The Brooklyn Nets have by far been the most interesting team in the NBA this season, both on and off the court. With their new addition of superstar guard James Harden, now playing alongside stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, they could become the next villain of the NBA: the team that everyone loves to hate.
In the NBA—and in sports in general—a team that can be a villain for the league can generate a lot of attention and revenue. Some recent examples are the New England Patriots in the NFL before Tom Brady left, and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA before they fell to injuries. The Nets share some important characteristics with both of these teams.
A good place to start is the Nets’ team-up of three star players. Durant and Harden are both former MVPs and Irving is a perennial All-Star. None of them were on the Nets two years ago, and none of them were drafted by the team.
A good comparison to this is the Warriors, who also had Durant, as well as two-time MVP Steph Curry and perennial All-Star Klay Thompson. Although Curry and Thompson were drafted to the team, Durant joined the team after having no connection to them previously, other than losing to them (we’ll get to that later).
NBA fans tend not to like it when superstars team up with each other because, to many, it says that the stars weren’t good enough to win a championship “on their own.” Of course, this argument is a bit ridiculous as basketball is a team sport, and it’s difficult to excel at a team sport if your team is bad. Nonetheless, many fans dislike team-ups.
Another big reason for a team to be seen as a villain is because fans dislike one or more players on the team. Durant is a good example of this on the Warriors, but a better example of this is Brady on the Patriots. I’m no football fan, but I do know that Brady is disliked for his tendency to complain to the referees and for his role in the infamous Deflategate.
Although the Nets don’t have any player on their team who’s disliked quite in the way Brady is, the team’s three stars are some of the more unpopular players in the NBA right now.
Durant has been disliked ever since he joined the Warriors in 2016, just after his team had blown a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the playoffs. That was when the Warriors became villains in the NBA, and won back-to-back championships with relative ease. It didn’t help that during this time, it was discovered that Durant had fake accounts on Twitter which he would use to defend himself. However, Durant is probably the least disliked player out of these three.
Irving has been disliked ever since he left LeBron and the Cavaliers for the Boston Celtics because he wanted to be the lead player on a good team. Once with the Celtics, Irving spent significant time injured and was accused of causing problems in the locker room. Despite having what was perceived to be a very good team, he was never able to lead them to the Finals (past the Cavaliers), and left in free agency after just two years on the team—after claiming he would re-sign the year before. This time, he was criticized and teased for many of the things he said, including saying that he believed the world is flat. This season, with the Nets, he missed seven games out of the blue, saying only that he was gone for “personal reasons.”
Harden, like his fellow star players, is disliked for the way he forced his way out of the Houston Rockets organization in order to get to the Nets. This included him being caught on video maskless at a strip club, a place where he has frequented in the past with much criticism. However, most of the criticism he receives is due to his play style, which relies on a lot of isolation play, step-back three-pointers (which some consider traveling), and his incredible ability to draw fouls, even when contact is, let’s say, limited. He has also proven unable to mesh his play with other repeat all-stars, including the likes of guards Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
So far, all signs point to this being the most disliked trio in the NBA. Yet, I haven’t found that to be true. While there are people who dislike the individual players, there isn’t much to dislike about the team as a whole, and I think the reason for this is that the Nets are missing the most important part of being NBA villains, which the Warriors and Patriots teams of the past had—being annoyingly good.
This team does boast three of the most prolific scorers in NBA history who all seem prepared to buy into whatever offensive system is put in place on the Nets. Although that may well make them the best offense in the NBA, the problem they’ll face is their complete and utter lack of defense. Even though their three stars are all spectacular offensive talents, Durant is the only one of them who qualifies as a good defender, while Irving and Harden are often lacking in that area, ranging from bad to mediocre in most games.
Outside of those three players, they do have some pretty good defensive personnel on the perimeter like forward Jeff Green and guard Bruce Brown, but they gave up their best defender and rim-protector, center Jarrett Allen, in the Harden trade. Instead, they are left with aging center DeAndre Jordan to start in that position, when he would do better as a back-up at this stage of his career.
This lack of elite defenders means that for the Nets to be good this season—outside of any trades or free agent pick-ups—their offense will have to be historically great and their defense will have to be at least not the worst ever.
I still think the Los Angeles Lakers would beat the Nets in a Finals match up, and there’s even a fair chance that the Nets don’t even make it out of the Eastern Conference (hopefully because the Milwaukee Bucks beat them and go on to defeat the Lakers in an epic Finals battle…that may be wishful thinking on my part).
However, if the Nets can figure out their defensive woes and are successful in becoming NBA Champions, they would become the new villains of the NBA, which is something the league has been missing for the past year or so since the collapse of the Warriors in 2019. If recovered, this could bring back some much-needed popularity to the NBA.