At some point, the Brooklyn Nets stopped being fun.
This is not to say that the Nets of recent vintage were ever a League Pass must – at their zenith, they hemmed closer to Eastern Conference Good than Honest-to-God Good – but they, in some meaning of the word, mattered. They built a stadium in the heart of Brooklyn replete with an oculus and artisanal chocolate bars. In 2010, their new owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, a 6-foot-9 money silo who moonlights as Russia’s most eligible bachelor, famously declared that he expected a championship in “maximum five years.” Jay Z was a partial owner. They unveiled sleek black-and-white jerseys and a beautiful herringbone court. They refashioned themselves in a way that can best be described by their geographical shift: Newark to Brooklyn.
Then, in the summer of 2013, the Nets went for it. Following a surprisingly successful first season in Brooklyn, the Nets traded three first round picks and the control of another to the Boston Celtics for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (and Jason Terry and D.J. White) to add to their perpetually droopy-eyed core of Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and the ghost of Deron Williams. Equipped with a formidable roster, the Nets were on the brink of fulfilling their owner’s guarantee.
And now? Well, now they employ Andrea Bargnani, the human embodiment of flop sweat.
A team going all-in is one of the most exciting phenomena in sports, a tantalizing mix of confidence, hubris and plain old-fashioned chutzpah. In these teams, we see what we wish we could be – life is short and why can’t I be an astronaut? – but secretly know we never will. Sometimes, our dreams are validated (see: the Toronto Blue Jays mauling all of North America in the second half of the baseball season after trading for David Price and Troy Tulowitzki). Sometimes, the Nets happen.
Due to the natural disaster known as Billy King, the Nets have relinquished control of all of their first round draft picks until 2019 – two Olympics and a presidential election from now – to a staunch divisional rival. Cursed by their own overwhelming self-belief, the Nets pushed their proverbial chips to the center of the table. And intoxicated by the promise of parades down Atlantic Avenue and finally wresting New York’s attention from the Knicks’ perennial corporate sadness machine, the Nets traded the future for a fantasy of the present.
The Nets are the NBA’s Icarus.
Escaping the swampy Meadowlands/Newark axis – that grim, urban version of Daedalus’ Labyrinth – the Nets gleefully disregarded team-building palaver about the importance of draft picks and young talent and building from within. Freed from the Prudential Center, the Nets seemed invincible. Until their wings melted.
Much as Icarus hurtled to his watery death after flying too close to the sun, the Nets now start Jarrett Jack at point guard. But while Icarus’ tragic death was sudden and savage and his own gosh-darn fault for being such a blockhead, the Nets’ fall is nobler. Nobler because while some of the NBA resolves to not try at all (hello, Sam Hinkie), the Nets’ sole fault was that they tried too much. And in the end, isn’t ignominy better than anonymity?
The Nets are currently 0-7, with the potential to be 0 and much more. They have the second worst point differential in the league, being outscored on average by 12.4 points per game, and the second most abysmal offense, scoring only 93.7 points per 100 possessions – a rate so terrible that it causes actual physical discomfort if you think about it too long.
No player remains from that fateful trade with the Celtics: Paul Pierce lasted all of a single season before leaving for Washington and then Los Angeles to Ubuntu it up with his former Celtics coach, Doc Rivers. Kevin Garnett head-butted Brooklyn’s basket stanchions for a mere 18 months before being reunited with Minnesota. Jason Terry is now trash-talking random people, places and things in Houston and D.J. White is somewhere, I guess. Maybe China?
Still, although the Nets’ current roster now sports the likes of journeyman power forward Thomas Robinson and Shane Larkin’s eensy-weensy baby hands, hope still springs – if not eternal, than occasional – in Brooklyn. Brook Lopez has slowly rounded into one of the best overall centers in the NBA, complementing his antediluvian bag of post moves with a shockingly accurate jumper for a goofy colossus. The Nets also possess rafts of cap space this offseason, which, if used wisely (potentially one of the bigger ifs in the universe), could prove to be even more important. While the lure of Brooklyn might not be enough to attract Kevin Durant, it certainly provides two max contract-sized bundles of promise.
Now, three years after their defining move across the Hudson and East Rivers, the Nets find themselves pretty much exactly where they began: mired in sloggery, desperately, doggedly chasing glory. You can take the team out of Jersey, but you can’t take Jersey out of the team. No matter how high they fly.