After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.
This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?
It’s easy to dismiss the Brooklyn Nets as a dreary mess, a failed basketball state razed to charcoal by delusion and the reckless pursuit of short-term success. But last Saturday, in the team’s gleaming new Sunset Park practice facility, the atmosphere was far from gloomy.
The pacifying hues of sky and water poured through panoramic windows overlooking the skyline of Lower Manhattan; general manager Sean Marks towered above a throng of children chasing loose basketballs across the hardwood; Jeremy Lin’s ponytail bobbed as he practiced corner 3-pointers on the other side of the gym. There was the optimism of a fresh start — not only for the upcoming season, but also for a foundational shift.
"It’s a complete change," said coach Kenny Atkinson, who was hired by the Nets in April after three years as an assistant in Atlanta. In their reboot, which began midway through last season with the demotion of general manager Billy King, the Nets also brought in Marks, yet another sprig from the San Antonio organizational tree who talks about "culture" and "the program." With only five players from last year’s group remaining on the roster, Brooklyn has more turnover and less continuity than any team in the league.
"There’s a great challenge of cohesiveness and communication," said Atkinson. "It’s exciting figuring all this out and building from the ground up. So far, so good."
Last year, after three consecutive but inconsequential trips to the playoffs, the Nets plunged to nearly rock bottom. The team won 21 games and was butchered on both sides of the ball (the offense ranked 27th, the defense 29th). Brooklyn is likely to have a miserable record this season, too. The Westgate SuperBook pegged the team’s 2017 over-under win total at 21.5.
Unlike most cellar dwellers, the Nets won’t be be able to replenish their roster with talent from the top of the draft. Due to that calamitous 2013 trade with Boston, Brooklyn effectively surrendered its first-round pick to the Celtics for three straight years (one is a pick-swap option that will almost certainly be exercised in 2017). This rebuild is not for the faint of heart.
But when there’s blood in the streets, buy land — at least according to an adage of contrarian investing. Since no franchise has bled out as profusely as the Nets, it might be the ideal time to make Brooklyn your new favorite team. No, seriously.
Since moving to Brooklyn in 2012 as part of a real estate play, the Nets have been competitive but rarely fun. With all the monochrome gear, magazine covers with graffiti backdrops, and thumping Notorious B.I.G. songs that drowned out the Barclays Center crowd, the franchise felt less like a basketball team than a Poochie-fied marketing campaign for the borough.
While clawing for relevance in the New York market, the Nets built a generic, prefab contender by sloughing off young talent and draft assets for veterans like Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, and Joe Johnson. A year after moving, Brooklyn added aging stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. It was a surly, bland, and underachieving cohort that was unceremoniously disassembled to no one’s great dismay. Jay Z’s tweet, posted after the Nets defeated the Knicks in a 2012 game, about the city being "under new management" now rings comically hollow for so many reasons.
The 2016–17 Brooklyn Nets are the expansion team they never took the time to be four years ago. Your New Brooklyn Nets are bad, likable, and hopeful. Expectations, bloated salaries, and empty promises from Russian oligarchs are gone.
"Internally, we’re not looking at the season like we’re taking it off," said center Brook Lopez, Brooklyn’s longest-tenured player and a 2013 All-Star. "We’re looking to surprise people. We’ve all been working together for a long time now, since way before training camp. We’re talking months. We have confidence in one another. We know a lot of our guys, they have an opportunity to come here and show something special, to show the league what they can do in a team setting."
Without incentive to tank for lottery balls, the Nets entered the offseason aggressively looking to spend. Hefty offer sheets sent to restricted free agents Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe were matched by the Miami Heat and the Portland Trail Blazers, respectively. As a result, Brooklyn is still roughly $18 million under the salary cap, making the team a potential player in midseason transactions.
But the Nets didn’t whiff entirely in free agency. Lin, coming off a solid season in Charlotte and penciled in as Brooklyn’s starting point guard, is averaging 25.7 points and 7.5 assists per 36 minutes during the preseason. Another intriguing pickup is 28-year-old forward Trevor Booker, formerly of the Utah Jazz, a barrel-chested stopper who is leading the team in rebounds per 36 minutes this preseason. Nets fans may not know it yet, but he’ll dunk on your face.
