A few days ago, this report would have been easier to write. Then, this ... and this ... happened, one a blowout win on the road, the other a hard-fought loss in a back-to-back. It’s not so simple anymore. We’ve seen what the Nets can do, particularly the younger Nets, the future as it were. Maybe there is some light at the end of a tunnel, and not an oncoming train.
This has been a tough half-season, with only nine wins and no lottery pick to tank for. It’s also the first year of what could be long process. Three years, five years? Who knows.
Bottom line right now: The big positive is the increasingly confident play of some of the younger players, specifically Caris LeVert, and the big negative, the loss of not only Jeremy Lin for all but 12 games, but Greivis Vasquez, his back-up, for all but 38 minutes.
It’s not as if they didn’t tell us it would be rough going.
The view from October
“We don’t talk about projections,” Kenny Atkinson said at the beginning of the season. “We don’t talk about win shares. We don’t talk about it. It’s a cliche, but we’re so focused on the process, so focused on our team, so focused on team development and player development, and we’re going to measure those.
"As we've said before, we want something that's done strategically and systematically, build a strong foundation and not something that's a fleeting moment, something that will last,” added Sean Marks. “The couple of acquisitions that we've made so far and developing as Kenny said the young guys, that will help to establish that foundation.
“"I know there's plenty of long hours ahead, and months to go.”
Pundits offered up their own dose of reality. Here’s a sampling of those prognostications:
— Sports Illustrated: “Dead last by a mile for the second straight year. Would anyone notice if this anonymous cast moved back to New Jersey? Would Jersey even take them?”
— ESPN.com: “I feel no inclination to ever watch the Nets play. Why should I care about them?”
— N.Y. Post: “The record is going to be bad. The question is degree: Bad, or historically bad?”
— Even NBA.com: “You don’t want to be in Brooklyn, where the Nets aren’t built to win and it doesn’t pay for them to lose. They won’t own their own first-round pick outright until 2019, or the year before the next presidential election. There is slightly good news: Jeremy Lin will never look this good since he was with the Knicks, and maybe Brook Lopez can fetch something in a trade should the Nets dangle him. Otherwise, whatever happened to the, ahem, glory years in Brooklyn? Jay-Z had the good sense to bail early. Yes, even Hova knew it was over.”
Some positives early
There was some (false?) optimism early, when the Nets went 2-3 before Lin went down. They were even 4-5 at one point. But the lack of a veteran point guard and the big turnover that started last March under Marks couldn’t sustain that pace.
Then Lin went down and all those down-to-earth assessments and harsh punditry came rushing back. They weren’t very good and there wasn’t a lot of ways to fix it.
Historically bad basketball
The worst stretch, perhaps even worse than their recent 11-game losing streak, came in late November, early December when the Nets lost 11 of 12 games and were without Lin (and Vasquez). Isaiah Whitehead was getting used to playing the point and LeVert hadn’t returned from injury.
It wasn’t just the losses or the injuries but the frustration associated with the lack of a clear timetable for Lin’s return. He was frustrated, fans were frustrated and we’re told so was the front office.
Initially, LeVert’s debut did provide some optimism, but then Lin returned and in a blink of an eye, was gone again, and again with no timetable. The 11-game losing streak that ended vs. New Orleans produced some of the worst basketball the organization has ever produced. Defense was historically bad and fans began making apt comparisons to the 2009-10 season at IZOD when they won 12 games ... but had three picks in the top 31. Now, there was little light, little joy.
It started slowly, as LeVert, the 20th pick in the NBA Draft, began play, began getting more and more minutes. No wins, but perceptible development, improvement. Atkinson and the front office, ever patient, said they wanted to bring him on “intelligently,” which for fans meant too slowly. But with each game, the 6’7” combo guard/swing man began to show that he would be more than just a rotation player, but perhaps someone special, maybe even the steal of a (bad) draft.
He and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson seem a great pairing. Same age, same size, same defensive skills. Position-less, modern and oh, so young. Isaiah Whitehead showed more and more skills, hitting 35 percent of his three’s in January, blocking shots in spectacular fashion, refining his passing skills, learning.
