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We knew this was the deal ... A rumination on stardom

2021 NBA Playoffs - Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

I mean really, though. Stars get what they want, and they largely deserve it. Has Ben Simmons not gotten what he wanted because Daryl Morey is operating on a different plane than the rest of the NBA? Or is it because Simmons and Klutch — Rich Paul et al — underestimated what stardom is? Do the Lakers understand and accept that LeBron James might blow up their plans and follow Bronny to, say, Oklahoma City because they value the tenants of fatherhood, or because he’s LeBron James?

I developed wandering eyes during the dawn of the Sean Marks era. The Nets were bad but the league was astoundingly good. I winced when my favorite player, simply by virtue of entertainment value, threw on Celtic green. But nothing was going to stop me from watching Kyrie Irving play ball. And as a love for hoops developed into a passion, Golden State swept me away - maybe the Yankees conditioned me for a life of appreciating the villain. But I think it was the masochistic Nets fan in me that resented the hatred Kevin Durant and the Warriors got for blessing us with unprecedented beauty and dominance. I spent my cold winter nights watching my team go from 4-5 to 9-49, and you can’t stomach Steph Curry and Kevin Durant playing together? Pathetic and ungrateful.

There was, of course, one more storyline I was continuously drawn to. I resented nothing more than the disdain my supposed fellow basketball-lovers felt for James Harden and his Rockets. I thought everybody hated the Warriors? The only team to look them eye-to-eye was ridiculed for what ... because Harden drew too many fouls? Because he figured out how to make 1-on-1 defense an impossibility, and his team took advantage of that every possession, realizing the only way to match the firepower of the most talented NBA team ever was to siphon every possible droplet out of their inner circle Hall-of-Famer? I thought Ring Culture meant doing whatever it takes to win. That the value of a career comes down to the jewelry, and bare-knuckles means failure.

I was in the middle of Zoom class when the Brooklyn Nets officially landed James Harden. I calmly turned off my camera and triple checked to make sure I was on mute before running to open the living room window to scream it all out. I couldn’t remember a happier moment of Nets fandom. The convergence of the Big Three That May Never Be arrived at the perfect moment of my basketball journey.

Before then, I wasn't sure how much Nets-dom I had left in me. Oddly enough, my favorite Nets team of all time, the golden 2018-19 squad, only generated more thoughts about the fallacy of team loyalty. Is life really long enough to profess unwavering commitment to the brand on the front of the jersey? Even if they’re a chore to watch? Would you keep listening to your favorite artist if you stopped liking their music? That feels like an emotional trauma bond rather than personal enjoyment. I didn’t like the 2018-19 Nets because they were Nets. I liked them for the same reason I loved Kyrie, the Harden-Rockets, and the KD-Warriors. Because they were fucking awesome.

But this was too good to pass up. My three super-hero/villains teaming up on the Nets. Three iconoclasts teaming up on the lowly, beaten-up, punked-on, oft-mocked, Nets. No way I was going to jump ship before seeing this out. The loser hadn’t just gotten his big brother to exact revenge on the bully, he recruited a SWAT unit to burn down the whole school.

And all that was possible because the stars get what they want. Loved, hated, but mostly hated, they get what they want. And it’s deserved, for the most part. This was especially true for James Harden. A revolutionary basketball figure viewed as a joke, his playoff failures highlighted more than any success or regular season record-smashing. His unceasing desire to get that ring, to (purposefully or not) validate his career in the eyes of onlookers who only saw all his efforts as cheap, disingenuous, a grift. Harden would come to the Nets, reunite with some old friends, make some new ones, and show no mercy on the way to a title that would only look easy because he and his brilliant basketball mind were conducting the show. It made complete sense.

Unfortunately, so does this current hell.

We saw the narrative shift as the Nets appeared en route to a dominant title run, despite having hardly played together. The Nets and Harden would finally win. Suddenly, Harden was praised for “reinventing his game” to fit alongside his talented co-stars. It was, of course, a complete lie, unless you consider 25 points and 11 assists a massive difference from 29 points and nine assists. Harden, running nearly as many pick-and-rolls as he did in Houston had complete control of an unstoppable Brooklyn offense. He simply chose to cede a couple more possessions to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant than he did to Eric Gordon and Robert Covington (something only a basketball genius of his caliber could have thought to do).

