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Exits: Regress to the mean
Taking stock of the two different Nets of this season and, if left alone, what these Nets can finally be.
It’s hard to picture Ben Simmons doing anything. Unlike the other players in his vaulted orbit (Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler) or draft class (Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam), Simmons has, for the majority of his career, been unknown to us. The first chance we had to know him, we were told something about him wasn’t quite right.
There was one guy that just walked in there and acted like he didn’t know nobody.
There’s just something about the way Simmons has handled himself, or been handled… that gives me a little bit cause for pause.
I saw a player that didn’t necessarily persevere as well as I would have liked.
… his body language, at times, bothered me.
Right for who, it’s clear now, was not the point. Right for what, being the amorphous thing of American bravado so often a precursor to a very particular kind of American success, was.
What comes through in that initial assessment of Simmons, walking into a private suite at Game 6 of the 2016 Finals where everyone knew everyone else, is someone who was, perhaps, just shy. Transplanted from one world into another and insulated by people closest to him in that relocation, but circumspect, maybe even a little apprehensive.
From there, Simmons was selected by the Sixers and amidst the crushing pressure of any highly-touted rookie’s season — made double because Simmons, an international player and stranger to so many, did not play in March Madness, the traditional introductory ground to American living rooms — hurt himself. He didn’t play at all in his first year, and we continued not to know him.
Know, in this sense, is loose. A breezy shroud. We don’t know the louder or bigger aforementioned personalities better than Simmons but we have, at face value, a sense of them. We’ve gleaned tics and preferences from in-game action, we know some predilections from what they choose to share on social media, we’ve asked them questions and they’ve answered and from those answers, over years, we’ve sketched out personalities. It’s a composite and for most, this is probably the best we’ll ever come to know them.
Whether reservation was always part of his personality or it’s grown as a result of distrust/a measure of self-protection, Simmons is not any more known to us now, at the end of his seventh season, then he was in his first. This is what I mean when I say it’s hard to picture him doing anything. Not just moving around a basketball court (though the amnesia there can be easily reversed, it’s the age of highlights after all), but moving around in the world.
Since the Nets were swept by the Sixers, a series where Simmons didn’t travel with the team because of his rehab (and maybe, a bit of a psychic rehab from Philadelphia), Simmons has remained in New York. He’s been posting photos of an empty gym at 6am, ostensibly in advance of that continued rehab. He’s been showing us that he’s there.
I described the Nets once, in their brief and glittering superstar era, as a travelling nightclub. Watching each person make their way onto the floor for warmups, I felt transported to some distant Studio 54 I’d never been to.
Here was James Harden, walking from the tunnel with headphones on, headphones I could mentally swap to sunglasses as easily as my brain could replace the polished hardwood with a mirrored catwalk. Then came Kyrie Irving with a boxer’s dancing bob, Kevin Durant next, nodding at trainers waiting for him like he might point at celebrities across a crowded dance floor. Patty Mills, Seth Curry, Joe Harris, each made more individual just by being part of this extremely individualized team. A team that’s biggest impact was felt in their arrival, and not really in how they played together on the floor. Which was, as we’d come to learn, part of the problem.
That description of the Nets, these Nets, still fits, if only you let yourself live in the description and see it to its natural conclusion. When the lights of the club come on, when the last song plays out and nothing follows it, the sudden silence louder than any track that preceded it. When you’re blinking around the room and whoever’s left in it is blinking back at you, your wan eyes and pallid face at a glossy shine from the sweat dried in layers a mirror of their own, the reality of the morning and the day yawning out in front of it gaining on you. These Nets are the end of the night.
Regression toward the mean is a phrase often misunderstood. Not by mathematicians, who grasp statistically where it’s going to occur, but in its borrowed applications.
