When going through a re-build, it helps, you know, to like what you’re seeing.
Part of the reason why the Brooklyn Nets have grown in likability transcends wins, losses, progress, or whatever trigger word that’s been commonly been associated with the team.
The reality is, these Nets are fun: Fun to watch, fun to follow, and fans will tell you, fun to root for. One big reason is that they seem to really like one another, which is ideal in building long-term camaraderie, dare we say it, culture (drink!). Kenny Atkinson recognized this ahead of the Nets’ final home game against the Boston Celtics April 9.
“I think these guys genuinely like each other and that’s important,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys in the same age group – they’re all kind of hanging out together. To go through a season and really not have any problems with any guys, that’s amazing. There were times we didn’t play well and things didn’t go our way. But as far as the locker room and our group of guys, I think it’s a credit to Sean (Marks) to get the type of guys we brought in.”
With camaraderie, improvement, even flashes of greatness come more optimism for the future than they’ve had in recent years. Although they remain far away from seriously competing, there are indicators they’ll eventually get there: 49 games decided by five points or fewer this past season, along with eight more wins in the face of serious injuries.
Maybe it’s just that the basketball gods haven’t quite answered their calls yet.
“I’m very optimistic this season,” said Caris LeVert during his exit interview on ‘baggie day’ Thursday. “I feel like we got a lot closer as a team. Guys are getting more comfortable playing with each other. Going forward, I feel like we kind of have some core guys that we’re going to go forward with.”
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, arguably the team’s most improved player from the morbid 20-win campaign from a season ago (and from the even more morbid 21-win rookie season two years ago), also sees it. What caught his attention was the team’s ability to remainfocused, compete, and of course, to Atkinson’ earlier point, stick together.
“Being in more close games, I think it’s just getting over that hump,” said Hollis-Jefferson. “We definitely improved in a lot of things. Look at the charts; look at the numbers. We got better … at the end of the day that’s what it’s about, improving gradually.
“Some people, like Philly (76ers), they gradually improved pretty quickly (smiles). For the most part we’re just trying to get better each and every day and I feel like we’re trying to give credit to our guys and our staff, we did that.”
For elder statesman DeMarre Carroll, it’s all about the resiliency of remaining competitive despite not having Jeremy Lin after the season opener, and having D’Angelo Russell for only a career-low 48 games.
Carroll, the team’s unofficial spokesman until further notice, referenced a previous career experience he underwent in his NBA career. While with the Atlanta Hawks (and with Atkinson) he was part of their turnaround from 38 to 60 wins from 2013-14 to 2014-15.
“I feel the cards we’ve been dealt with Jeremy going down, D’Lo going down, guys emerging like Spencer (Dinwiddie), I feel like it was a good season in a lot of areas,” said Carroll. “A lot of people will look at our record and say it wasn’t that good, but at the end of the day, guys (are) emerging, guys we probably wouldn’t have ever count on to play big minutes … I think it’s going to pay off next year.
“You get a healthy Jeremy back, a healthy D’Lo back, it can only get better. This is more about building the culture and getting the ball rolling. Like I was in Atlanta and I tell these guys in the locker room, people forgot we were the eighth seed in the playoffs and we took them to seven games, but then that following year we won 60 games. I’m not saying it’s going to happen that quick, but it’s a process and it takes time.”
The Atlanta and Philly experiences also show progress need not be incremental. Sometimes, things align and there’s a leap.
Still, although 2017-18 was better, even while taking injuries into account, it was not up to what the Nets, expected, to a degree. In preseason and at points in the season, individual players thought the playoffs were a possibility. That ended in February.
Pundits, on the other hand, had the Nets pegged in mid-to-high 20’s to low 30’s in the win column. Are they ahead of schedule? Are they behind schedule? It’s up for debate.
But whatever that next step is, the team and those surrounding them are more optimistic this time around than last season. With that said, Hollis-Jefferson and Carroll are eyeballing tangible progress for the future. Perhaps 28 to 50 wins in one shot is unlikely, so The Hyphen suggests not thinking about numbers too much.
“Eight more (wins). (Laughs) Let’s get it,” said Hollis-Jefferson when asked on what’s the Nets next step. “I feel like, break the threshold to the 30’s, next step 40’s, so on and so forth. I feel like each year is about progressing at the end of the day. We can’t say what that number is, we can’t predict it, it’s just about progressing.”
“Closing games,” Carroll responded when asked the same question. “We had like 50 close games – you win [some] of those and we have a 30-win season. Every time we talked to a team they said we compete, we’re a hard team to play because we move the ball. But now we got to close the game. We can’t get into isolation at the end of the game, we got to keep moving the ball, playing team-oriented ball. We got to close games. If we can do that, this thing can really take off.”
And according to Caris LeVert, the Nets have the right man for the job in Coach Atkinson.
“Probably his competitiveness,” he said when asked what stands out the most in the second-year head coach’s personality. “He stays up and watches film. He’s always super prepared. You can tell how bad he wants to win, how bad he wants the team to be great, how bad he wants us to get to that next level. As a player, you love to play for somebody like that.”
The way players, coaches and management in the organization have talked about one another for the duration of a long season, and the overall “Markinson” tenure, may suggest that roster turnover this summer could be unlikely, which would be beneficial for building, as opposed to re-building.
Marks in fact told Michael Grady of YES this week that there is “value in continuity.” That doesn’t mean the Nets will avoid opportunity. They have three picks, as much as $15 million in cap space and more flexibility that most. But as the players will tell you, they also have faith in each other.