Injuries struck, which was punishment for long-time Nets fans who should have known better than to expect anything to be nice and easy. We all know what happened next. Brooklyn lost a gut-wrenching series to Milwaukee despite KD ascending to a higher realm of basketball divinity. Harden played 139 of the last 149 minutes of the series on a right hamstring made of sloppy joe meat.

It appears that may have been our farewell to peak James Harden. This season has been full of ups and downs and speculation. Did he ever recover from the injury? Is he fat? Did he need a real offseason? As it turns out, the first year of what is probably the back-slope of Harden’s career is still netting a worthy All-Star and a top-20 NBA player. So what’s the issue?

Well, the roster behind him is even lighter on ball-handling than last year. This is partly because the roster is now stuffed with non-shooters and role players hit by the regression monster (ahem, Blue Collar Boys). It’s also because Irving, as you might have heard, is somewhat of a part-time employee this year. And Joe Harris is hurt. Oh, and Kevin Durant is, wait for it, hurt, at the moment. At least Nets fans are appreciating the Herculean task in front of Harden at the moment. Just kidding!

As a brief aside, Harden has been far from perfect. His defensive effort, fair or not, has waned to early Houston levels as a disturbing negative on that end of the court. He and his camp are certainly responsible for the maddening noise about what seems to be a sooner-or-later-76er tenure. That’s not fair to his teammates, and perhaps fans of the Nets. But are we surprised? We have no right to be. How did he get here again?

The serving size on Harden’s plate, coming off the worst injury of his career, is enormous, and not what he had in mind when forcing his way to Brooklyn. A fair portion of that is due to poor injury luck exacerbated by a lack of backup plans for a roster known to be prone to health issues.

More of it is due to Irving, whose refusal to get vaccinated is hamstringing (pun intended) this team in the worst way. Personal decision this, personal decision that, whatever. Brooklyn is employing a $40 million dollar player who can just about come and go whenever he pleases, and has not entertained the idea of converting that massive salary into possibly a worse player, but one who plays, you know, all the time.

Irving is destroyed for the end of the Cleveland Cavaliers (where LeBron left the year after) and the Boston Celtics (where shoehorning the development of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown into a ready-made contender fit worse than OJ’s gloves). They are both vast oversimplifications. But Irving’s vaccination status, the stupidest possible bone to pick, is only exacerbated by Brooklyn’s wishy-washiness on the issue. Harden knew Brooklyn is a place where stars get what they want. Perhaps he couldn’t fathom it to that extent.

Worse yet, all his goodwill with the fans, for the worst of reasons, is gone. The titanic grit and perseverance, crossing the line into foolishness, he displayed by playing in that Milwaukee series has already been completely discarded by Brooklyn fans. Why? Is it because he’s taken an age-related, possibly hamstring-related step back this year? Because he’s continued to step up to the oversized portion on his plate, game after game as the most consistently available Net? All he’s been met with is fat jokes and disgust on social media, which is fortunately a minority of fans, but unfortunately the loudest, most obnoxious subset. I have a clifftop property in Brooklyn to sell you if you think he and/or his people aren’t monitoring the noise.

Harden demanded his way to the Nets to join a free-flowing organization with great vibes and immense talent. To finally win a ring, and put to be all the undeserved noise about the great failures of his career. Right now, at this moment, how do you feel he thinks that’s going? Which of those qualities is the organization and its fans exhibiting? This ear-wrecking cycle of hearing about a potential trade to Philadelphia may mercifully, briefly quiet down if he makes it through the trade deadline. But this should surprise nobody.

Maybe what seems inevitable is just another bump in the road. Brooklyn is an ankle, a knee, and a mayoral signature away from being full-on title favorites. Perhaps even just two of the three. This could certainly be a dusty memory by June. On Brooklyn’s behalf, a Simmons-for-Harden trade wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Harden’s decline is quite tangible, and imagining an eventual lineup featuring Simmons, Harris, Irving, and Durant is tantalizing in its own special way.

But all the positive emotions that were present just a year ago are toast. That’s how quickly the NBA shifts. Star power giveth, and star power taketh away. Nets fans should be more familiar with that maxim than anybody.