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This is the year we’ve been waiting for

Charlotte Hornets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

As 2019 dawns, Nets fans are generally optimistic. (We say generally because Nets fans are never generally anything.)

Despite injuries, and playing league highs in games (38) and back-to-backs (nine), they’re one game out of the playoffs and two games away from the sixth seed. Their young players, almost to a man, have improved and their GM, coach and system are getting rare kudos for turning things around: finding gems in unlikely places, planning for the future.

On New Year’s morning, Tyler Blint-Welsh of the Washington Post writes: “[Kenny] Atkinson’s experience, alongside General Manager Sean Marks’s superb talent identification, has helped carve a rotation of key contributors out of players plucked from the fringes of the NBA.”


So there’s a lot of celebrate but there’s a lot of basketball left to be played, as Spencer Dinwiddie, increasingly the team’s beating heart, told Blint-Welsh. The Nets need to build on their 9-3 spurt.

“Hopefully it’s not a hot streak and it’s just how we play,” Dinwiddie said. “We’ve gotta keep the focus where it needs to be, have a defensive mentality, and try to get one percent better everyday and hopefully we can kind of just keep the building blocks going.”

There are a lot of reasons why the Nets should be optimistic. They’ve won those games mainly with a starting line-up that averages 22.4 years old, one of the youngest, if not the youngest, in the league. Their best player, Caris LeVert, is probably weeks away from returning. On Saturday, six Nets sat, either rehabbing or in need of rest.

And most of the stat lines show improvement. Some, as Blint-Welsh note, are obscure but telling when looking at team play.

Brooklyn’s 311 passes per game are the fourth most in the NBA, and during their recent hot stretch, those passes have been leading to 14 more points off assists per game than they averaged during their eight-game losing streak. The Nets also lead the league in points off drives, and since Dec. 7, rank third in the league in screen assists per game, defined as screens for a teammate that lead directly to a made field goal.

Putting aside the numbers, there are other aspects of the Nets culture that say good things are happening ... and can be sustained. One is the relationship between coach and players.

Joe Harris, for example, credits Atkinson’s player development regime with turning his career around ... and adds a new word to the Nets development lexicon ... vitamins.

“He kind of gives a unique perspective as a head coach, just having that background,” he told Blint-Welsh, talking about Atkinson’s history in player development. “We do these things called vitamins — it’s something that you take everyday — and for us the vitamins are individual skill work with our coaches.”

Harris says he spends about 45 minutes daily working solely on moving without the ball, shooting on the move and finishing at the rim, Blint-Welsh adds.

Jarrett Allen, he of the monster blocks against All-Stars, told Greg Joyce of the Post that Atkinson has been pushing him after the coach noted a “little dip” in his rim protection.

“Jarrett is really good when he’s aggressive. If he comes with a passive or even a neutral attitude, it’s not good enough,” said a frank Atkinson. “I know he still needs to get stronger, but it’s really his level of aggressiveness and assertiveness, that’s kind of the barometer whether he’s really helping us or not.”

It’s what makes Atkinson different.

“I think of the team, that’s my job as head coach,” Atkinson told Blint-Welsh. “But I do try to still put on the player development hat and try to help those guys there.”

The Nets could, of course, fall back into old habits, blow the big lead, fail to hit that big shot, but they do appear to have turned a corner. If the plan was to create a ready-made rotation for a big free agent, it seems to have worked. If the plan was to keep developing young kids, like 20-year-olds Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs, in case the big free agent doesn’t show up, that seems to have worked as well. And if doesn’t work out this season, they have their own first round pick (plus the Nuggets’ first and Knicks high second) to fall back on.

That of course is not what the players are thinking about. They have their own New Year’s resolution, as Newsday’s Brian Heyman reports.

“Playoffs? Yeah, for sure. I think that’s more achievable than the .500,” said Ed Davis, the canny vet who’s been to the post-season four times. “You get to .500, you might mess around and be a fifth seed, sixth seed, for sure. Playoffs is definitely [possible]. We’re a game and a half out of the sixth spot, right? I think it’s definitely achievable.’’

Yeah, they have a long way to go, but it’s a lot shorter than the stretch they’re emerging from ... and that makes the journey a lot easier.