Rebuilding is hard enough in the modern NBA, but losing your first round draft picks in four consecutive seasons is unfathomable. In spite of the blinding spotlight of the New York media and their severe lack of assets, the Brooklyn Nets have managed to build an effective roster with a bright young core rallying around their underdog status.
In a poetic sense, the rebuild of the Nets has embodied the Brooklyn culture by grinding season-by-season to develop talent, create opportunities for themselves and fight for survival. Their emphasis on ‘Brooklyn Grit’ isn’t just a slogan, but rather a rallying point for their city and fans who endure the grind of city living. After three long years of utter disappointment, the Nets may be poised for a push back into relevance.
Before taking a look to the Nets’ future, let’s look back at what may be the greatest swindle of Danny Ainge’s front office career. In an attempt to propel their midtier playoff core to contention in the Eastern Conference, former general manager Billy King sent a haul of trivial role players to Boston for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. Unfortunately for the Nets, King agreed to an abundance of First Round picks and pick swaps that eventually translated to Joseph Young, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Collin Sexton for Boston.
Each of the three veterans acquired by Brooklyn departed within a year and a half of the trade and left the Nets to meet their demise. As the body of Deron Williams deteriorated and Joe Johnson declined, Brooklyn posted an abysmal win percentage of .280 over their last three seasons. Regardless of the wins, or lack thereof, the Nets managed to take eight more games in 2017-2018 than the season before.
Brooklyn’s niche fanbase has rallied around the work of general manager Sean Marks, whose competence and vision provide a change of pace for the forlorn franchise. The hiring of Kenny Atkinson, whose public perception falls in line with Marks, proved that the Nets are headed to a team-oriented style of contemporary basketball based on toughness, dexterity, pacing and camaraderie. Players have been afforded the chance to hone their skills and discover their potential under Atkinson and the Nets.
Take point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who finished third in Most Improved Player voting behind Victor Oladipo, an All-NBA talent, and Clint Capela who’s widely considered a top-tier Center. His short two-year tenure in Detroit buried the potential of the 38th pick in the 2014 Draft. Dinwiddie took on a small role in his first year as a Net before sliding into Jeremy Lin’s featured role at the beginning of the season. His production spiked to an average of 12.6 points, 6.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. It’s not blasphemous to believe that Brooklyn’s staff and training played a part in saving Dinwiddie’s NBA career.
On the other hand, his partner in the backcourt D’Angelo Russell has proven himself as an exceptional playmaker, ball handler and shot creator. Russell combines size, strength, wit and skill to provide a spark to Brooklyn’s offense. After shipping Nets staple Brook Lopez and a draft pick that became Kyle Kuzma to Los Angeles, Brooklyn acquired who they believe to be their next star. Unfortunately, DLo was riddled with injuries in his debut season with Brooklyn, appearing in just 48 games and starting in only 35. Year four of D’Angelo Russell, if healthy, is key to the leap in the Eastern Conference standings that Brooklyn longs for.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes time to groom and develop a young team, especially without your first round draft picks. Take swingman Caris LeVert, for example, who showed himself to be a raw prospect in his first year. Year two of LeVert saw him attaining an increased offensive role and running with it. In just five additional minutes per game, LeVert averaged 12.1 points per game while improving his three-point percentage from 32.1 to 34.7 percent. More so than his scoring, Atkinson’s motion offense unlocked LeVert’s passing ability by allowing him to generate his own offense. He more than doubled his assist total from year one to year two, averaging 4.2 assists at the small forward position.
Projecting ahead, year three of Caris LeVert could provide a major boost to Brooklyn’s two-way potential. He’s become much more comfortable defensively and provides a certain switchability that’s essential in matching up against Eastern Conference powerhouses. The talent, veteran presence and physicality of DeMarre Carroll are important in grounding the young Nets, but the starting role may belong to LeVert by the middle of the season.
The stakes are higher than ever for Brooklyn, as they’ve got an opportunity to attract marquee free agents in the summer of 2019. They’re projected to have roughly $60 million in cap space next summer and could easily create more by moving some of their expensive contracts. With top-level free agents such as Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving hitting the market, Brooklyn is expected to be in the mix for a real push at recruiting a star. Pairing their developing core with an All-Star talent could easily propel them into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Brooklyn is renowned for their dedication and loyalty to their players. Stories emerged throughout the year of the team’s real emphasis on including player’s families in day-to-day activities of the team. Establishing a strong culture takes more than on-court performance and the Nets have done a great job of making Brooklyn a place where players and their families are taken care of. As Biggie Smalls, the city’s finest once said: “show love it’s the Brooklyn way.”
For now, they’ll need to rise in the playoff rankings and continue to grow. Free Agents would be much more incentivized to join a team on the verge of the playoffs as opposed to a bottoming squad of misfits. From a talent standpoint, it’s clear as day that the Nets have the pieces necessary to return to form with the addition of an established leader. Now, it’s a matter of working on their gameplan, increasing the production of their young players and recruiting further talent.