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Nets can still get the last laugh after bizarre 12 months

A year ago, they were not only the toast of the NBA but a model for the way things get built in professional sports now, the way foundations and cornerstones are laid, the way blueprints become blessings.

Starting with an Instagram message posted by Kevin Durant late in the afternoon of June 30 and stretching for most of a celebratory July, life had never been better for the Nets, not in their NBA incarnation, anyway, not since Julius Erving and his friends had tried to wrest the basketball city away while loitering in the burbs and brandishing a red, white and blue ball. Durant and Kyrie Irving were in the house, in the fold, and suddenly the Nets were in the unfamiliar position of feeding the new NBA zeitgeist.

“We knew,” Sean Marks said in Las Vegas a few weeks later, “what we were getting into.”

Maybe they did. Still: Nobody could truly forecast just how bizarre the next 12 months would be for the Nets. One prominent fly in the ointment was apparent right away: Durant wouldn’t be available at all in 2019-20 thanks to his blown Achilles. While Irving came with a clean bill of health, when he was limited to 20 games (during which the Nets went 8-12) thanks to a bum shoulder that wasn’t exactly a stunning development, either, given his history.

What would have been impossible to envision last July, though, were all the things, epic and subtle and everything in between, that’s littered the Nets’ landscape at the dawn of another July, in no particular order:

  • A global pandemic which has turned everyone’s world upside down.

  • The firing of coach Kenny Atkinson on March 7 after leading the Nets from the dregs to the playoffs last year and the brink of another berth this time, the details of which are a bit fuzzy but was clearly precipitated by the fact that Atkinson on one end and Durant, Irving and DeAndre Jordan on the other had stopped believing they could work together.
  • Injuries that cost Caris LeVert (having another fine season) 25 games and rookie Nic Claxton all but 15 games.
  • Forward Rodions Kurucs was arrested on domestic violence charges.
  • Wilson Chandler, a key offseason addition, missed the first 25 games thanks to a PED suspension, shot barely 40 percent in the 35 games in which he did play, then opted out of the Nets’ trip to the Orlando restart bubble — a stay that looks, by the day, to probably be the shortest of the 22 teams who will report there next week.
  • And, not least, the Nets have been bludgeoned worse than anyone by the coronavirus. Four players — Durant the only one whose name we know — tested positive early in the lockdown. This week, both Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie — easily the Nets’ most reliable player this year at 20.6 points and 6.8 assists — revealed they, too, have COVID-19. Jordan is definitely out of Orlando; Dinwiddie wants to play but said he has actually shown symptoms (fever, chest tightness) and will almost certainly be forced out.

Other than that …

The Nets are one of what will almost certainly be a wealth of cautionary tales as sports tries to reintegrate into the world. There are others. The Phillies have so far been the hardest hit of the baseball teams by the virus, and the Nationals have already lost two players they expected to be part of the season — Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross — who decided to opt out instead.

The NHL had 15 of the first 250 players tested come back positive and we are still trying to determine at what percentage these things become problematic. Clemson has had 37 football players test positive and there is a cynical (if apocryphal, for now) take that has gotten a foothold in the sport that football factories like that wouldn’t mind seeing their players spike now, possibly develop herd immunity and be fully loaded for the season (if there’s a season).

The Nets were going to be a longshot to do anything in the bubble anyway since it was announced that both Irving and Durant would stay idle. The other dominoes that have fallen have merely ensured their stay inside will be as quick as possible. Most of their eggs were already carefully laid in baskets belonging to 2021, 2022 and 2023, anyway.

By then, depending on how this all shakes out, it may almost be funny how much quicksand they encountered these first 12 months, how many banana peels entangled their feet. If you are a Nets fan, you look forward to that laughter.

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