If you write about sports for any length of time you’re going to end up being wrong a lot. It’s the nature of making analytic or predictive statements about what are functionally games of chance, however much skill is involved. The body is an unreliable mechanism and the ball bounces as it will – basketball being, after all, not a problem to be solved. Yet one may lose oneself regardless and proclaim something in a moment of rapture that looks foolish in more somber moments. We’ve all had the equivalent of seeing Brandon Jennings score 55 points in a November game, declaring the Rookie of the Year race over, and then seeing him finish third in voting a few months later. These things happen.
All of this is to say that during the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals, I wrote a piece for this site about how the Brooklyn Nets had “solved basketball.” I wrote of their astonishing performance in Game 2 of their series against the Milwaukee Bucks. They played one of the most perfect games I ever expect to see, making the eventual champions look for one night like an overmatched group of amateurs. Even without James Harden, who missed the game due to injury, the Nets, led by Kyrie Irving and Kevn Durant looked unbeatable. But it was a mirage. That was as good as it was ever going to get. Irving got injured; Harden came back and was ineffective with his hamstring injury; the Nets lost in 7.
It is hard to recall or imagine a greater waste of talent in NBA history. Durant and Harden were both former league MVPs, perennial All-NBA Team members, while Irving remains the possessor of perhaps the greatest collection of moves in league history. Future generations of fans will be shocked to discover that all three were teammates and achieved so little. And the reasons they failed to are both so understandable – injuries keeping them from all playing together for any length of time – and so absolutely stupid – Kyrie’s refusal to get a COVID vaccine keeping him off the floor and playing a decisive role in Harden asking to be traded elsewhere.
Such duality underpins practically everything about their brief existence. They were a massive disappointment, yes, but also so transcendent for brief moments. When I think back to that rapturous piece on the Nets, my first thought is not about how wrong I was, but how right it seemed – how, in that moment, it felt like watching an unstoppable force emerge, one not even at full strength. It wouldn’t seem like such a disappointment if not for the magic that preceded the trio’s final dissolution.
The reasons for the team’s failure may have been inherent to the whole project. Perhaps I was foolish for ever buying in, but I know what I watched that night. The team swung from intriguing to awe-inspiring to depressing from night to night. I remember how dominant they looked, how elemental they made everything – destroying teams not through superior tactics but through the brute force of their ability to weave through their defense and reliably make shots that few others can convert one time out of five. And yet, that surplus of talent was not enough to outweigh the messiness of one’s own body and emotions.
Part of their failure may be attributed to forces beyond their control. Their 2021 Playoff hopes were dashed due to injuries to Harden and Irving that left Durant to battle against the future champion Bucks on his own. And even then, Durant was so overpowering that he was almost enough. But more than that, there was the combustibility of these personalities. Each laid back on the surface, though all three quick to arousal, providing variations on the type of person who claims to hate drama, all the while oblivious to the outsized role they play in creating this selfsame drama. You could call them particular, temperamental, moody, or impossible depending on your vantage point and level of sympathy. Regardless, combining three such persons and keeping each happy is bound to be a tricky maneuver in the best of situations and this was not the best of situations.
The irony of the whole thing is that Durant and Irving were initially drawn to Brooklyn, at least in part, because of the culture that management had built there. Yet their presence helped show how fragile that edifice was. Sean Marks and Joe Tsai gave them all the freedom they could have asked for but that quickly became untenable. But then, when they tried to reassert themselves and gain some semblance of control back, the precedent had been set and the stars bristled against such heavy-handedness. The game had already been lost. The Nets spent so much time figuring out how to attain their stars that they never gave enough thought on how to maximize their presence.
And so Durant and Irving have both found themselves scattered to the south, forced to play in a situation not of their choice but of their making. Their talent undimmed by the misspent years in Brooklyn, but separated, unable to continue the shared journey they hoped to take together when they joined forces in 2019. I will not mourn the Nets – and there is a part of me that feels relief knowing it’s all over – but I do nevertheless feel deprived not getting to see them do more together. I think of them at their best and remain awed, enraptured by a sort of perfectly played basketball that is so rare to witness. And yet that aforementioned duality remains: In light of the talent they had it remains disappointing they were not able to do more with it, but considering the personalities involved, neither is it surprising.