A win would have been better suited for the narrative: the Nets making progress on the road back from the disastrous June 2013 trade that sent four draft picks to the Celtics ... two of whom were on the court at Boston Garden.
But, no, the Celtic Curse continues although its effects are abated ... and abating the more time you put behind that Draft Night deal. The Nets seemed to have turned a corner, going 12-4 over the last month, mostly with lineups that are young and seemingly thrown together. Injuries have been that tough.
Maybe the best part of it all is that whatever experiment they try seems to work. Start Rodions Kurucs, the 40th pick in the Draft? Works! Play a three-guard lineup with D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Shabazz Napier? Works! Re-integrate DeMarre Carroll into the line-up as a back-up stretch-4? Works! The system? Works!
It’s all been so surprising ... and a credit to the plan Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson put together in 2016 and have not, veered from. Build a culture based on individual character. Develop a “pre-hab” model for the performance team. Find fallen angels and give them new wings. Work with ownership on that most common ownership traits: impatience. And of course , find young players whose talents can come close to matching those lost in the 2013 trade.
People have noticed. Smart people, like Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
“I’d be surprised if this team’s not in the playoffs. They’re awfully good. Again, they’re really well-coached,” Stevens said. “I love the way they play. They play hard, they play together. Everybody knows what they’re supposed to do and they do it every night. They don’t get outside of it. Shooters shoot, drivers drive, guys that can do both do both, rollers roll. They look like a team.
“They’ve done a great job of building that over time. Kenny’s done a great job, his staff’s done a great job and they’ve got good players. It starts with their backcourt guys in [D’Angelo] Russell and [Spencer] Dinwiddie, but you could go down the list. They’ve got a lot of guys playing well.”
In a lot of people’s minds, it starts with Atkinson and his mostly anonymous coaching staff. Their reputation as experts in the art of development is becoming well known, even if their names are not.
The list of successes they’ve wrought is long.
—Joe Harris gets traded, cut (and cut again in surgery) on a single day in January 2016. Atkinson tells him Nets want him to be their Kyle Korver. The rest is history. As of Tuesday morning, Harris is second in the league in three point shooting ... and can do a lot more. Korver is 23rd.
—Spencer Dinwiddie gets traded by Detroit, cut twice by Chicago and sent to the G League. The Nets, short on point guards, dump a fan favorite, Yogi Ferrell, to bring him up. He becomes a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate in his second year, a legitimate Sixth Man candidate in his third.
—Caris LeVert suffers three foot injuries at Michigan and is given up for dead by many NBA teams prior to the 2016 Draft. Nets believe they know differently, trade a savvy veteran, Thaddeus Young, for his draft rights (and a yet-to-be-used second rounder.) It takes some time, but he becomes the team’s best player.
—Jarrett Allen drops precipitously in the 2017 Draft because some think he doesn’t love the game enough. Nets talk to him, ignore the rumor and he becomes a legitimate NBA rim protector with highlights galore.
—D’Angelo Russell gets dissed by Magic Johnson, still has hangover from his Snapchat snitch, but Nets believe in his potential and give up their all-time best scorer and most popular player, Brook Lopez, to get him. Injuries slow his development but putting aside Monday night, he’s been on a roll, the best stretch of his career, helping to carry the team after LeVert went down.
—Rodions Kurucs is relegated to the bench by F.C. Barcelona, hidden as a punishment for not signing an extension. Nets track him and track him and track him, then take him in the second round. Their effort was worth it.
None of this happens by chance. As another Brooklyn GM, Branch Rickey of the Dodgers, used to say, “Luck is the residue of design.”
Or as ESPN’s Tim Bontemps summarized...
Marks also turned two players he inherited -- Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic -- into future first-round picks that became Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, the two brightest prospects the rebuild has produced thus far. Another bright spot, rookie Rodions Kurucs, who led the Nets in scoring Monday night with 24 points, was acquired with a second-rounder obtained in the Carroll trade.
And development is not limited to the kids, the future. DeMarre Carroll has credited the Nets performance team with extending his career by customizing his training regimen. Jared Dudley says the Nets training staff is larger by a factor of two than any other staff he’s worked with.
They made unconventional hires that worked too: the Navy SEAL training director becomes head of the performance team; a Harvard Law graduate who worked for a federal appellate court judge is put in charge of figuring out the Collective Bargaining Agreement as the team’s capologist. Neither had any NBA or basketball experience.
“It’s not just the beginning of training camp this year,” Atkinson said when asked about this season’s progress. “It’s starting three years ago and your habits and your principles and the culture we’re trying to establish. So we’d like to think that’s starting to kick in.”
Not everything has worked. Pundits keep punishing Marks for not pushing for a draft pick in the Allen Crabbe trade ... and generally dis the deal as his worst move. They gave up picks that became Kyle Kuzma and Hamidou Diallo, too.
Both Atkinson and Stevens said the right things Monday night when asked about the trade that helped get both of them their jobs.
“We just kind of put it in a box, and we never really talk about it,” said Atkinson, reprising a line he’s used whenever he asked about the trade.
“We haven’t thought about it a ton,” Stevens said. “We’ve just paid attention to what Kenny and his staff and Sean have been building, and they’ve done a great job.”
How does it play out for the rest of the season? Do they make the playoffs? Do they translate all that to a big free agent signing, mindful of what Luis Scola said in 2017: “Once they win, they will get everyone they want?”
“Myself, along with Kenny, coaches, and also the players, we just don’t want to be satisfied,” Marks told YES Network’s Michael Grady before the game. “You can’t be satisfied that we’re close to a playoff spot, or just sneaking in there.”
“We’ve got to continue to build. And, we have to continue to see how guys handle a slight bit of success because we can never be satisfied with a win here or there.”
We will wait. We’ve waited a while and waiting while winning —while progressing— is a lot more fun than the alternative.
- Opponents predicting big things for ‘awfully good’ Nets - Brian Lewis - New York Post
- Nets regain footing after disastrous 2013 trade with Celtics - Greg Logan - Newsday
- Despite loss, Nets can finally point toward a brighter future - Tim Bontemps - ESPN