New York’s Return as the ‘Mecca of Basketball’ Sure Didn’t Last Long

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So much for the “Mecca of Basketball” once again being New York City. 

It was just three short years ago when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving made the decision to team up in Brooklyn, flipping The Association on its head and landing the Nets as the darlings of the NBA. 

How many championships would they win? The duo may not have made the absurd prediction that LeBron James and “The Heatles” made in 2010, but the fans and media alike did that for them. And rightfully so.  

Durant is the most unstoppable scorer of his generation and arguably in the history of the league. Irving is a wizard with the basketball, doing things with the rock that even wow his NBA colleagues.

The 2020 season was looked at as a throwaway year, with Durant recovering from a torn Achilles suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals. Couple that with the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, and  everyone looked ahead to the 2021-2022 season as the “Year of the Nets.” 

The addition of James Harden during the 2020-2021 season made the roster laughably good, with three of the best offensive players in the game sharing the court at the same time. With an offense as potent as the one Brooklyn was going to run, who needed defense? 

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, the New York Knicks emerged from years of incompetence, playing some of the best basketball seen by Knickerbocker fans in a decade. 

Julius Randle was becoming a fan favorite, the Knicks were playing hard under Tom Thibodeau, and the franchise made the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-2013 season. 

And then, it all came crashing down. In both boroughs. 

Irving chose to not receive the COVID-19 vaccine prior to the 2021-2022 season, meaning that he would not be allowed to play basketball in New York City. Nets general manager Sean Marks decided that he didn’t want a “part-time” player, choosing instead to shelve Irving for the season. 

Irving’s personal choice irked Harden, eventually getting to the point that he wanted out, forcing himself out of Brooklyn with a trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Meanwhile, the Nets caved, allowing Irving to play in road games before New York City mayor Eric Adams conveniently allowed professional athletes and performers to remain unvaccinated. Just not the regular folk. That would be dangerous, of course.

But the damage was already done. Brooklyn lost faith in Irving, taking a glance at his track-record and realizing that he couldn’t be counted on to be available when called. When the time came around for Irving to extend his contract, the Nets balked. 

It set off a chain of events rarely seen in the NBA. And it all played out in the last few days. 

Irving opted in to his $37 million player option – choosing to be “different” –  and Durant had seen enough, demanding a trade on Thursday. 

While all of this turmoil was going on in Brooklyn, the Knicks came back down to reality, giving Randle a four-year, $117 million contract extension prior to the 2021-2022 season. Anyone who’s watched basketball could have told you it was a risky move, as the Knicks made the bizarre choice of banking on additional seasons from Randle like the one he played in 2020-21, as opposed to assuming his banner year was not the norm.

It hasn’t gone well, with Randle giving Knicks fans the thumb-down gesture in the January win over the Boston Celtics and reports that the Knicks have explored trading the 2021 All-Star.  

Fast forward a few months, and the Knicks’ big free agent signing is Jalen Brunson, a quality addition, but not one that’s going to turn New York into championship contenders. 

Both the Knicks and the Nets will enter 2022-2023 merely hoping for a playoff berth, a far cry from November of 2021. 

New York basketball has come back down to earth. It was a heck of a run, however short it may have been.

Written by Joe Morgan

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