So, there is, finally, some evidence that the team’s development process was starting to bear fruit. The Nets did VERY well, it now appears in the 2016 Draft, trading Thaddeus Young for the rights to LeVert and spending $3 million (and trading the 55th pick) on Whitehead.
There will be reverses and caveats, but the front office is going to remain patient. There’s no panic. If one experiment (Anthony Bennett) fails, the Nets are willing to move on to the next one (Quincy Acy). The roster is fluid and likely to become even more so as the NBA approaches the trade deadline at 3 p.m., February 23. So far, 18 players have worn a Nets uniform this season.
The system, at least on offense, is here to stay. It IS where the NBA is going: the wide-open, fast-paced, three point-heavy, position-less basketball. The Nets may not (okay, do not) have the components needed to make it work as well as it has elsewhere, but the front office and coaching staff will build and develop a roster based on that model. Deal with it. Same thing with character. The Nets debated bringing on Dion Waiters and Rajon Rondo, but decided against it. Waiters was closer than Rondo. (Lance Stephenson didn’t even get a hearing, we’re told.)
Culture still counts
Ownership is on board with the patient approach as well. No more going for the gold ring, no more wild spending, no more small group think. Marks keeps in close touch with Mikhail Prokhorov as well as Dmitry Razumov, but he also includes all his staff —even interns, we’re told — in discussions of moves big and small. Prokhorov and Razumov are very happy with the strategy if not the losses. (They will be in town this week to watch some games and presumably talk about where to go next.)
Bottom line, it’s based on, and we know you’ve heard this, culture. Some aspects of it are evident, like standards for players, development, performance, etc. There’s the HSS Training Center, too. But there are little things as well: a new Family Room for players and coaches families; oversized couches in the players’ lounges; a locker room hallway lined with giant (and up-to-date) portraits of current players in action. Next year, the Long Island Nets will play at Nassau Coliseum, easily the biggest, most modern arena in the D-League. Dismiss it if you will, but the players seem to like it and players talk.
There has been frustration with the performance team. There’s frustration about the nagging Lin injuries. In his interview with CCTV5, China’s version of ESPN, Lin let it be known that he thinks he’s ready but data from the monitoring equipment he wears says he isn’t. And why was Vasquez signed to a fairly big deal and important role despite lingering health issues, easily the biggest personnel mistake.
Where do we go from here?
The second half of the season started in Charlotte. Lin, presumably, will return soon. The Nets are likely to be active at the deadline. How big the deals? No idea yet.
As for the recurring Lopez trade rumors, now in their seventh big year, Adrian Wojnarowski says the Nets aren’t pushing him out the door and Marc Stein says the asking price for Lopez is two first round picks (emphasis in the original). Bojan Bogdanovic keeps playing well, keeps upping his value. How will that affect the Nets willingness to move him. Marks may be listening to offers for Hollis-Jefferson, but if he continues the way he’s going, do you trade a 22-year-old for a pick? How high must it be? When will you be able to use it?
Longer term, the new CBA changes the rules on restricted free agents, the Nets preferred means of getting young players. Some make it easier, but the big change is no more poison pill contracts. That’s not good.
As for the lost picks, Marks and Atkinson may lament the situation privately, but publicly, they called them sunk costs and think they’ve devised an alternative strategy.
“Every guy we’ve signed for whatever reason, we’ve got to turn into a really good first-round pick. That’s the way we look at it,” Atkinson said in November. “That [trade] is part of the past and it never really enters my mind.”
“The way I look at it is that Joe Harris is our draft pick, Justin Hamilton is our draft pick, Caris [LeVert] is our draft pick. That’s part of the past. Every guy we sign, we’ve got to help them turn into a first-round pick.”
We’ll see how that works. We have front row seats.
One more thing: Never forget the Nets as an organization have embarked on an experiment. They hired 30 new staffers and elevated a lot of key “players” to new jobs, starting with Marks and Atkinson. It’s going take time.
As Ronald Nored, the 26-year-old head coach of the Long Island Nets, said just before his team’s opener, “We’re all new.” And after the debacle that got us here, that’s a good thing.