A couple weeks ago I was floating around on a lake in Wisconsin's St. Croix River Valley, trying to explain to a friend -- this guy, you know his work -- why I believe something that sounded strange when he said it. "Can they really just be doing things because they want people to notice that they're doing it?" he asked, and when you put it like that -- which is definitely a pithier way of putting it like this or like this -- it does sound kind of puzzling and unlikely.
These are grown-ups, after all, or at least plutocrats and marketing mandroids and basketball players of adult age; there are tens of millions of dollars involved, and plenty of people paying attention. And yet, on a pontoon boat on a lake, and even to a certain extent now, it was the best I could do: the Nets are sort of trying to build a potential NBA Championship team, but they're mostly about doing it in a loud and public and noteworthy way.
And yet I struggle to believe that's quite it, or that it's quite as lousy a way to be as I'd believed. Obviously, or at least obviously to me, frantic and crazy-eyed buzz-chasing and the poignant and self-thwarting Daniel Snyder-ian wish to Build A Winner is a big part of The Brooklyn Nets Thing. It's by no means as obvious that any of this will work, or give Brooklyn's fans a team that can even make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But, as I wrote at SB Nation earlier today, I'm starting to come around not so much on that approach or its efficacy, but on how admirable it is to do it this way. The Nets are on pace to pay nearly $100 million in luxury tax next season, and have compiled a roster that looks notably more like a successful fantasy basketball team from the 2009-10 season than a contemporary NBA team. They are certainly going to be one of the oldest teams in the NBA, and one of the most expensive, and they are less certain to be one of the best. This is something worth noting, maybe, but I've come to think that it's less worthy of note than how little the Nets seem to care about it.
Other teams search for surplus value and sustainability and flexibility; the best executives seem studiously to avoid making the cannonball-into-the-quarry splashes that can at times (like this one) seem to be the Nets' primary motivation. Everywhere, the idea is to build a winning team on a budget, to develop and grow and so buzzword-ily on. This is not how the Nets are doing it, not at all, and while that may or may not be smart on the Nets' part, it is undeniably bold. And also funny. But the building-a-winner bit: what if no one actually gives a shit about that? The Nets have succeeded in creating a spectacle that, however successful or even worth-watching its team-shaped component becomes on the court, is at least a spectacle. And that's something.
I still don't like the Nets, really. I don't like the way they left New Jersey -- I believe I'm on the record to this effect -- and I don't like how quick and craven they are to gouge the community they keep claiming to be All About. They're a team that fans will make their own -- it's already happening -- and make worthwhile and admirable in the process; they'll rescue the team for themselves, because that's what fans do. And the Nets are also a business, man, and one that can be wasteful and crass and grandiose and dishonest.
But the Nets are also -- and this is the part that, while I don't quite like it, I am beginning to appreciate -- embracing their truest identity as A Big Entertainment Thing, and one seemingly less concerned with the eggheaded business of buidling a winner on a budget than with blockbusting, with Going Big and then Going Bigger. They'll still play basketball, of course, and for a year or two more they'll probably play it pretty well. But let's embrace them, first, as what they are: the NBA's most purely Situationist team. Or maybe not embrace. But recognize it, at least, and realize that -- for all the PR pomp and branded circumstance -- this is finally just another show to enjoy or not, laugh at or cheer for or whatever. Just a bigger show than usual, and one that will eventually play basketball.