The Future of the Nets is Now

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Three years in, do you even know how you would introduce the Nets to your parents?

These days, the Brooklyn Nets' twitter feed is littered with recycled content of the #NetsFacts variety, plunked down in the stream with nothing real-time about it except for the time stamp which says it is so.

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While Popovich is busy organizing his five rings in the most democratically optimal arrangement, the Nets marketing team flings popcorn into the air, rifling through the team's less than illustrious archives pondering what piece of calorie-less trivia to dredge out of the Meadowlands swamp. For example, Did you know that Otis Birdsong is 10th on the Nets all time point scorers list with 5,968? The tactic is one of biding time, of hoping that trifles like these will sustain a restless if not slightly indifferent fan base through what's bound to be a less electric offseason than the two that came before it.

Ever since Kawhi Leonard metamorphosed into a polite but no less destructive version of the Hulk and the Spurs evinced Miami's fallibility and questionable future, numerous news sources have confirmed witness eye accounts of Eastern Conference GMs whistling "Why not us?" along the sidewalk. Justifiably so! After what appeared to be an unprecedentedly fierce top half of the East withered into a series of injuries and bizarre meltdowns, suddenly no one can predict what next season might look like east of Lake Superior.

***

[Back at the Nets HQ, the social media staff opts to post something about the Brooklynettes.] Somewhere in the world, Blatche is plotting ways to win the heart of the Philippines and drop a Eurostep past Pacquiao's political power, Kirilenko ponders what type of mahogany will best suit the grand opening of Russia's first Hooters and Livingston smiles knowing this summer was a long time coming. With a third of the roster suspended in free agency or murkier yet, opt-out and territory, yet 93mil tapped out by the remaining players on the payroll, the future, like the team’s identity, rests in an amorphous state, straightjacketed unless a trade partner agrees to admit one of the Nets' ailing once-stars onto its roster in exchange for some form of breathing room and/or usable assets.

If you are anyone but the Spurs, it is likely that you find yourself on one of two parallel paths heading into tomorrow’s draft: teams who bowed out of the playoffs carrying promising momentum into the summer, or teams who earned first dibs on green room hopefuls after failing to even come close to sniffing the playoffs. The Nets, seven weeks divorced from the disappointment of elimination, and 24 hours away from what is traditionally a time of renewal and delusional hope in the NBA, fall in neither category.

Deadbolted by the trio of Lopez, Williams and Johnson's carb-heavy contracts, King finds himself in the unenviable position of having an empty stomach and an equally desolate wallet. Uneasy about the team's spectator status in the draft, he has been serially speed dialing his front office compadres looking to pry a pick from thrifty franchises (RIP Donald Sterling).

***

The levers of fandom can be mysterious. Just look at the forces that inspired the city of Toronto's poignant display of communal fervor as a testament to the sudden ways in which people can coalesce around a team and the exponential energy that can flow out of that collective spirit. Those principles are opaque to most front office execs, who like corporate suits, think that "make it go viral" is an acceptable project brief for which there exists a solution that can be reverse engineered from previous cultural phenomenons.

Truth be told, the 'Hello Brooklyn' message hasn't quite landed in the borough. The supposed bad blood powering the Knicks and Nets' anticipated rivalry was one of a few gussied up concept-tested campaigns that fizzled due to the asynchronicity of both teams' emergence. And the graft of the Celtics grit and championship pedigree didn't quite marble through the layers of the organization as it was intended.

The season wasn't without its micro successes, yet most came about mainly as a byproduct of fallen players, hence surprise combinations paired with Kidd’s simultaneous maturing in his role as the team's sherpa. The part cagey, part mismatched, part "positionally funky" Nets that momentarily scared the league after bounding out the gates in 2014 were not just a happy accident and the Nets would do well to bottle it up, prod, examine and fertilize those seeds with whatever flexibility they can finagle this summer. That’s going to be tricky given the fact that they only have a happy meal trinket to throw at Livingston and that no one has a good read on Pierce right now.