Its origins, like a lot in science, were loaded. A Victorian era polymath named Francis Galton popularized it with a paper he wrote in 1886, where he set out “to place beyond doubt the existence of a simple and far-reaching law that governs the hereditary transmission of, I believe, every one of those simple qualities which all possess, though in unequal degrees” (impossible not to wonder who he was picturing, personally, with that last little dig).
Aside from the advances he made in statistics and psychological theory (he coined the phrase “nature versus nurture”, though he was mainly intent on using it to keep the field of scientific research for the English aristocracy), Galton was a pioneer of eugenics. He wrote some pretty problematic papers — one in which he argued for Chinese dynasties to intentionally displace African indigenous communities, who he viewed as inferior, for the sake of human advancement — and became obsessed with pinning down “controllable” variables in evolution. He grew sweet peas to study the weight curve of the plants and transfused blood from different breeds of rabbits into each other to examine any differences in their offspring. Galton wrote an unpublished novel about a utopian society organized by a eugenic religion that bred smarter and fitter people, that his niece later burned because the romantic scenes disturbed her. Charles Darwin, his cousin, and whose own The Origin of Species was noted to have gripped Galton so completely and obsessively, seemed to think he was a bit of a freak.
Galton and his theories, thankfully, aside, regression toward the mean switched tack as time went on and came to be adopted for much wider use than evolutionary theory. Though it’s the word “regression” we get stuck on, assuming the phrase must be framing a negative when used, it’s more of soft shrug in math and science. A way of saying that when left alone, anomalies will often correct. Overshots will level out, missteps will find surer footing, failure won’t follow twice.
The Nets have followed failure twice, but it’s because the franchise used the exact same methodology in their experiment this time around as they did when attempting the fast fix big swing on pairing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce with a former player coach in 2013-2014. In that trade, much like what it took to land Durant, Harden and Irving, the Nets gave up three picks and five people, not so much flattening the future as walling it off, making it inaccessible even as concept.
What happened was regression to the mean. A bit of a dumping ground for a few seasons as the dust settled and Kenny Atkinson tried to do the best with who he had. Enter Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert, Nic Claxton, occasionally Irving, under Steve Nash (and more likely, the carryover expertise of Jacque Vaughn), watch the team go on a bit of a run, under the radar and having a good time. Dismantle that team immediately the next season and watch the star-studded replacement get swept by the Celtics in the first round.
This isn’t meant to be a torrid retelling of a franchise we are bound to forget next season, yet again, but a suggestion that when the collective eye of the NBA blinks away this time, maybe the Nets should lean into the lightness that will come when scrutiny goes. To regress to a mean they’ve never really let themselves get all the way back to, by means of the barest minimums the franchise has been reduced to. There are not enough picks on the way to flip for the same failed hypothesis, and it’s going to be a while before big free agents take a look at this franchise and think it not especially cursed. But that’s the good news.
The players who’ve stayed through this second, identical act in Brooklyn are well familiar with the franchise's faults and foibles, and the team’s own imitations. Mills, Curry and Harris are by now hardened to the atomic winds of these fallouts, Spencer Dinwiddie, in his ricocheting return, is too. Cam Thomas, in his second year, was wonderful as you could hope for someone who came up in all that sound and fury. Mikal Bridges played the best basketball of his career on the latter half of the season since he landed from Phoenix. Claxton, at 24, is a veteran to them all, and Vaughn kept the runaway train that was the Nets post All-Star, a team steaming above .500, on the tracks as long as he could before they hit the wall they were bound to, Joel Embiid-shaped or otherwise.
The point, now, is to let the desolation take hold. For the front office not to panic when it feels like what has befallen them is quiet relegation, to realize the point isn’t and shouldn’t be to always come back screaming. These Nets aren’t going to dazzle us anytime soon, not in the overproduced and very expensive way they did for a handful of games the last few seasons. What they’ll do, what I’m looking forward to, is remembering them at some point next season and looking over, squinting to find them quietly thriving, regressed all the way back to a brand new start for the first time in years.
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