Marks fleshed out the Nets’ roster with a handful of good-dude veterans like Luis Scola, Randy Foye, and Greivis Vásquez. Foye said he signed with Brooklyn not only due to its proximity to his hometown of Newark, but because he was impressed by the recruitment pitch from Marks and Atkinson. "Their vision was pretty cool," he said. "From D-League, all the way up to the guys on the team, it’s a system. I thought it would fit me. The offense they were running was similar to stuff we were running in OKC — obviously we don’t have [Kevin Durant] and Russell [Westbrook] — but some of the sets."
Based on the preseason evidence, the Nets have made significant ideological changes under the new regime. The evolution may not be effective, in terms of record, but it will be entertaining. Last season, Brooklyn tied for 20th-fastest pace — which was actually an improvement over the three previous years. But in the preseason, Brooklyn is streaking at the fourth-fastest pace in the NBA (tied with Boston). They’re also heaving up a shit-ton of 3s. The Nets attempted the fourth-fewest 3-pointers last year; in the preseason, only the free-shooting Houston Rockets are flinging them up at a higher rate.
"We have a style we want to play and a philosophy, but we also have to understand our players," said Atkinson. "You can’t just do a complete 180 and switch everything that doesn’t fit your players. That’s why I think it’ll be incremental growth. It’ll take time to form different habits. We’re asking them to do different things than maybe they’ve been asked to do in the past. At the same time, we’re not going to shove it down their throat if it doesn’t work with this group."
The Nets may lack upper-echelon prospects, but almost any young player on a bad team has the potential of a penny stock. He likely won’t amount to much, but he’ll have an opportunity to perform, and any tiny blip of promise is exciting. During the Sixers’ recent teardown, fans followed the fates of borderline NBA players like Tony Wroten, Hollis Thompson, and T.J. McConnell with almost irrational fervor. Brooklyn has a few of those guys in second-year player Chris McCullough and rookies Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead. LeVert, acquired in a draft-day deal that sent Thaddeus Young to the Pacers, is a talented wing whose stock plummeted after he injured his foot during his senior season at Michigan.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a second-year player, may be on the verge of a breakout season. The lanky and mobile 6-foot-7 wing is an exceptional rebounder for his position and ranked third in the NBA in steals per 36 minutes out of players who played a similar amount (he only played 615 minutes as a rookie due to an ankle injury). To evolve into more than a lupine defensive specialist with no stroke (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Mk II), he’ll need to improve his perimeter shooting beyond last season’s 29 percent.
On Saturday, Hollis-Jefferson remained in the gym long after practice, firing up 3s from various spots around the arc. After bonking several off the rim, he drained four in a row and exaggeratedly fanned himself as he jogged to the next launching point. Atkinson is encouraging him to take those shots in games. "He was 0–2 the other night, but the two he took were wide open," said Atkinson. "I put my arm around him and said, ‘Take the next one, take the next one.’ I think that’s how you develop. I saw Marcus Smart last year, and he was shooting 19 percent, and they kept letting him shoot it. Then the playoffs come and Marcus Smart starts lighting us up."
After attempting only 14 3s in 29 games last season, Hollis-Jefferson has taken an average of one per game in the preseason. "It’s a relief, just having a coach who says, ‘Shoot if if you’re open,’" he said. "It feels good. You gotta go through those ups and downs of missing in the games to get that stroke going."
More or less, that’s the Nets’ overarching approach. They don’t have enough talent to avoid a dismal record, but they finally appear to be emphasizing the right things. Player development. Pace-and-space basketball. Taking a patient, longer-view perspective.
And, besides, rooting for a terrible team isn’t that bad. There’s no pressure. When your Brooklyn brick squad is being molly-whopped by 30 in the third quarter and Steph Curry is snickering behind a towel on the sideline, turn off the TV and break out the watercoloring set. Relish your brief time with the basketball hobos who clamor into the caboose of a bad team’s roster and become minor cult figures before chugging off to Siberian leagues. Rare victories are happy surprises and torturous last-second losses are only momentarily excruciating. Suffering through seasons like the coming one are how fans earn credibility — and Brooklyn desperately needs some respectable die-hards.
"You can’t make no one be a fan," said Foye. "If you want to support someone, if you believe in the underdog, and you from the borough or the city — then why not support us?"