At the MIT Sloan conference this past spring, George Karl vehemently argued against the notion that offenses have to retreat to a plodding pace in order triumph in the postseason. This, after his latest coaching chapter -- marked by his vaunted two point-guard lineup -- turned Karl into the de facto spokesperson for a loose, spontaneous combustion style of minimalist dribbling basketball. Same as the Nets' secret sauce this season, the Nuggets' trademark was partially the result of circumstance -- in this case, Carmelo's dispatching and the score of players the Nuggets had to integrate -- rather than a stratagem that sprung organically from some grand design.

As the rest of the league takes the summer to reflect and adjust to the new standard of excellence established by The Spurs, George Karl's words ring truer than ever: although the defensive scramble created by the Spurs is a consequence of a highly systemized yet not less creative offense than that of Karl's freewheeling Nuggets, the Spurs played with what amounted to three point guards and the Heat's admittedly less rabid defense had no antidote for the structured chaos produced by their whiplash passing and burning pace. It is likely that the Spurs’ success as well as funky experiments in Morey’s World will help further propagate the breakneck tempo Karl was so keen to defend and that teams will see those principles through the months of May and June instead of reverting to a more orthodox slog-it-out brand of playoff basketball.

Despite fans and pundits’ hystrionic tendencies to want to over extrapolate learnings from the NBA champion's roster (especially from box scores as lopsided as those we witnessed) -- can small ball trump size? have we entered the age of position-less basketball? can pace defeat grind it out playoff defensive intensity -- there's still something concrete to be drawn from Pop’s power of adaptivity and a style of play that inhibits opposing defenses in the same way it enables a lush and fluidly cascading offense. The Nets, at their best this season, were in some way a frankenstein-y variation of that.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, continuity -- the most underrated competitive advantage due to its inimitability -- matters.

***

Marketing the Islanders in Brooklyn

Looking at the ledger, letting the metaphorical frosty tips grow out before fashioning a new 'do seems like the smartest course of action for the Nets. Of course, that would require the itchy Prokhorov to exercise patience that would be a departure from his Act Now, Worry Later style of ownership. Year one on Flatbush Avenue saw the team swap its 6th pick for one season too many of Gerald Wallace and many heartbreaking viewings of Lillard's league pass heroics. As the sizzle from the "we're heeeere!" campaign wore off, the Nets' brain trust, antsy for a different kind of relevancy, transplanted the Celtics beating heart into its organism as they blew a goodbye kiss to three first round picks. Will Prokhorov and King keep scouring for players like The Big Ticket for their impact on the court, or maneuver for big ticket names whose primary value will be derived more from impressions in the media and a short lived uptick at the box office?

Whether motivated by the conventional wisdom that winning correlates to higher attendance, a burning desire to win now, or the surface area of his own shadow, Prokhorov's team-building ethos mirrors the kind of economic development that betrays the motivation of a philanthropist eager for a ribbon cutting photo op.

The newest addition to the behavioral economics lexicon is the "IKEA effect", a type of cognitive bias that inflates the value of a product as long as its owner partially built it, not matter how wobbly or poorly assembled the table. It's time in their Brooklyn tenure for the Nets to consider a more patient capital approach to team building, which would have the dual benefit of laying a concrete infrastructure -- a key component in today's mixed economy NBA -- as well as giving Brooklynites a chance to feel as though they played a part in the team's growth.

***

Two years ago, it made sense for the Nets to announce their arrival onto the New York scene by descending in a chopper, hair blowing with camera flashes, well, flashing. Cultural arbitrage is not a bad bet in the early days, especially in an overbearingly exigent market like New York, but at some point a more organic kind of equity has to take its place. Likewise, the roster has to evolve from a constantly revolving pastiche to something with a longer more purposeful shelf life.

It remains to be seen what year three will produce at a pivotal time for the Nets; they will either reveal themselves as the Knicks' jealous little brother -- guilty of the same churn and light pollution -- or a flourishing franchise that sets and plays by its own rules. The Nets may not have nabbed a pick in the draft just yet, but they will be on the clock regardless.

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