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Cutting down the Nets

Little man got what’s coming to him.

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at New York Knicks Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

When the Brooklyn Nets were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics, it completed one of the most stunning collapses in sports history. That’s neither hate no hyperbole speaking. It’s truth. It’s one thing to be the 2021 Nets, a title favorite who lost in the second round — that’s disappointing, but not unheard of. The 2022 Nets entered the season as the prohibitive favorite, entered the playoffs with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both playing and Ben Simmons available any minute now, and did not win one. Single. Flipping. Game.

There is another team ‘round these parts that didn’t win a playoff game this year. Yet I suspect most Knicks fans will sleep well tonight, whereas Nets fans, if there were any, might have a hard time finding peace. It’s understandable. 33 months ago, Durant and Irving teamed up in Brooklyn after a calendar year of speculation they’d land in Manhattan. Supposedly this was the day a rivalry was born. Instead what entered the world was a yin yang of ironies that bound the teams in mutualistic misery. In other words, the Knicks and Nets aren’t rivals. They’re family — and not in the good way.

For much of my life, the Nets were my second-favorite team. Going back to Dražen Petrović and Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, Tate George and Chris Morris and pre-OAKAAKUYOAKs Chris Childs and Chris Dudley, Keith Van Horn and Jayson Williams and Lucius Harris . . . they were always likable, in a totally non-threatening way. Then came the yin, which led to the yang.

The Knicks hit (what we naively thought at the time had to be) a low point in the early-to-mid 2000s, at which point the Nets peaked. Jason Kidd whupped the Knicks’ butts on the regs those years, which might not have stung so much if it didn’t give a couple of Arby’s in Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson the unearned confidence to act like they were Five Guys. The Nets didn’t try to hide the joy they took in pummeling the Knicks in addition to putting them down, which was always weird. If the Knicks were a joke, how much pride could you take from besting them? Apparently a LOT.

The Nets moved to Brooklyn, a move I think many Knicks fans liked. The city deserves two NBA teams, and with Brooklyn a much sexier foil than New Jersey it’s better for the Knicks to have competition right next door. There was a hint of how obnoxious the interborough interlopers could be during the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett years, but after Durant and Irving signed the obnoxiousness was on steroids.

Frank Isola was his typically measured self after the Crooklyn Coup:

“ . . . the Knicks, who have experienced unprecedented failure over the last two decades, suffered one of the biggest defeats in franchise history. Free agents Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are coming to New York to play together for the Brooklyn Nets. Repeat that and remind yourself that the so-called other team in town detonated the Knicks’ free agent plans over a couple of incredible hours on June 30th. The Nets essentially played the role of Lucy as she pulls the football away from the Knicks’ Charlie Brown as he’s about to kick it. Never before has Brooklyn looked so hip. The Knicks, who talk all the time of creating a culture, developing players and having a bright future, lost Irving and Durant to the Nets, who under general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson actually did create a culture, developed players and made the playoffs. One franchise talks a big game. The other has a plan and executes it.”

Let’s look at that execution.

In year one of their utopia, the Nets spent about $69M on KD and Kyrie. They got 20 games from them, combined, all Kyrie while Durant recovered from tearing his Achilles. Last year, for nearly $74M, Irving and Durant played 89 games between them. This year, $77M bought 84 games. For a quarter of a billion dollars over three seasons, that’s 193 of a possible 472 games played for KD and Kyrie. What part of culture is showing up?

Ahh, but only loser teams hang banners for regular-season feats. Maybe the mom-and-pop Madison Avenue franchises still get hot for counting stats like wins and playoff seeding, but over at One Future Drive the Nets are revolutionizing the corporate paradigm via analytics and microdosing retreats in order to vertically integrate the optimization of their hermeneutic hegemony. Unfortunately, Brooklyn seems to have been a little too busy planning their championship acceptance speech to actually win the role, or even come close. Look at what the Nets have (or haven’t) done the past three years.

The Nets haven’t won a title. Haven’t reached a Finals. Haven’t reached a conference finals. Haven’t won the division. Haven’t won 50 games in a season. After winning six of their first seven playoff games under Steve Nash, they’ve dropped eight of nine.

Imagine the Knicks landing Durant and Irving and having that same resume three years into the run. Imagine the heat they would catch. You don’t have to imagine. You don’t have to be old enough to remember the Silver Age, or even the Golden Age twenty years prior. Think back to this year. The Knicks got more heat for missing the play-in than the Nets will for following up a nightmare regular season with a somehow even worse postseason.

This is what makes the treatment of the Nets by the media and the worst of Nets Twitter so insufferable. Since they arrived in New York City, and there’s no consensus on that chronology — is it when they acquired Pierce and KG? Is it when Sean Marks took over the front office? The day Durant and Irving signed? — the Nets have enjoyed the best of both worlds. They get the prestige and clout of being an NYC team with none of the suffocating pressure and saturating attention that comes with having an actual fan base. They’re like Blade, the daywalker: all the vampires’ strengths, none of their weaknesses.

This isn’t meant as a continued dig at the number of Net fans (maybe a little). It’s just going back to the J-Kidd Nets, it’s hard to stomach someone talking about you like you’re the dirt underfoot while literally jumping through hoops to make sure no one watching can mistake what a big deal it is for them to best you. That’s the Nets dilemma: they’ve been better run than the Knicks for decades. Even after being swept in the first round, they’re much better than the Knicks. And yet nobody cares, and should next year turn out anything like the last three, being forgotten will be the best-case scenario for NYC’s #2 NBA team.

As for the Knicks, being an older sibling can’t not be weird after you’ve been the only child for like 65 years. Unless we want to be miserable every time the Nets are any good, we have to come to grips with the fact that they will always be the smaller act, and as such will always be treated differently. This isn’t like other city sports dynamics. The Mets don’t have the Yankees’ history, but for about 20 years Queens was where more people came to the ballpark. The Mets have given New York two miraculous championships. Mr. Met is adorable. The city’s other orange and blue boys have a set niche, especially in a city whose National League bonds go back more than a century.

Even in hockey, with three teams, the boundaries are natural: Long Island, New Jersey, NYC. Plus the Islanders and Devils have both won more Stanley Cups than the Rangers since joining the NHL. They’ll never be the Blueshirts, but they have domains of their own. The Nets don’t. Brooklyn is now known more for losing than for anything else. NYC’s notoriously “What have you done for me lately?” What KD did in Oklahoma City in 2012 or Irving did in Cleveland in 2016 is bupkis.

Three years and a quarter billion dollars later, with Durant now signed to an even-larger extension and Irving up for one soon, Brooklyn’s hype train is in danger of falling short of its final destination. Already outside their control: their story’s being written, before it’s even finished (a city that never sleeps is forever in need of what to read to keep it awake). Around here if you promise the moon and can’t get off the ground, no one is going to pat you on the head for trying your best, or because you did it once before, somewhere else. Around here if you paint yourself as a culture-builder, then immediately upon establishing said culture fire the coach and trade away youngsters you developed within that culture to turn it over to a couple of fully-formed stars who prefer their head coach be less a coach than a vessel for the infinite, people will love the story of the chance you’re taking. If you lose, they’ll point and laugh you out of town.

Welcome to New York.