ass. He ran hot all the time, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that were dense as bricks, and weighed about 160 pounds. There were months when I didn't hear from him, because he was fevered and weak, and then he would get in touch and we'd drink from nine until four a.m. If the night terminated in his kitchen, us careering across our stupor with his needy old corgi in tow, he would show me the latest "cures" he was developing: concentrates of roots and herbs, designed to keep his sudden inflammations in check. He had prescribed medication, too, but liked to see what he could whip up that helped or, on some occasions, made things worse. His body was a forum for experimentation. He had an impersonal understanding of himself. "I am—we all are, really—just fluctuating chemistry," he told me one late night, splashing a ginger tonic he had made into some Tito's. It's possible I'm misquoting him. I was blitzed and my relationship wasn't going well at the time. I was thinking mostly of myself: a unified whole I insist upon, and can't escape.
I didn't argue with him, because I didn't feel like arguing. And because I wasn't sure he was wrong.
A basketball team is an agglomeration of replaceable parts. That is especially true now, with player movement as fluid and frequent as it is, especially among older stars, and with the game having been thoroughly made over by the positional and analytics revolutions. Executives are alway searching for lineup tweaks and the talent is always scanning the horizon for its next opportunity. This is not to be naïve or nostalgic; the forces of self-interest have shaped basketball from the moment it transformed from a pastime into a business, and the fact that labor has slowly come to realize what the richest folks involved in the enterprise have known for a long time is a good thing, generally, but it has destabilized the product. The experience of following the NBA remains elemental—basketball, as a physical and artistic expression—but it is as much about charting the flow of its big and lesser names to new cities, the cheap joy of a toddler watching his toy splinter against a table's edge, the stress of lineups congealing too slowly against a short clock, as anything else. The differences between squads, from one season to the next, are not often subtle.
Kevin Durant wants out of Brooklyn, that project having disintegrated due to the fact that he chose to join with a pair of immaculately skilled guards who are nonetheless flakes even by modern star standards. Durant himself is fickle and shortsighted and a little bit tragic, the second-best player of his generation searching in vain for a single achievement that will certify him, in some cosmic sense. These are easy things to observe, from the audience's perspective. The scrutiny of millions will make anyone seem foolish. Perhaps Durant knows it too: that he isn't going to attain what he's searching for. But what is he supposed to do? Carry the Nets to their inevitable second-round playoff exit? He's at the stage of his career where there is no resolving all the contradictions he's accrued. Maybe fleeing to Boston is the least imperfect solution.
That move would involve Jaylen Brown heading in the other direction. You'll get pushback on that, from a certain segment—perhaps even a majority—of Celtics fans. Because every town overvalues its own players, and because younger guys, with their still-theoretical ceilings and surfeit of remaining years, are prized more highly than older ones. Fans are greedy, and they're sentimental. At any given time there are, to hear partisan optimists tell it, three or four nascent NBA dynasties that just need another year of development and maybe a long-limbed wing who can hit threes. Reality—bad injury luck, underperformance, regression, personality conflicts, coaching incompetence, brutal refereeing, contract disputes, a deteriorating supporting cast, a Game 7 where everything breaks wrong—buries nearly every one of them before they win even one title. But they are nice to think about, and it feels somehow more virtuous to win with a core your front office drafted than with hired guns. Is Jaylen Brown—a very good player—going to become Kawhi Leonard and make four straight Finals alongside Jayson Tatum? Probably not. But you can talk yourself into it, as much of New England has.
I also think there might be a deeper desire at work, among that crowd. Let's not get too bogged down in specifics and hypotheticals. (Is Brown on his way out of Boston in a year or two anyway? Will Durant, who's 33 going on 34, start to decline next season?) Let's oversimplify and just say that swapping Brown (plus whatever) for Durant significantly increases the chances that the Celtics will win a championship in the immediate future. On its face, that's a great and interesting trade. It would be satisfying, after years of Danny Ainge's weirdly boastful post-deadline radio appearances about all the consequential moves he almost made, to see the Celtics say to hell with sustainability and promise and announce that they are trying to win right now. It could work out perfectly. If you're going to attach your hopes to any basketball player on the planet, it might as well be Kevin Durant.
Yet if Brad Stevens were to make that decision, it would be a kind of concession. (I would perceive it that way. I guarantee you Brad Stevens doesn't remotely care.) It is hard for a squad to slowly form an identity in 2022. This isn't to say it doesn't happen, but that the cultural and market incentives push personnel deciders toward drastic changes. You chop and change, you hunt for unhappy stars. You work every angle. That's how you win. A basketball team is an agglomeration of replaceable parts. Is that what the Boston Celtics are? Under the right amount of pressure, assuredly, but up until now they have been a collective of intertwining and expanding abilities. On more human terms: a bunch of people improving, and learning to become a collective unit. Making memories, etc. They are in time more fully becoming themselves. That process isn't done. If they interrupt it for an all-timer who is himself incomplete, who has in his unhappy thrashing about cursed himself terminally incomplete, nobody will blame them. Imagine Kevin Durant scoring 48 points in a decisive game. You get the point.
You won't be surprised to learn I've dabbled in psychedelics. Most of the time it has been mild nausea, laughing stupidly in strange poses. Once, though, I took a pair of acid tablets on a Friday afternoon and went to goddamn Jupiter. I became a mute witness to a vibrating, melting, exploding world. I ceased, as mawkish as it sounds, to be myself at all. I was a bundle of sensation. Thoughts seemed to arrive from without me, the way David Lynch talks about inspiration. I'm not claiming this was profound, but it did lay bare the malleability of the human brain, that you locate yourself within whatever phenomenon is currently assaulting your consciousness. You hope, on a good day, that it's nothing stronger than a wistful dream you can shake off by mid-morning. But I am, personally, moody as hell and frequently subject to psychic forces I don't grasp, that I can't overcome. My day often consists of trying, unsuccessfully, to defeat a default state of boredom and depression. You shouldn't speak. You shouldn't try. Nothing is interesting. Nobody likes you. This is not the template you'd build for yourself, if you were trying to get anything done. I wish I weren't like this. Finally you arrive, you hope you do, at a willingness to change, but change what exactly? Your chemistry. Through drugs or therapy or art or exercise or the force of your own thinking. You want badly to have agency in this process. At best, you're a coauthor of your experience. Kevin Durant knows as much, in his bones. The Celtics might soon have their illusion shattered as well. There's a chance they'll find it very rewarding.