The Ben Simmons Season
The 23-24 Never Hungover Brooklyn Nets Season Preview
The NBA returns this week, which means that the Brooklyn Nets return this week, which means that Nets fans, in no short order, will need to find their why. This time last year, Brooklyn Nets fans harbored sincere, if ultimately unsupportable, championship aspirations: this before an appallingly flat start to the season, the revelation of another under-constructed roster, the firing of Steve Nash as a sort of team-vibes-exorcism, the flirting with a head coach under an active sexual misconduct investigation, the Kyrie post that turned into posts that turned into a suspension and team-mandated apology/humiliation tour, the ecstatic winning streak, the Irving trade, the Durant trade, the total and unequivocal destruction of hope, the Mikal Bridges honeymoon, the glimmer of future, and the ultimate thrashing at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. Last season was one that appeared to have happened both in an instant and not at all, one in which hope flickered candle-like before unceremoniously vanishing into smoke.
This year, the Brooklyn Nets and their fans have been mercifully delivered from the crushing weight of expectation; the Nets—either perversely or comfortingly, depending on who you ask—are back floating in the stressless ether of purgatory. The Nets will neither compete for a championship nor a top draft pick, turning Nets fandom once more into a sort of existential musing on the nature of sports fandom itself. It’s in rooting for an unmoored team that the interesting questions emerge. Questions like: what does it mean to associate yourself emotionally with a group of millionaires who do not know, beyond the point of the abstract, that you exist? Like: what happens when the subject of your routinized, fantastical projection cannot hope for more than a bid at the league’s middle class? Like: what draws us to entertainment that asks, above all else, for our patience? Like: where does one locate the capacity to imagine brighter days mere moments after the brightest days imploded? Like: how do I make meaning out of watching Ben Simmons?
Make no mistake, and sit with the concept long enough for its gravity to dawn upon you: the 2023 Brooklyn Nets are Ben Simmons’ team. Rooting for these Nets will feel remarkably similar to rooting for their mid-to-late 2010s counterparts, Kenny Atkinson’s ragtag if perpetually overmatched island of misfit toys. Both in terms of on-court talent and long-term prospects, these Nets appear to start from a far stronger position than last generation’s bottom-feeding group, but the central ethic remains the same. The Nets’ path to a sincerely meaningful season—and something like a worthwhile future—rests upon rehabilitating castoffs, truffle-pigging for underdeveloped talents, shrewdly stockpiling overlooked draft picks, and giving good players the latitude to look great. There are any number of rubrics upon which the Nets will be graded: whether Mikal Bridges continues his apparent climb to stardom, whether Cameron Johnson makes good on his Biden-aid-to-Gaza-sized contract, whether journeymen like Lonnie Walker, Dennis Smith, and Harry Giles can earn their keep, whether rookie Dariq Whitehead can establish himself as a healthy, exciting prospect, whether Cam Thomas is afforded the minutes to scintillate Ball Don’t Stop. And yet, despite all this, it feels inescapable that the Nets fan’s main hope, against all logic, will be that Ben Simmons appears to remember how to play and enjoy basketball.
Seasons, especially those without championship aspirations, demand their own narratives to find meaning. This is the Ben Simmons Season. One feels it swirling in the air, from the annual “Ben’s back” summer reports to the sincerely encouraging preseason play. Nets fans have been subjected to some version of will-he-won’t-he with Simmons each of the last two years, but the the confounding Australian had always been something of a narrative supporting character; now, he is the center of the show. Meaning, where in the past Nets fans could create a sort of ironic distance from Simmons’ fate, the main attractions departing has left Nets fans with no choice but to, quite sincerely, root for Simmons to succeed. It’s a prospect equal parts soul-crushing and life-affirming. Both as player and media figure, Simmons has been reduced to the point of embarrassment. At his best, he was an undeniable talent with a glaring on-court psychological weakness; from these highs, he has devolved into the league’s least-flattering avatar of player mental health, become a punching bag in the emboldened backlash against player empowerment, rendered himself to a meme with his garish and pitiful sideline outfits, and lumbered through something like half a season of basketball as a shell of the player who, even at his best, was glaringly incomplete. This year, Nets fans need to truly believe that Ben has returned to full health while ignoring the fact that he appeared to have injured his back in the first place by playing video games.
And yet it’s as easy for Nets fans to identify with Simmons as it is for them to mock him. Simmons’ tragic arc can induce more than just pathos in Nets fans, those who have fallen mightily and fully from something like sincere potential, a potential that even at its best could never fully be actualized. Nets fans, too, have been reduced and embarrassed. Those who stay along for the likely extended and fitful rebuild to come will exhibit a silly but sincerely meaningful commitment—with Simmons as with this year’s Nets, greatness seems too much to ask for, and so competence will have to be enough. Fans will have to think outside of wins and losses, to find meaning in things like monitoring a sincerely troubled basketball player’s body language, burst, and confidence. And just as it’s fascinating that this highly paid of a former talent could crumble to last season’s rock bottom, so too is it astounding that many people, myself included, will spend their many of their precious few hours outside of the workplace hoping against hope that he can improve. Those who make it through may find that they’ve wasted their time, but it’s also possible that they find themselves cleansed.
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