The biggest storylines in New York sports four months ago? Jacob deGrom winning the National League Cy Young Award; the New York Yankees facing off with the arch-rival Boston Red Sox in the ALCS; the rookie seasons of New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley and New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold; how the New York Knicks would operate under new head coach David Fizdale; and if St. John’s could take the next step.
The Brooklyn Nets were nowhere to be found.
Well, now they have the Big Apple’s attention. Currently 30-29, the Nets are the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, playing competitive basketball, and are one of the biggest developments in the New York area. And their success is a model of continuity.
Going into this season the general consensus with the Nets was that they’d be a competitive team, but would be on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Instead, they’ve been one of the most surprising teams in the NBA. With a young core, headlined by D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen, the Nets have been one of the most uptempo and athletic teams in the sport.
In his second season with the Nets, Russell has come into his own as an offensive focal point and has potentially found a long-term home. Averaging a career-high 20.3 points and 6.6 assists per game while shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from beyond the arc (both career-highs), the Ohio State product has been a man possessed offensively. He’s getting to the rim with ease, has become a more efficient shooter, and is finding the open man; Russell is the driving force of head coach Kenny Atkinson’s offense.
LeVert has experienced a mixed season. After a strong start he was sidelined due to a gruesome foot injury, and it appeared as if he’d miss the rest of the 2018-19 season. Fortunately for the third-year forward, he was able to return to the floor two weeks ago and should man a larger role in the near future. Before the injury LeVert was averaging 18.4 points per game, serving as a go-to scorer while playing swarming defense.
In his second season in the NBA, Allen has continued to be a defensive force. Whether it be blocking dunk attempts, defending the paint, or locking down his man in the post, the center has been a defensive backbone. Plus, he finishes in the paint on the other end of the floor and is averaging 11.2 points per game — which, in today’s NBA, is suitable for a center.
But the presence of veterans such as Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, and Allen Crabbe have also been vital to the Nets’ well-being this season. Before suffering a thumb injury Dinwiddie was averaging 17.2 points per game and was a front runner for the Sixth Man of the Year Award; Harris has been a reliable source of offense, averaging a career-high 13.9 points per game while shooting an astonishing 47.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Davis has been efficient on the boards, averaging a career-high 8.6 rebounds per game while shooting a career-best 61.6 percent from the field in just 18.3 minutes a night; Carroll has come off the bench and been a scrappy scorer, averaging 11.2 points per game and continuing to be a defensive stopper; when healthy, Crabbe has provided an offensive spark, whether it be in the starting five, or off the bench.
Now, is the Nets’ success this season a result of the underwhelming competition in the East? Of course, there are five powerhouse teams and a bunch of subpar and/or tanking ones. But it shouldn’t undermine the growth the Nets have endured this season. Going into this season few had them penciled in as a playoff team, and if they keep playing at the rate which they’ve been for the first two-thirds of the season, they’ll be playing meaningful basketball in the spring; that means something, regardless of the road to get there.
In each of the last three seasons, the Nets have been difficult to decipher. Would they ever turn a corner? Would general manager Sean Marks make a franchise-altering trade? Would he trade away veterans to add draft picks — which the Nets have been deprived of since former general manager Billy King traded away the team’s next 30 first-round draft picks to the Boston Celtics for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry in 2013 (not literally, it just felt that way based on how the Celtics had the Nets first-round pick nearly every season since that trade)? Would Atkinson be jettisoned if the Nets didn’t make a playoff appearance?
The Nets didn’t give into any of those temptations. They stuck with their youth, improved their roster along the way, and are breaking out this season. Last offseason the Nets traded long-time center Brook Lopez and a first-round pick (which became forward Kyle Kuzma) to the Los Angeles Lakers for Russell and Timofey Mozgov. Once a Hollywood enigma, Russell is helping put the Nets back on the NBA map. Marks added the likes of players such as Russell, Harris, and Carroll, deepening their rotation last season, and now that the three of them and the Nets roster, as a whole, has more familiarity with Atkinson’s offense, they’re competing with the best the East has to offer.
This offseason the Nets project to have in excess of $50 million in cap space. Given how they’re a young and improving team with management that hasn’t made any knee-jerk transactions, the Nets should be a draw to big-name and second-tier free agents. You could argue that the addition of one premier free agent — such as Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, or Jimmy Butler — puts the Nets in contention in the East.
While the NBA world is in awe of the crosstown-rival Knicks freeing up cap space to potentially sign two max free agents this summer, their roster continues to reach new levels of ineptitude, whether it be as a result of moves management makes, or adjustments Fizdale makes to his rotation; they’re 11-47 and clearly value ping-pong balls over wins, for the time being. Meanwhile, the Nets are trying to win games (which you’d think would matter in New York City of all places) and are, undoubtedly, the best professional basketball venue in New York City.
The Nets have a blossoming young core, players coming into their own as steady forces, and are capable of making a significant free agent signing — or two — this summer. This is what happens when you stick to your guns and stay the course; the Nets are coming.