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A long season, a longer road, but finally a bridge to something better

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

That was odd… and fun, at least, in the end.

The theme all throughout the old regime’s last season was that it was a ‘bridge year’ leading to something unknown. A bridge to nowhere? That’s how that regime operated, marketing what ultimately was false hope. But in some weird way, the Nets – who actually lost one more game this season than last – have reached, in both fans and pundits’ eyes, a destination that holds optimism for the future.

Their ‘bridge’ led us to the hope of respectability in the future. In the past, the need to ‘get good now’ led to impulsive decisions that hurt long-term prospects. Now it’s the opposite. GM Sean Marks and company are taking a patient approach even though it’s played a role in wins and losses ... and where the Celtics’ pick ends up.

No one is saying things are “good,” that anyone is “happy.” Kenny Atkinson talked about that after Game 82, Wednesday.

“We made a little progress, stuck our finger through the ceiling so to speak, yet we have a long way to go. We have a lot of work to do,’’ Atkinson said. “I don’t think when you win 20 games you can say [you’re happy]. I’d be lying if I said that… We understand how far we have to go. We understand the hole we’re in.”

“Look to your own backyard before your neighbors.”

So, instead of worrying about the Celtics and THEIR pick now and next year, the Nets have tried to create their own path through patience. It obviously won’t be fun when the Celtics land one of the top three picks (again) but those things are no longer in the Nets’ control. They are, in the words of so many, “sunk costs.” So why keep dwelling on it?

And that’s what this season was all about. The product on the court was very bad by record, but they fought every single game. Atkinson was dealt an extremely tough hand in his rookie season as a coach, but he created a foundation that his team would be among the hardest working team in the NBA, that 1-27 stretch or not.

I remember somebody telling me to listen to a Pardon My Take Podcast when Blake Griffin was on the show. The hosts of the show would ask their guests to name three players on the Brooklyn Nets as a goof. Like most guests, Blake laughed and struggled to answer the question.

But that was most fun part of this bittersweet season. Despite a team filled with “unknowns”, the Nets came to play every single night and shocked teams with their hard play. And for nearly 60 percent of the season -- 46 games to be exact -- Jeremy Lin did not play.

The season represented more than the 20 wins and 62 losses. Even though it was their second-worst season since 2000 —only 12-70 was worse— and the worst two seasons combined in Nets history, it’s the most respect the Nets have received in quite a long time. The season wasn’t easy by any means, but it was unique.

The process —the culture— is forming in each layer of the organization; the players, coaches, managerial staff ... and the owners.

Part I. The Players and Season Recap

It didn’t take long for things to go south for the Nets. The Nets waived backup point guard Greivis Vasquez after playing three games with the team. He needed a second surgery on his right foot. Two games later, Jeremy Lin exited early with an apparent hamstring injury. He missed the next 17 games and the Nets went 4-13 in that span, losing whatever slight grasp they had on the young season.

This would be the stamp on the long season.

Lin returned for seven games and re-injured his hamstring against the Hornets on December 26. At 7-23, the Nets were not going to rush him back by any means. And so, he missed the next 26 games, suffering another hamstring issue during rehab and the Nets won just two out of those 26 games.

From December 26 to the All-Star break, the Nets went 1-27. It was ugly and everybody wanted to know: when will Lin return? How could a simple hamstring injury lay him so low?

They lost 16 straight games and went the entire month of February without a victory. At that point, there were fewer reasons to be positive about the rebuild. However, one of the very few positive aspects of the losing was the league-wide intrigue in prospect Caris LeVert, who finally got on the court in early December and wowed folks with his versatility on both sides of the ball. And unlike his last three years at Michigan, he stayed healthy.

It was bad, but never once did it feel ‘gloomy’ the way it has in the past. The fans stayed positive and loyal, and the team kept working hard no matter the circumstances.

And thus, they finished out the season on an extremely impressive note once they got their leader back. Lin returned right after the all-star break and the Nets finished a 11-13 from March 1 to the end. They had been 9-49 prior!

