The NBA regular season wasn’t made to be conquered. It’s unwieldy in ordinary times, and extraordinarily so now that its rhythms are set by a pack-the-slate travel schedule and the steady drumbeat of COVID-19 testing. Winning matters, but winning every game doesn’t—not really, anyway, for the contending teams that have to manage complex and sometimes contradictory incentives on their long road from training camp to the playoffs.
Somehow, a newly formed superteam with a first-time head coach has already managed to master the chaos. The Brooklyn Nets returned two star players from injury at the start of this season, transformed their roster with a blockbuster trade to bring in a third, withstood the COVID-19-related absence of their best player, juggled injuries, auditioned role players, salvaged veterans, tried on 26 different starting lineups, and somehow wound up in a better basketball position for it.
What pushed the Nets forward wasn’t tactics but ideology. From the very beginning, Brooklyn treated the regular season as a creative process. No team built around Kevin Durant wants to do without him, but head coach Steve Nash used the void left by a transcendent player to explore the fullest possibilities of his roster. When Durant last played a game for the Nets, they ran so small as to start him at center—or, depending on how you define the position, maybe the 6-foot-4 Bruce Brown played center. So much has changed that when Durant (likely) makes his long-awaited return on Wednesday after missing almost two months of action, he could start alongside any of the three bigs who either weren’t on the team (Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge) or weren’t playing (Nicolas Claxton) when he was last on the court.
Durant watched from the sideline as the Nets evolved over and over, sometimes as demanded by the circumstances and at other points by genuine curiosity. A team doesn’t just arrive at the conclusion that a guard like Brown should be a rim-running 5 unless it’s actively searching for something. Without their full complement of stars available to build a more natural momentum, the Nets have spent their season turning over every rock, most notably those that other superteams wouldn’t. Teams with this much star power tend not to try anything too interesting; there are a lot of contingencies to satisfy when three All-NBA-level players join up, which pulls the decision-making of coaches and executives toward more conservative outcomes. For as revolutionary as the Heat would eventually become, they spent their first season with LeBron James and Chris Bosh playing it safe on defense while trotting out stuffy, traditional centers. (Paging Erick Dampier and Jamaal Magloire.) Brooklyn, meanwhile, might have the greatest variability in style and scheme of any team in the league—a versatility earned in action.
True to the course of the Nets’ season, Harden will exit the lineup with a hamstring strain just as Durant is preparing to return. Yet if any team can manage, it’s this one. How the Nets play depends entirely on who plays. Every plausibly viable reserve has had a shot to crack the rotation this season, resulting in 26 players logging time for Brooklyn at some point—more than for any other team in the league. If Claxton or Jeff Green plays center, Brooklyn usually switches pick-and-rolls. If Aldridge or DeAndre Jordan are in that spot, they tend to drop instead while their teammates switch the off-ball action around them. Griffin has sometimes split the difference, showing resistance at the level of the screen before scampering back as quickly as his surgically repaired knees will allow. There’s also a basic shape to the way the Nets like to run offense, but as systems go, it’s fairly impressionistic. Give him a clean canvas and Kyrie Irving can do this:
Irving, Durant, and Harden will regularly—and almost casually—make plays that only they could make. When Durant drops out of the lineup with an injury, you can’t just script a forward like Green in his place because no one, now or ever before, could get to the shots Durant does. Guards around the league have mimicked Harden’s gather and footwork, but LeBron is probably the closest anyone comes to his particular blend of vision, manipulation, and barrel-chested determination. So, naturally, when any one of the Nets’ stars enters or leaves the floor, their world changes. Harden, who has played more minutes as a solo star than either Durant or Irving, has slowed the Nets down to micromanage scoring opportunities. When Irving is put in a similar role, the ball movement gets a bit less daring—but Kyrie streamlines the Nets into a buzz-saw offense with the lowest turnover rate in the league.
Even without a full training camp or consistent practice time, Brooklyn made an identity from upheaval. The only real value in the regular season is what a team makes of it. For a defending champion like the Lakers, the primary goal is survival; getting to May with a healthy roster would be a job well done. Every other contender is still looking for their way in, and has just 82 games—or 72 this season—to find it. There’s a serialized quality to the way that process unfolds. The NFL is more episodic, with enough heft behind a random Monday night game to make it an event. The stakes of the NBA season are more introspective, brought to light in the slow burn of a team figuring itself out. If you want to see the value in the marathon, look at what the Nets have worked through and what they’ve become. What looked like a three-star superteam has been about eight teams in one, without the benefit of balancing the minutes and lineups as Brooklyn’s brain trust (and stars) might have liked:
Every variation seems to draw on different supporting parts, most of whom were scrapped or disregarded by other teams. Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot has logged more minutes for the Nets this season than Durant. Brooklyn’s best basketball, by the numbers, has come with lineups featuring Claxton, who played more minutes in the G League last season than he did in the NBA. Joe Harris is the unsung hero of this experimental era, not only for appearing in every game and leading the team in minutes, but for moving and shooting in a way that makes more sense of any combination of players. Irving’s 40-point parade was the centerpiece of Monday’s win over the crosstown Knicks, but the Nets don’t steal that game without 17 good minutes from Alize Johnson, or the foresight of a coach who would scan down his bench and think to put Johnson in the game in the first place.
The Nets winning as much as they have just isn’t as meaningful as the progress that made that possible. A team with this much talent could win a road playoff series if it had to, but the way to a deep run comes from a comprehensive understanding of what this kind of roster can do. Championship cores are built, largely, through big swings in the trade market and free agency. Championship teams come from the plodding months that follow, the very arc of a season a vital opportunity.