A building-sized billboard was erected in Times Square during the summer of 2010 large enough for any gawking tourist to spot. Mikhail Prokhorov, who’d recently bought the then-New Jersey Nets—a purchase that failed to put much of a dent into his Russian billions—posed next to fellow owner Jay-Z, though the rapper and mogul’s stake amounted to little more than a rounding error. Printed above their glowering, bespoke-suited mugs was the phrase: “the blueprint for greatness.”
The goal behind the signage, it seemed, was to seize control of the massive New York media market, which was ripe for the picking given the Knicks’ decades-long stretch of comic ineptitude. How many diehards ended up being swayed by the pitch is unknowable, but it did irk one easily triggered failson: Knicks owner James Dolan, who reportedly got Jay-Z himself on the blower to whinge about the invasive advertising strategy.
Three years later, the newly relocated Brooklyn Nets dealt away a king’s ransom to acquire the kind of high-profile stars that looked spiffy on a glossy magazine cover, but less so on court. Those aging greats failed to deliver anything beyond a single playoff series win, leaving the team with a gutted roster and little in the way of hope. Now, their brief history of trying to dominate the tabloids just like the Knicks is repeating itself.
In a trade that was made official on Thursday and initially reported by ESPN and The Athletic, the Nets sent away every single gosh-darned draft pick and pick swap in their quiver. A bounty of that size was required in order to wrestle James Harden from the Houston Rockets—one of the greatest scorers in the history of the game, a former MVP, and an at-times pouty, diva-ish weirdo.
He’ll be paired with Kevin Durant, one of the greatest scorers in the history of the game, former MVP, and an at-times pouty, diva-ish weirdo, whose inability to log off has meant creating burner accounts in order to respond to impolite social media missives sent by random strangers.
Also by their side is Kyrie Irving, a devastating scorer and ball handler, former All-Star Game MVP, and an at-times pouty, diva-ish weirdo who has been on a self-imposed sabbatical for the last week. During his downtime, he’s been spotted at a mask-free fete—an incident the NBA is reportedly investigating for violations of the league’s safety protocols—and a livestream hosted by a candidate for New York district attorney.
Collectively, the trio have made 24 all-star appearances, and, potentially, could form a terrifying, unguardable lineup, one that’ll haunt James Dolan’s sweatiest dreams forevermore. Even so, this best-laid plan undoubtedly will prove as effective as their giant billboard at peeling off the true believers.
The Daily Beast spoke with Desus and The Kid Mero, as dyed-in-the-wool a pair of Knicks fans as you’ll find. Does this trade mean Brooklyn has usurped the Knicks’ place atop the New York basketball food chain?
“Hell no,” Kid Mero said.
“Absolutely not,” Desus chimed in, amidst derisive laughter and mock disdain.
One other problem, which Desus and The Kid Mero noted: the history of teams importing stars to concoct a ready-built champion isn’t great—unless the star in question is LeBron James. It certainly hasn’t worked in New York City, where the Knicks have spent the entirety of their post-Walt “Clyde” Frazier glory days lusting for one savior after another and failing time and time again. Instead of shiny rings, they’ve built a perma-touring circus that’s racked up far more self-inflicted crises than they have trips to the playoffs.
No one doubts the abilities of the trio the Nets imported, and any one of them would rank as the greatest Knick since Patrick Ewing retired. But it’s hard to imagine three players for whom hounding by the drama-thirsty New York media will help matters. In fact, when it comes to press scrutiny, you couldn’t pick three worse candidates.
“In fact, when it comes to press scrutiny, you couldn’t pick three worse candidates.”
Harden, 31, has spent much of the offseason angling for an exit strategy from Houston. He took his grand time to report for the abbreviated training camp. and then sulked his way through a few desultory performances to start this season, all while appearing to have packed on a few pounds. His now ex-teammates didn’t seem particularly heartbroken at the thought of losing Harden, either. (The Rockets’ penurious, labor-quashing, and Trump-backing owner, Tilman Fertitta, may have also helped spur his desire to bail.) This summer, in the midst of the George Floyd protests, Harden was spotted wearing a “Thin Blue Line” mask. When asked whether his choice of protective gear meant he was advocating for far-right politics, Harden pleaded ignorance. “I thought it looked cool, that was it,” he said.
Speaking of masks, in late December a video of Harden having a grand ol’ time at a strip club in a mask-free environment was unearthed. (Harden denied it was a strip club, but the NBA still fined him $50,000 for violating COVID-19 safety protocols.)
