The last time the Nets were at full strength, LeBron James was in a Cavaliers jersey, DeMar DeRozan was still the king of the north, and Jason Kidd was still the shot-caller in Milwaukee. Spencer Dinwiddie will return from a thumb injury on Friday, giving Brooklyn a completely healthy roster for the first time since October 2017, when Jeremy Lin went down in the season opener. The Nets have changed alongside their Eastern Conference counterparts during the past two seasons. That team was a fringe League Pass squad. This one has the sixth seed.
Brooklyn has spent more time as a meme than it has a conference competitor since its fateful trade in 2014 with Boston. A couple of years ago, the NBPA tweeted a picture of five unrecognizable Nets players from media day only for the internet to roast the franchise for fielding players who were as anonymous and cookie-cutter as its uniforms. Brooklyn was teased for being made of scraps and loose parts until general manager Sean Marks made that the franchise’s most endearing quality, embracing the opportunity to develop unknown talent. This year, the Nets sent four players to All-Star Weekend, more than any Eastern Conference team. D’Angelo Russell became the franchise’s first All-Star since Joe Johnson in 2013-14, Rodions Kurucs and Jarrett Allen played in the Rising Stars game, and Joe Harris competed in and won the 3-point contest. Outside Russell, none were former lottery darlings. And except for the 27-year-old Harris, all were under 23.
Before Dinwiddie’s January surgery to repair torn thumb ligaments, he was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Russell is a leading name for Most Improved Player, and had Caris LeVert not suffered a disturbing leg fracture in November, he would be, too. The trio will reunite for Friday’s game against Charlotte for the first time since the first month of the season, and just in time for its most difficult stretch. Brooklyn has the third-toughest remaining schedule in the NBA by win percentage, and, with just a three-game cushion on the ninth-place Hornets, is still at risk of falling out of the postseason, or at the very least, dropping significantly enough in the standings to have to face Milwaukee or Toronto in the first round.
But the churn of injuries means we don’t have a clear picture of Brooklyn’s ceiling. Allen Crabbe missed five weeks, overlapping with Dinwiddie’s absence, and the entire forward rotation—DeMarre Carroll, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Jared Dudley—has spent time out as well. Shabazz Napier, who was supposed to be Dinwiddie insurance, and shooting guard Treveon Graham suffered hamstring strains. The Nets weren’t expected to be a playoff contender even if fully healthy, so their injuries have gone underdiscussed and underanalyzed. But now that it’s clear Brooklyn could be a postseason force, the team’s return to health should put the rest of the conference on alert.
“When I signed here in July, I didn’t think this was a playoff team, honestly,” Ed Davis told The New York Post last week. “But when I got here and started to see players and how good guys were—and see Coach, his philosophies and his schemes—my mind-set changed.”
Dinwiddie trails only Russell on the team in points and assists per game. He’s an infiltrator that Kenny Atkinson’s modern offense relies on for distribution and scoring, and his return is pivotal against the defenses the Nets will see in the coming weeks. LeVert is still getting reacclimated, as is Crabbe. But it didn’t take a full-strength Nets team to get to a 32-31 record, and you learned their names anyway.