Sure it may not count for much other than positive momentum in the offseason, but the Nets showed that they’re a capable team with Brook Lopez and Lin in the lineup. Just imagine what they might have been capable of if they were healthy all year became the fans mantra.

It certainly doesn’t hurt Brooklyn’s chances with free agents that they were actually a decent team in the second half of the season.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that they have a lot of money to bulk up the roster. Plus, they developed an identity to be a fast-paced, hard-working gritty team playing with nothing to lose.

It was as if being the underdog was a driving force for the young and hungry Nets.

Part II. The Coaching Staff and Development

I’ve always believed that I worked harder to get a good grade when I had a teacher that reciprocated that same effort and belief in me. You want to do well for those you respect. Atkinson IS that teacher for the Nets. He’s earned the respect of all his players – his main feat when first hired. He’s awake in the wee hours of the night studying game film and prepping to get better.

He, along with the rest of the coaching staff, participated in drills. They showed how much they care and how much they want to improve as a unit. And it was reciprocated. The Nets never beat teams or stayed close because of their talent. It was their gritty work and persistence.

That’s the epitome of Atkinson’s character. It’s infectious.

And so, the rookie coach had the fresh-legged Nets playing at the fastest pace in the league and attempted the fourth highest amount of three-pointers. This all helped with the development process, as the Nets played a motion offense that required Kenny to distribute minutes evenly. The Spurs way.

The big struggle was defense. The Nets allowed 112.5 points per game and could not cover the pick-and-roll. They got better as the season progressed, though. They held opponents under 100 points six times from the all-star break to the end of the season.

Before that? Four times.

Then, you talk about development of players and that alone deserves it’s own piece. But here’s some that deserve special note.

Not only did Lopez become the franchise’s leading scorer, he improved nearly every aspect of his offensive game. He adjusted to the fast-paced offense and knocked down a team-leading 134 three-pointers after nailing three TOTAL in nine seasons prior. He also got much better at passing the ball and finding the open man when teams would come with double teams. By season’s end, he became the second player in NBA history with 120 or more three pointers and blocks. Only Rasheed Wallace had accomplished that.

Then you have young guys that got better with time, namely LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris. Even K.J. McDaniels and Archie Goodwin played above their salary grade, as Marks said this week.

With a late-season position change to the four, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson blossomed into a great piece in the modern small ball offense. Sean Kilpatrick remains that solid spark plug off the bench willing to be the hardest working guy in the gym.

These aren’t your stars – at least not yet – but they’re solid role players and gel guys for when they bulk up the roster. Remember, minutes are distributed evenly. Everybody’s role is just as important as the other.

Not long ago, I asked a player what it felt like to have Brooklyn on his jersey, repping every night. He told me that he was damn proud because the people of Brooklyn are some of the hardest working people around and they’re proud of it.

That’s Kenny Atkinson. That’s the coaching staff. That IS Brooklyn.

Part III. GM Sean Marks and Basketball Operations

If you listen to Sean Marks long enough, you will hear him use a signature phrase about the challenge he’s facing, now exactly year into his career as Nets GM. “It’s the hand we were dealt,” he will say, a phrase that covers lost draft picks, lack of talent and much more.

Marks brought in 30 new staffers – some intriguing hires with little to no experience in the NBA. About a quarter of those new Nets staffers used to call San Antonio home, either coming immediately from San Antonio to Brooklyn or after a slight detour. There are assistant coaches, scouts, public relations and analytics staffers all with a Spurs heritage, fruit of the “Spurs tree.”

His objective was clear from day one: re-make the Nets in the Spurs image while embracing Brooklyn’s own special place in the world. Not Spurs-light, but Nets-right.

So, in his first full season as Nets GM, all eyes were on Marks to make the right decision. His first and probably biggest botch was signing Vasquez, who didn’t make it more than three games into the season. He was Lin’s back up and when Lin went down, they were forced to turn to Whitehead.

