Choosing a favorite episode of Seinfeld is like choosing the worst Knick point guard this century. It’s impossible to settle on one. But certainly one of my favorite episodes is when perennial sad sack George decides to do the opposite of every instinct he’s ever had. Instead of being an insecure neurotic unemployed bald man who lives with his parents, George becomes confident; brash, even. He dates Melanie Griffith’s sister, who is way out of his league. He threatens two rude movie-goers, earning applause from the rest of the theater. He even tells off George Steinbrenner while interviewing with the Yankees, earning himself the job.
On the other hand, Elaine, usually a pretty put-together character, turns into George. She loses her job, she starts dressing down. Her boyfriend dumps her after realizing that upon her hearing he’d been hit by a car and hospitalized she bought candy. As one character goes up, the other goes down. Speaking of which . . .
The Brooklyn Nets are in a bad way at the moment. I hesitate to throw dirt on their grave, since Sean Marks is still in power (for now?), the same Marks who led them through their 40 years in the desert — the years after the infamous Celtics trade that left the Nets bereft of wins, draft picks or hope — to a respected outfit league-wide, then to the cusp of the promised land after adding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
You may recall some degree of gloating directed by Nets fans and the national media at the Knicks, the long-rumored front-runner for those two talents. The consensus in that summer of 2019 was we’d witnessed a seminal moment in a budding rivalry. What if we did, only we read it wrong? What if the Nets were the Knicks that day, and the Knicks came out ahead?
Since their last championship in 1973, the Knicks have been starchasing. Bob McAdoo, Bernard King, Patrick Ewing were primitive examples of this lust; this century’s seen Antonio McDyess, Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, KD and Kyrie continue this grand empty tradition. Too often New York defined success as landing the biggest name or best resume in the deal, ignoring either the player’s age, injury history, or fit with the roster they’re being added to, and damn the torpedoes, the draft picks and the cap space.
When the Nets landed Durant and Irving, they didn’t simply add two players to their team. They knew KD wouldn’t be able to play in 2020 after rupturing his Achilles in the 2019 Finals. Still, to land Durant meant paying him $37M to not play for a year, then hoping that on the wrong side of 30 he’d show no ill effects after suffering the most dangerous injury a basketball player can. They also had to sign Kyrie, as a two-for-one package. In eight seasons with Cleveland and Boston, Irving missed 15, 23, 11, 7, 29, 10, 12 and 15 games.
Winning with a couple of max players means you have to have bargains elsewhere. The Nets had one in Jarrett Allen, a 2017 1st-round pick who earned about $6M over three years in Brooklyn before blossoming into an All-Star . . . in Cleveland. JA wasn’t with the Nets anymore because acquiring KD and Kyrie required more than the huge deals they received. Their boy DeAndre Jordan was a free agent too, and despite his having cycled through so many half-lives he pro’ly sweats radioactivity, Brooklyn gave him a four-year deal for $40M. DAJ saw action in all of 113 games with the Nets, two fewer than Rodions Kurucs among Nets all-time.
In isolation, these moves are all moves you “of course” make. If you can get a Durant for three years, go on and pay for four. It’s worth it. Yeah, Kyrie seems pretty unreliable on and off the court, but how often does a talent like that, in his prime, present itself? Sure, losing Allen stunk, but he could make 4-5 more All-Star teams and still not approach the magnitude of greatness that are Durant and Irving. Maybe if that was where the madness stopped, it’d be a different story. It didn’t.
Because the Nets went all-out and traded Allen, Kurucs, Caris LeVert and draft picks and swaps all the way through 2027 to Houston for James Harden. So what if Harden was also 30+ and had earned a rep as the antipode of Charles Atlas? So what if he quit on Houston while a Rocket, telling the press after a loss to the Lakers his team (and by extension teammates) were “just not good enough.” Was he wrong? No. Was he right to say it out loud? Maybe the better question is “Was it helpful to say it out loud?” Not for his teammates. But it was for Harden: soon enough he was on his way to Brooklyn.
It never seemed like the Nets’ biggest need after adding KD and Kyrie was “scoring,” which is Harden’s whole schtick. But once again, they’d nabbed the biggest name/resume in a trade. The jokes kept coming at the Knicks’ expense: New York is still questing for one superstar when baby brother’s sporting an embarrassment of riches. Ultimately, though, with great power comes great pressure, and by the end of last season the only embarrassment was Brooklyn crashing and burning out of the first round, swept by the same Celtics they infused with life via the Pierce/Garnett trade lo those many years ago.
Harden ended up asking for and receiving a trade about a year after the Nets landed him. Never forget that fact: when it’s all said and done, James Harden seems far and away the most sane and reasonable person in all of this Brooklyn drama. The Harden trade brought the Nets Ben Simmons, who played as many games last year as Walt Frazier.
In the three years after they won the back pages, the Nets got 90 games out of Durant, who now says either the coach and GM gotta go or he does. They got 103 from Irving, who doesn’t talk to pawns but who’s hardly resembled a grandmaster this offseason, first receiving clearance to look for a deal elsewhere, only to encounter a league mostly uninterested in the cost of signing or trading for him. Whatever message Irving wanted to send to the Nets and the world evaporated in the face of losing $30M dollars. Before the Nets worried about how often they’d have him around. Now they wonder when they can be free of him.
That same summer the Knicks signed Julius Randle and Marcus Morris, the latter of whom was traded months later for the draft pick that eventually basically become Immanuel Quickley. Since then, Randle’s played 207 games and 7291 minutes for New York, for a total of $57M; the Nets got 193 games and 6839 minutes from their Dramatic Duo. Randle cost the Knicks $57M those three years; KD and Kyrie combined to earn $217M over the same span.
Is Randle on KD or Kyrie’s level? No. Is Jason Alexander on his best day anywhere near as lovely as Julia Louis-Dreyfus? Of course not. But it’s always good to remember that for as long as humans have existed, they’ve warned one another about how chasing monsters leads to us becoming monsters. The Knicks didn’t land the biggest names, no. The Knicks also aren’t the ones being victimized for doing so, for once. The Nets, for all their sound and fury, end up signifying nothing the Knicks hadn’t already taught us years ago. For all the hype, the Nets, like Seinfeld, look likely to end up a show about nothing.