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NBA

The Nets Are Trying To De-Knick New York

James Harden #13, Kevin Durant #7, Joe Harris #12, and Jeff Green #8 of the Brooklyn Nets walk onto the court during the second half against the Orlando Magic at Barclays Center on January 16, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Nets won 122-115. James Harden #13, Kevin Durant #7, Joe Harris #12, and Jeff Green #8 of the Brooklyn Nets walk onto the court during the second half against the Orlando Magic at Barclays Center on January 16, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Photo: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

There is an unbearable process to determine which teams that get to be popular and teams that don’t, and the proof is this: “The [league] is always better when [team] is winning.” For stupidity, arrogance and gasbaggery in a Derrick Henry-thick braid, it’s hard to top that one, especially when you combine it with “[Such and what] is the greatest thing I’ve seen in my life,” as though your life is some kind of useful metric we should all acknowledge, when in fact it’s an admission that you can’t be bothered to look anything up to see where your valueless opinion fits with verifiable deeds.

Case in point: the new and seemingly improved Brooklyn Nets, who just presented the James Harden/Kevin Durant version of the superteam’s superteam Saturday night, and are expected to heal the often irremediable Kyrie Irving for the full effect Monday evening against the Milwaukee Bucks. At that point, one would think, the Nets will become the most interesting team in New York, whether for those who will be enraptured by the hot new menu item or those who want to explode so thoroughly that the shrapnel will rain down in southeast Rochester.

Yet I am reliably informed by those who live there that under no circumstances will the Nets ever matter more in New York than the Knicks because of the divine right of kings or some other archaic statute. By this theory, even the fractional solution that Saturday night produced a 32-12-14 triple-double from Harden and 42 in 40 minutes by Durant in a 122-115 win over Orlando will not have caught the same level of imagination than a Knicks team that is crafting its usual early-season losing streak (currently at five) and has the worst cumulative record of any NBA team in this century. Even if the nation’s media are captivated by the new league of extraordinary gentlemen, locally the Knicks matter more even in an era in which the Nets normally do make the playoffs and the Knicks don’t.

It’s a battle we saw engaged in Los Angeles between 2014 and 2019 where the Lakers remained the dominant species even though they lost more than 125 more games than the Clippers. In that case, the Clippers took that six-year window and not only won no titles to speed the diminution of the status quo, but became the team most likely to need an emergency tracheotomy more often than any other team in sport. Surrender followed soon after, and now the Lakers have LeBron James and a championship. The dead king is reanimated, long live the king.

In addition, the Clippers at their alleged best have Kawhi Leonard as their centerpiece. The Nets have in Durant, Harden, and Irving three people who have been conjoined by Joe Tsai and Sean Marks specifically to make New York pay rapt attention while ignoring the Knicks as the windshield smear it has been.

Well, one game won’t do that, clearly. And probably not two games either, even with the whole band finally together against Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Nets have both widened and narrowed their window in a crazed all-in play to win a title and break the Knicks’ hegemony over the area. Even if that happens, nobody’s betting on the Nets to make a lot of a local dent, let alone change the habits of a generation—namely, watching a team finish 35-47 on a perpetual data loop.

But a Nets fan can still hope. After all, they won this past Christmas just by being scheduled instead of the Knicks for the first time since 2002. It’s a microscopic victory, but it’s a sign that at least TV programmers can be de-Knicked, and they are roughly as imaginative as the contents of an ant farm. Maybe to win New York, one must only spend $115 million on three players and court all the scary hours, good or bad, that they bring with them. After all, every science fiction movie ever made with New York as the battleground has featured one thing: Even when the city is being destroyed, people tend to stay and watch the rubble fly by at 350 mph rather than flee.

That’s a sign that maybe the Nets’ real key to being truly adapted by the city isn’t parade-level excellence but the promise of simultaneous gargoyle-and-glass showers. If you’re going to commit to a bit … well, this would seem to be it. The Knicks holding the city is the betting play, but a brand revolutionary can dream.