For Durant’s part, there may be no NBA player suffering from a more crippling case of Extremely Online. Try as he might, the 32-year-old Durant either can’t or won’t unplug from “the machine,” as Durant described it. This infernal device exists only to concoct false narratives unfavorable to, say, the likes of Kevin Durant and is powered by those who have “pure hate for me obviously.” He’s devoted his energies to butting heads with Stephen A. Smith and Chris Broussard, and pitched a fit when asked by The Athletic about the (ultimately accurate) rumors that he wanted out of Golden State.
But even anonymous commenters are just as likely to get under Durant’s skin, like this rude teenager. These days, at least, Durant puts his own name on posts, after he was caught fabricating an online identity or two. (It’s worth noting that Durant’s extensive history of charitable efforts are worthy of serious praise, even if they’ve somewhat flown under the radar.)
Irving, 28, shares his teammates’ contentious relationship with the press. In an Instagram post, he announced that he’d be going radio silent for the duration of the season, writing “I do not talk to pawns.” Some of that animus dates back to the flack he received after revealing on a podcast that he was amenable to Flat Earth conspiracies. (Irving has since renounced those beliefs.)
A brief aside: Personally, I think Irving is a fascinating person. He embraced his Native American heritage, paid the tuition to send kids to HBCUs, and worked to get desperately-needed funds and PPE to indigenous people during the lockdowns. When the NBA was gearing up for its restart in a self-contained bubble in July, Irving suggested that maybe entertaining the masses wasn’t the best use of their political capital. “I don’t support going into Orlando. I’m not with the systematic racism and the bullshit,” he said. “Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.”
What if, Irving posited, he and his fellow stars instead seized control of the means of production and formed their own damn league. (The idea didn’t catch on.) Irving hasn’t abandoned his hard-line stance, either. As a former coach of his suggested, the decision not to charge the cop who shot Jacob Blake and the mob of far-right goons wielding flex cuffs and reportedly planting pipe bombs at the Capitol led Irving to believe his day job could take a back seat for a bit.
But sports fans—and bosses and the occasional sports media member—tend not to appreciate the subtleties of his position, or are willing to recognize that most workers, eight-figure paycheck or not, are desperately in need of time off to care for their mental well-being. Were Irving, like Dennis Rodman before him, the only wild card on the roster, it might be easier for the public to hand-wave away some of his eccentricities, but that luxury isn’t available in Brooklyn. Assuming, that is, Irving hangs around for the long haul. On Wednesday, just as the trade madness was unfolding—and at the same time as COVID-19 outbreaks were causing games to be cancelled and the president was being impeached for a second time—ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a cryptic tweet hinting that perhaps keeping Irving happy isn’t the team’s first priority.
Regardless of whether yet another blockbuster transaction comes to pass, there will be more gossip and sourced rumors about whether Irving still craves that spotlight that caused him to flee his partnership with LeBron James three years ago. Brows will furrow and wonder whether Durant, who similarly ditched the Warriors because of a multitude of perceived slights, had engineered Irving’s ouster, or Harden, who just completed a nine-year stretch in which the Rockets catered to his every whim, had grown antsy. A title won’t stop these questions from being asked, either, and directed toward the exact people who’ve proved they have little desire to entertain those queries at all.
And in the end, it may not matter. Durant, Harden, and Irving can all be slotted somewhere in any top 20 ranking of current NBA players. It’ll take some work to figure out exactly how these notoriously ball-dominant scorers can mesh or which one will have to sacrifice touches and do the dirty work in service of the greater good, sure. But talent tends to win out in the NBA, and may very well render all these issues moot.
Desus and Mero were quick to point out the flaws in the Nets’ cavalcade of stars, including Harden’s physical conditioning, comparing him to girthy retired power forward Big Baby Davis, and citing Irving’s protracted absence. Nor is The Kid Mero sold on the neophyte Nets head coach. “If Steve Nash wins coach of the year, I’m gonna light myself on fire,” he said.
The Nets’ won-loss record won’t move their or any other Knicks fan’s hearts and minds, either.
“Brooklyn is never ever going to run the city,” Desus said. “That’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever happening. Cause the facts don’t matter. No matter how stacked Brooklyn is, even if they win a championship, you have stuck, rigid New Yorkers who refuse to allow that to happen.”
“And we will always remember that the original name of the Nets is what? The New Jersey Nets,” he continued, answering his own rhetorical question. “We’re never calling them the Brooklyn Nets. Get on your fixie and get out of here, bro.”