For 29 of the NBA’s 30 teams, the final games of the regular season are meaningful — because for 29 of the league’s 30 teams, there is an outcome worth playing for. Boston has a shot at the no. 1 seed in the East; for the Blazers, a playoff berth is possible; and the Lakers losing out would line up well with a team desperate to win the lottery. But the Nets, currently 16–57, are in a lose-lose situation all their own, pairing the league’s most appalling record with the consequences of their past mistakes. Celtics fans will remind you any chance they get; Nets fans will try to change the subject. The fact remains: Brooklyn will be forced to swap its 2017 first-round pick with Boston’s. So for the Nets, a team in purgatory, without playoff hopes or a future dictated by ping-pong balls, there is no strategy but to play out the string. And after winning five of their past nine for the first time all season, they’re doing it surprisingly well.
Though the Nets — currently 11 games worse in the loss column than the 76ers and five games worse than the Suns and the Lakers — have no reason to tank, they’re perfectly equipped to do so. Their team — a roster with no superstars, stars, or even budding stars — is a verbatim reading of Sam Hinkie’s golden “When to Tank” plate. They’re so far from relevance that last September, their preseason photo shoot turned into a game of How Many Nets Can You Name for NBA heads. Come their first matchup, it looked like Brooklyn was fielding Brook Lopez and four guys who might as well have been the “generic athlete” jersey models used for NCAA promotions.
The team lost 16 games in a row this season, then went 1–27 over a 28-game stretch. But with seven wins in 15 games, the team is finally gaining traction on the way to being an actual NBA team.
On Sunday, the Nets beat the Hawks, 107–92, with Atlanta missing Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, and Paul Millsap due to injury. What transpired between the two rosters, one depleted by injury and one just … depleted, wasn’t pretty. The Nets nearly blew a 22-point lead, but held on long enough to win, which is a notable improvement. Players like Isaiah Whitehead and K.J. McDaniels brought defensive energy, while Caris LeVert contributed to the 10–0 run in the third that pushed the Nets back ahead comfortably after the Hawks had shrunk the lead to just five immediately out of halftime.
Earlier in March, Jeremy Lin said there was finally “tangible evidence” of what the team’s been preaching all season. Though their progress comes with a ton of caveats — they’ve beaten the (likely tanking) Suns and (also likely tanking) Knicks twice this month — the Nets are incrementally showing signs of becoming a pace-and-space-compatible team, working with nontypical shooters. Brook Lopez is suddenly the team’s largest outside threat, Trevor Booker is scoring more than he ever has, and Spencer Dinwiddie’s numbers have improved with every box score. It adds up to 10.8 makes per game from deep, a top-five figure in the league. Because the team has embraced the 3 from top to bottom, there will be nights when their attempts from behind the arc are as cringe-worthy as their team record. Brooklyn went 6-for-22 on 3-pointers against the Hawks on Sunday, reflecting their season percentage of 34.3. Only six teams claim a worse percentage, but because of the frequency of the shots (see: the Rockets model), Brooklyn’s effective field goal percentage (50.9 percent) is bumped up to a respectable league median.
And with the Nets only a game back from being .500 during this month, coach Kenny Atkinson’s overall work is something worth keeping an eye on (yes, I am suggesting watching the Nets) alongside the more meaningful games as the season ends. We’re less than three weeks away from the playoffs, which means we’ll soon be stripped of low-stakes, mediocre basketball, which is entertaining the way every new season of The Bachelor is, just watching two groups of people taking shots and missing often. Get ready to say your farewells to the Nets until next year, when the Celtics’ new rookie debuts and the Nets are still on the other end of the spectrum, crawling through a river of shit and hoping to come out clean on the other side.
An earlier version of this story inaccurately described K.J. McDaniels as having been a part of the Nets’ preseason photo shoot; he was traded to the team in February.