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Brooklyn’s Nets went from NBA laughingstock to one of the league’s most respected

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — They were the laughingstock of America.

Then they became America’s team ... or better yet, Brooklyn’s team.

They were the ultimate underdog team, guys with grit who surprised everybody, including themselves. They were the team that went from having zero draft picks to three and who turned last-chance cast-offs into the sixth seed in the East.

No superstar names. No big trades. They believed in the culture and building on it, a team-first identity led by Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson who preached hard work and patience. This past season showed why it’s going to pay off in the present and in the future.

REWIND

It was a roller coaster ride of a season, to say the least. There were ups and downs and then some more. Start with Caris LeVert. Brooklyn’s cornerstone was in Year Three of his career and it was time to show why the Nets spoke so highly of him. In a game against Minnesota in November, LeVert landed on his right leg. The wrong way.

It was one of the ugliest injuries you could’ve ever seen, and although the injury wasn’t as bad as initially suspected, the Nets faced the consequences without him.

Just a few games later, they lost eight straight games, giving them an 8-18 record and engendering speculation about whether they’d tank or not. I spoke with a team insider around then and asked him if they were deflated after losing their eighth straight on a buzzer beater.

“Deflated? Nah. We got a game in two days.”

That’s the mindset that carried them through the season. Media discussed tanking, Kenny Atkinson and the veteran leaders wouldn’t allow it.

“We’ve never talked about tanking, [Sean Marks] and I,’’ Atkinson told Michael Kay on his ESPN-NY radio show. “I’m just going to be honest: Internally, we don’t use the word. We don’t talk about it.”

So, they talked instead about winning.

“I would say the immediate catalyst was the players-only film session that is now famous,” Spencer Dinwiddie said at Brooklyn’s exit interviews. Overall, it would just be the group of guys we had, the resiliency of the locker room, how much we were able to bond together. It speaks to the quality and the character of the individuals.

After Dudley’s famous film session, the Nets snapped the losing streak with a stunning win over the Toronto Raptors. It was the beginning of a seven-game win streak that ultimately propelled the Nets on a crazy surge to finish the season, winning 20 of the next 26 and going 34-22 from that buzzer beater loss to the end of the regular season. Three games separated them and the ninth seed entering a seven-game road-trip – that final 12 had only one team below .500. – They finished 6-4 and not only made the playoffs but won the sixth seed.

“This season validated everything we preached in terms of culture and hard work and commitment to getting one percent better,” Dinwiddie told NetsDaily. “If we stayed on the path when we were 8-18, nobody would’ve believed the bricks we were laying. To rebound, to make the playoffs, to have the season we had, it’s been obviously very special. I’m looking forward to the run we make next year.”

They lost the series in five, but they made their voices heard. Heads were held high.

They demanded respect from the start with a Game 1 victory and came back to Brooklyn with a scrum after Embiid delivered a second flagrant foul to Jarrett Allen. Jared Dudley was ejected and fined. Sean Marks walked into the refs’ office to send a message to them, the league and his team. He was fined $25,000. Joe Tsai tweeted out a statement supporting Marks and the Nets’ stance. He was fined, too, $35,000 (or three ten-thousandths of one percent of his net worth.)

They left it all out there on the floor and competed with one of the NBA’s most talented teams. They were a turnover away from potentially tying the series at two games apiece. A five-game series felt like a whole lot more.

And for that alone, they deserve proper credit.

BELIEF

Kenny Atkinson started showing confidence after expressing doubt midway through the season, constantly stating how the Nets have a long way to go. It wasn’t until March when the Nets were playing the Detroit Pistons when Atkinson finally admitted they’re in the playoffs race and they’re going for it.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Kenny Atkinson said before Game 1. “I’m proud of it. We’re proud of it, I should say. The fact that I’m here with you guys in this kind of scrum, playoff scrum, media scrum, it’s just I didn’t expect it to come this soon.”

After winning a game and his team showing what they’re capable of, Atkinson’s understated elation became motivation.

“It’s not like we’re happy to be here,” Atkinson said before Game 3. “We can compete with these guys and we can get them if we play the way we’ve been playing all year.”

So many things can be said for the season, both for the team and for individual accolades. It says a lot about the development of a culture when individual players, coaches and executives are all growing together from the ground up. You look at two minor examples: Will Weaver, Long Island’s head coach and former assistant for Brooklyn, is headed to the NBL for a head coach gig. Assistant GM Trajan Langdon is set for an interview for the GM job in Minnesota.

Then, there’s the main guys in Brooklyn that everybody is talking about.

D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star in Year 4 of his career, while also turning into a Most Improved Player candidate. He averaged 21 points and seven assists on 37 percent shooting from three and 48 percent from the field – all career-highs. He led the Nets when LeVert went down.

Then, you have Spencer Dinwiddie. People wondered if Dinwiddie peaked after his Most Improved campaign last season, but instead he proved he’s still growing, and he has to be a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.

You can’t forget the three-point contest champion and league’s best sharpshooter, Joe Harris, who shot the three-ball at an NBA-best 47 percent from the field. After being a glorified towel boy for LeBron James in Cleveland, Harris became one of the ultimate poster boys for the Brooklyn Nets.

And finally, Kenny Atkinson will be a candidate for Coach of the Year and Sean Marks will be a candidate for Executive of the Year. The two assembled this culture – a team that had nothing to start with. Zero draft picks, few tradeable assets, no lure to sign free agents, etc.

Instead of making the big splash or big P.R. move, the Nets stayed the course and refused to skip steps. This season was a bridge to the summer of 2019, where the Nets might potentially have space for two max free agents, depending on the moves they make.

Before the season, Marks said, “We have [this] year to prepare for summer of 2019.”

They did everything they were supposed to do… and then some. Everybody knew they had money heading into this offseason, but it was about showing the NBA that the Brooklyn Nets would no longer be the laughingstock of the league, they would no longer tolerate the disrespect from other teams when they entered Brooklyn, and they certainly weren’t going to tank no matter what the record showed.

It very well might be the difference maker as they enter the biggest offseason in franchise history. They’ve never signed a big-name free agent, and this might be the time they finally do it. Sticking to a plan, establishing a culture, and winning basketball games is what got them here.

And everybody’s ready for what’s next because the Nets finally have everything a marquee free agent should want.

“If we’re calling a spade a spade, the guys you talk about in terms of K.D. or whoever else, nobody can overpay them because they’re going to get every dollar regardless of which team,” said Dinwiddie. “At that point, it really comes down to happiness, culture, where you want to be, winning, all the other stuff. It’s not going to be dollars because they’re going to get the same dollar amount from 29 teams and a little bit more from the one they’re currently on.”

Bet on Brooklyn? Why not?