You can say waiving Yogi Ferrell was a mistake, but he simply didn’t fit in with the system. He was a better off in Dallas where the point guard dominates the ball. In his place, he put Spencer Dinwiddie – a player that’s blossomed (somewhat) into a younger version of Shaun Livingston. It took some time but by season’s end there wasn’t a pundit or fan who didn’t think he had improved. Ask the Bulls.

Then you look at the good. Over the course of the season, Marks picked up three players on 10-day contracts. All three (Dinwiddie, Quincy Acy and Archie Goodwin) signed multi-year deals following their second 10-day. All have upside and only Acy is above the age of 23.

Finally, we visit Marks’ first official trade deadline ... in the war room ... with his own personnel. Although he lost soon-to-be free agent Bojan Bogdanovic, he received Washington’s first-rounder for this year’s draft and Andrew Nicholson. That gives the Nets three draft picks in a draft where they started with nothing but a reminder of how empty their cupboard was.

He traded “cash considerations” ($75,000) for K.J. McDaniels, an athletic wing from Houston Rockets with a high upside. Brooklyn needed athleticism in the worst way and Marks found a young guy that can help patch that up. He averaged six points in 14 minutes since the Nets signed him – become a vital part of the bench during the successful second half.

Marks quietly added scouts galore, not cronies or pals, but former players, executives, professionals.

All of this falls under the culture he’s incorporating in Brooklyn. Marks often talks about finding “high character guys.” But what the front office did was encourage that character. It was a vibe we’ve never seen before. The Nets allowed players’ families on the planes and on team trips. Marks found a storage room off the practice court at Barclays and turned it into a family room. He assigned his executive assistant and the basketball operation H.R. director to work with wives and girlfriends. It’s one big cohesive unit or one big family. The significance? Good energy; empathy and understanding; cohesiveness: All key elements to changing a culture. It's a Pop thing.

Now, he and the rest of the organization hope that players and their agents take note and like what’s going on in Brooklyn.

Part IV. Ownership’s Patience

Let’s not discredit ownership. They came in here with a bang and learned the NBA is a place where your business must thrive naturally over time. This is why Mikhail Prokohorov and Sean Marks are fit for each other. They’re two business men, now with a legitimate plan.

The question is, how patient will Prokhorov and his No. 2, Dmitry Razumov be? Not to mention CEO Brett Yormark. After all, it is an investment and Prokhorov is going to want to make some sort of return on his investment sooner or later.

PART V. Incorporating ALL This Into the Offseason

This is another crucial offseason. It’s the first offseason in Brooklyn where the Nets actually have money. They’re one of six teams that has space for two max contracts, if that’s the way they want to go. Not saying to spend all the money – but at the same time – don’t hesitate to wisely spend the money while having a competitive advantage ($$$) in the market.

Rookie contracts are a bargain and they play a large part as to why they’re so valued in today’s NBA. The Nets ended up with one more first-rounder than they had before the season. They also have $3.4 million that will likely get them another pick in the second round.

After that, it’ll be key for Marks to see who fits on the team. Who stays and who goes. Last summer he said he wanted to hit singles and doubles in free agency. He can do the same; only this time the rest of the league (or in this case, the pitcher) knows he’s not completely dry of resources to build a decent team.

Unfortunately before Marks and the Nets even make it to that point, the Celtics will wind up with a top four pick in this year’s draft. No point in mentioning next year. It will sting. But it will no longer halt the Nets and their plan.

Like we said at the top, It’s crazy because there is so much different with these Nets, and they actually lost more games than last year. Most of the fans who follow the team believe in the plan. The number of fans actually attending games is up. TV ratings have been up, even if on the margins. From the executives down to the players, everybody seems to trust the process (or is it progress?).

This is no quick fix and the situation is very complex. It IS a long-term process. If patience isn’t your thing then the Nets may not be the team for you. That being said: we’ve seen worse days. Trust the process, trust the people running it and prepare yourself for a fun future.

And that is where this “bridge year” has led us. Patience within ownership, competence among the front office and the coaching staffs, and a roster that should fit the way they want to play in the future.

And finally: a culture change in the beginning stages.