Believe it or not this article isn’t about a quaint new coffee shop you’ve absolutely got to try in Willamsburg. Nor is it an advertisement for the latest micro-brewing company to sprout up in Dumbo. This is a reference to the fluidity and composition of a new breed of basketball being born in the Barclay’s Center, the new heart of Brooklyn.
Once upon a time, the Nets franchise was uprooted from its long standing home in New Jersey and returned to its place of origin, New York. In the ultimate millennial move, the Nets took up residence in the trendy and progressively gentrified borough of Brooklyn as opposed to returning to the longstanding Long Island roots of their ABA past. The move came with a clean new look to their logo and jersey, an arena that perfectly exemplified the cultural hub that was the surrounding neighborhood, and an attitude of sorts that this franchise would burst onto the scene anew with aspirations of title contention. What the Nets’ emerging fan-base got instead however was a ragtag group of aging vets (albeit likely Hall of Famers) who were well past their primes at that point.
A slew of horrid decisions by ownership & front office alike set the franchise back nearly a decade, given an inability to rebuild through the draft with all of their picks having been traded away and the palpable stench of organizational-ineptitude warding off would-be free agent targets. Changes had to be made at the top, and then the nagging process of trying to rise from the NBA’s cellar had to begin.Somehow though, the Nets have gone from perceived no-mans-land to playoff contention in an overnight swing few in the league saw coming. If you were watching carefully however, you could see the pieces start to come together over the past couple of years.
Beginning in the 2015 NBA Draft, the Nets made traded away high-energy big man Mason Plumlee for a return centered around the 23rd selection, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. RHJ came into the league touting little else aside from length and athleticism. With no discernible strengths on the offensive end however, he took it upon himself to become one of the NBA’s better wing defenders, now frequently drawing the assignment of guarding the opposition’s premier scorers.
The next step in the Nets’ future was finding a coach who could develop young talent and help build towards a future. Enter one, Kenny Atkinson, a first time head coach who had risen through the ranks of Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta. Though the future was uncertain and the talent-pool lacked a lot of…well…talent, Atkinson took the reigns of the franchise and instilled a winning mindset on some pretty simple logic. With no draft picks to tank for, this team literally had no reason to justify losing, so why not go out and pour your heart and soul on to the floor every night. A philosophy that has resonated with a number of incoming Nets…
Without any picks of their own to get excited about, Brooklyn took to the Draft Night atmosphere as more of a trade-market opportunity. With little in the way of movable assets to that point, the Nets found a trade partner in the Indiana Pacers. They swapped Thaddeus Young, for Caris LeVert and a future second round pick (materializing in 2018 as starting Power Forward, Rodions Kurucs). The world knew LeVert was able to put the ball in the hoop, but under the careful tutelage of Atkinson, he was taught to create his own shot as well as looks for others. Despite being out since November, the Nets eagerly await the return of his scoring capabilities, currently sitting at 18 points a game.
Then came a pull from the scrap-heap of fringe NBA bench players. A mustachio’d man by the name of Spencer Dinwiddie got his chance to join a floundering Nets franchise in the middle of the 2016 campaign after being released by the Bulls before even playing a game a couple of months prior. Little was known about the former University of Colorado guard, and his previous couple of seasons with the Pistons had yielded little in the way of tangible success. He took some time to get going in the Nets’ system, but has blossomed into a strong sixth-man of the year candidate with a pension for prime-time performances.
Once hailed as the heir to Kobe’s thrown, the once brash and abrasive D’Angelo Russell was humbled to his core by a trade to Brooklyn in exchange for beloved career-Net Brook Lopez. The move on the Lakers’ side was to clear roster room for the incoming Lonzo Ball. As for the Nets however, DLo represented a chance to acquire a potential superstar at a bargain. After a slow start in his inaugural campaign with Brooklyn, Russell has seemingly snapped in 2018-19, to the tune of an All-Star selection that is well deserved for the franchises emerging cornerstone.
Then finally the Nets use a draft pick of their own, well kind-of…really it was a swap with Boston allowing them to choose 3rd and the Nets occupying their spot at 22, to select “The ‘Fro”. Jarett Allen emerged on the scene for the Nets as a high-energy big man with a game as bold as his hairstyle. His no-fear mentality has landed him on enough posters to completely cover the walls of a loft in Park Slope. But it also has lent to him swatting away shots an alarmingly good rate for a youngster, including stepping up to send dunk attempts by some of the league’s most feared flyers.
Pencil all of these guys in together and toss in the likes of Kurucs, Ed Davis, Joe Harris, Demare Carroll, and 2018 first rounder Dzanan Musa just finding his rhythm and the Nets roster looks more like a basketball lost and found than anything else. But perhaps this band of misfits best exemplifies the community that they’ve been chosen to represent. It’s not just because of Dinwiddie’s Fu Manchu-turned goatee. Not because of Allen’s 70s’ afro and mustache combination. Nor is it because of Russell pairing awkward braids and arms drenched in ink with a fashion sense that exudes Westbrook vibes. It’s because this ragtag group of hoopers has journeyed to BK from near and far with no hype or hope to their individual names. Yet the Nets currently sit as the 6th Seed in the Eastern Conference on the back of a communal effort and selfless team play.
Now, once you also calculate in the fact that the team is waiting on the return of Dinwiddie, LeVert, and scoring wing Allen Crabbe from lengthy stays on the sidelines with injury…you’re left to conclude that his team isn’t exactly prepared to bow out of the race for playoff basketball anytime soon.
Detractor’s of the franchise’s current success will say that they’ve chosen the worst time imaginable to be good. Siting the fact that the Nets own their own draft pick for the first time since 2010, perhaps this was the year to adopt a “tanking for Zion” mentality like their crosstown rivals, the Knicks. But would you really take that trade off?
For a chance (and not a great one at that) to draft a potential superstar, would you risk stunting the growth of your pre-built, ready to contend ensemble? Would you ask your impressionable youngsters to stop playing hard every night, letting them know that you don’t believe they have it in them to win it all without a guy who has yet to sniff a minute of NBA basketball? Would you alienate your head coach and threaten his job security to adapt a losing mindset, after he’s rallied your squad to overachieve beyond even the loftiest of conceivable expectations for the franchise?
The Nets aren’t NBA Finals ready in 2019…
But soon enough, they could be…