He’s embarking on a familiar playbook for disgruntled stars who take PR hits en route to new teams: win, so your aims seem justified in the end. The strategy is rooted mostly in distraction. How many times can one mention how Harden arrived in Brooklyn in the midst of him racking up triple-doubles?
The weight gain, if it affected his game at all, gives him more girth to bully defenders, the kookiest example yet of what makes Harden such a confusing player and compelling character: He violates our conceptions of what it takes to succeed, the same way his new superstar teammates raise questions about the utility of victory.
When the Rockets gave Harden the open road, he pressed on the court like the buttons on a calculator, engineering a scoring formula that reoriented the NBA. Some thought he was cheating the game, messing with the zippiness inherent to its beauty — basketball is jazz, not math.
Harden reminds us that winning isn’t always pretty. He tricks defenders and scams refs. When he joined the Nets, their title odds jumped to +300, morphing his game from nuisance to existential threat.
Off the court, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving throw darts at mainstream sports values. They’ve hopped off teams they won championships with, suggesting winning isn’t in fact everything, posing uncomfortable questions about just what the hell it is that we’re all doing here.
You get the sense there is a subset of fans not only begging the Nets to fail, but considering their failure a fait accompli: karmic retribution from the basketball gods that will eventually restore order. For people who need winning to mean something, the answers the Nets provide aren’t the ones they’re looking for.
But toppling two MVPs and an All-Star won’t be easy. The Nets are going to be a — ahem — problem. In another time, they might have been perfect villains, forcing themselves into relevance — even ubiquity — by winning, by inspiring copycats.
But villains have gone out of fashion ever since NBA fans became self-aware. After the backlash and reexamination of LeBron James’ decision to join the Miami Heat, even people who didn’t like Durant joining the Golden State Warriors in 2016 were careful to say they also respected his right to make a decision for himself.
New eras beget new definitions. The Nets aren’t villains. They’re anti-heroes.
Durant bristled feathers by detonating a potential rivalry when he left the Thunder for the Warriors after losing to them in seven games in the 2015-16 Western Conference finals.
When he won a championship with the Warriors, he was open about the fact that it didn’t solve every problem in his life. Then he left the Warriors, detonating the dynasty, suggesting there is something worth chasing aside from the sheer pursuit of rings.
Irving did the same thing when he demanded a trade from Cleveland after winning his first championship. A full dissection of Irving’s recent sabbatical is a discussion for another day, but it suggests that for players — even a champion with clutch bona fides — some things do, in fact, take precedence over basketball.
For all the people who wish Irving and Durant would just suit up and shut up, and that Harden would stop flopping, there are those who find the questions they pose compelling — even necessary.
Harden fell out with Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Dwight Howard before cutting to the chase falling out with Houston. Irving and Durant won championships but frayed relationships. They are all searching for something, while everyone they leave behind watches, perplexed.
How can they seem to have everything yet dare to search for a better world? Are they even the ones they’re looking for? What would it mean for superstars who know winning isn’t everything to win?
First, the Nets need to adapt enough to win.
Durant doesn’t yet know when to help and when to hang back. Harden doesn’t know when to gang-rebound and when to run the break. Irving doesn’t know when to let the ball go.
These are just a few of the issues the Nets will have to navigate on their quest for refinement and victory. The results will reveal whether their pasts contained omens or lessons.
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