It has been nine years since Kevin Durant and James Harden shared an NBA team. Respectively 23 and 22 when they led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals, the two are now in their 30s and reunited with the Brooklyn Nets. Everyone knows these basics already, and that both have become much better at basketball. They have both won MVP awards; Durant has won two championships, and two Finals MVP trophies. More qualitatively speaking, Harden and Durant have deepened their feel and vision, both often looking like they are holding the arc of the game within their hands and like it is eminently malleable to their particular fingertips. In the case of Durant, this is true through his sheer speed, size, and smoothness; with Harden, it’s because of a dark logistical magic that makes each of his motions seem like a mirthful little dance through a glitchy loophole that only he can perceive.
In their first two Nets games together, the two merged these qualities into a hoops leviathan that produced some of the most entertaining basketball of the modern era. In wins over the Orlando Magic and the much tougher Milwaukee Bucks, the two combined to average a nice 69 points and 18.5 assists, maximizing each others’ and their teammates’ abilities as the ball flew with a zest quite different from what skeptical evaluators of their new pairing expected. Things got more complicated in the next game, a double-overtime loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers that saw the return of Kyrie Irving, and the emergence of a new-but-familiar quagmire as the ball moved with less purpose and function, less ease and efficiency. As with Russell Westbrook in the past, Harden and Durant embark upon another complex collaboration with a third star.
It’s an exceedingly difficult basketball calculus, too often whittled down by fans and analysts to a kind of concern-trolling doubt about whether it can work, and nuclear levels of schadenfreude every time that it doesn’t. For Harden and Durant, it’s exactly the sort of problem-solving on the court, and navigation of nonsense off of it, that they should ostensibly be more equipped to handle now than they were in their OKC heyday. The ability to get over just these types of hills is precisely the reason to give it another go—to believe that what you’re doing is not chasing a nostalgic dragon and is, in fact, the right way forward.
Whether or not this is the case, we won’t know for a while. The maximum potential of the new team is no less than the greatest offense of all time, with multiple consecutive championships. And the public’s assessment of them will be that they failed if they don’t win at least one. The Nets have hurled themselves into the valley of the extreme. It’s all Harden and Durant, closing a strangle circle, have really known in their careers. Having gone through the mud of big expectations and bigger haters apart, they are now back to going through it together. Taken in context with Harden’s failed experiment of reunion with Westbrook in his last full season with the Houston Rockets—and especially given that old Thunder teammate Jeff Green is also playing a key role in Brooklyn—the move gives long-time NBA fans a sense that everyone on the Thunder a decade ago feels that something was lost that now needs to be found.
What is that something? It is nominally no more complex than what the rest of the sport, plus Frodo and Samwise Gamgee, are always after: a ring. But this particular series of break-ups and reunions, of rivers splitting into rivulets and then rejoining as rivers again, does hit a little differently. It is as though there is a pressing existential crisis upon the sport, and Harden and Durant are locking arms anew, to face it down. Given the ease with which LeBron James and Anthony Davis won a title with the Los Angeles Lakers last year, and how effortlessly they have racked up the best record in the league this season, it would seem that it’s their rolling force that the stars have reunited to confront.
The Lakers are too good for the idle hands of opposing superstars hitting their 30’s, potentially exiting their peaks. Quickly filling the hole left in the wake of the Golden State Warriors dynasty, they have eliminated plausible paths for most other teams up to the top, which seems to be a big part of why Harden forced his way out of his Houston. This helps to explain the urgency of Harden’s move eastward, and NBA fans feeling nihilistic about another unchallenged Lakers title have to feel some ballast coming into their prospects—if the Nets make the most of what they have, they can certainly push the Lakers, and the sport itself, to levels it wouldn’t otherwise go to.
That, more than anything, seems to be what never materialized in Oklahoma City, despite seeming entirely that it would: the elevation of basketball as a whole, a tide so powerful that it rises all boats. When it was the Warriors who became that instead, Durant joined them. And as the Lakers become the fresh vanguard, this is his and Harden’s challenge to that development. A singular mix of past and present, of talent and narrative, the new Brooklyn Nets are an entity too dense for one moment, and will require years of observation and unpacking to comprehend. But the story of this NBA season will most certainly be them: two old friends together again, in pursuit of what escaped them, that thing which they thought would be theirs.