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GETTING NASTY: The Nets have transformed themselves

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It wasn’t THAT long ago that the Nets ranked 31st in merchandise sales behind the Sonics, an indication of where they stood in the NBA: nowhere. Now, they’re hated and that’s a good thing.

Nathaniel S Butler/NBA

It’s been a slow but inexorable transformation. The Nets are no longer “scrappy,” “lovable” or “on the rise.” They’re “most hated” with a roster that’s filled with “unlikeable” players. “Villains” all!

Good.

When Knick fans chanted “Brooklyn sucks” before their first playoff game in eight years then demanded, “We want Brooklyn” after their first playoff win... When Celtics fans chanted “F*** Kyrie” or “Kyrie sucks” at TD Garden — and Fenway Park... When Kyrie Irving “stomped” on “Lucky,” the Celtics mid-court logo, leading to a Celtics fan tossing a water bottle at Kyrie’s head ... When Kevin Durant laughed online at “Big Baby” Davis outrage over said stomping...

ALL of it within a few days and all of it evidence that the Brooklyn Nets are not your father’s Nets, not your older brother’s either. They’re nasty. They’re scary. They will not be ignored ... and finally, they’re very much one with Brooklyn, with New York.

In your face.

Maybe the transformation started with the 2018-19 version of the Nets, when Jared Dudley took a swipe at Joel Embiid in the playoffs. Certainly, it exploded with the Clean Sweep when Durant and Irving chose them in a coup that resonated throughout the league and left other teams and their fans hurt and disappointed. Then, after the pandemic, after the equally shocking and disturbing James Harden trade, they became fully formed, a Death Star. And while other teams’ fans may hate them, their own fans have embraced the transformation.

Bring it on!

The maps and surveys show the Nets surpassed the Lakers as the “most hated team” in the NBA earlier this season. Of course, they’ve nearly surpassed L.A. on the list of most popular merchandise, too, with the “Big Three” all top 10 in jersey sales. Is there a link? Sure, there is! A lot of the most “hated” players in NBA history were also among the most popular. Bird, Mourning, Garnett, for starters. MJ, Kobe and Shaq were both beloved and hated. Arrogance combined with talent sells.

So, should we care that they’re so hated?

The animosity toward the Nets and their players is rooted in a number of things. They play in New York and the yokels hate the big city. They are decidedly urban, with their offices, training center and arena all within New York city limits. (Not Tarrytown.)

Then, there’s player empowerment, which is probably bigger than anything else on the list of why they’re hated. The “Big Three” chose where they wanted to play. They demanded it, demanded Brooklyn. A lot of pundits and other teams’ fans don’t like it. They’d prefer that players stay in one place, work for one employer over the course of their careers, whether they like it or not. They claim the Nets are trying to buy a championship. In short, old liners want players-as-chattels. If you want to suggest there’s a racial component to that kind of thinking, feel free to do so.

KD and Kyrie are certainly the symbols of that. They are more out front than their teammates, two of the most outspoken players in the league. They don’t suffer fools gladly. They will let you know how they feel, then tell you again. They’ve earned that right and they are in sync. When Kyrie made his comments on Boston fans’ “subtle racism,” Irving was encouraged by a disembodied, off-camera voice who interjected, “The whole world knows it.” And Irving echoed, “The whole world knows it.” That voice belonged to KD.

Will the transformation lead to a title, a trophy, rings galore? Yeah, they haven’t won anything yet. And who knows, they may not. But these Brooklyn Nets are taking things very seriously. They’re not backing down from the challenge or the hate.

Good for them and us.