The Nets are 16-16, losers of three straight and if the season ended today (It won’t) they’d be the seventh seed, one below where they finished last season. Five players are out with injuries, including their three best players (or at least the three players we thought would be their best players.) Kyrie Irving is subject to all manner of calumnies and there’s been no update on Kevin Durant’s rehab.
Woe is us, right? Nah.
While things look bad right now and as Kenny Atkinson said, “For some reason, we’ve lost our mojo, and I’m not sure why,” the Nets should be, in the long term, just fine.
As Joe Johnson said at another time of another crisis, “It ain’t that bad here.” Let us count the ways.
Some of the reasons for optimism are obvious, a major duh, so to speak. KD, although rehabbing from an Achilles rupture, is still KD and according to a league source should still be whenever he returns.
In addition to having sports best ankle-and-foot guy as his (and their) surgeon, the rupture was high on his Achilles where the blood circulation is good and healing is more rapid and complete. He has both the Nets vaunted rehab staff and his own working with him.
As Marc Stein, who is no slouch as a reporter, wrote early last month of the naysayers who are pessimistic on KD’s recovery...
Just don’t forget that the biggest names were all older than Durant when faced with an Achilles’ tear, which complicated their comebacks.
Dominique was 32. Isiah Thomas was 32 and never played again. Kobe Bryant was 34. Chauncey Billups was 35. Patrick Ewing was 36.
I fall into the category forecasting more of a Nique-style comeback (or even better) because of Durant’s relentless work ethic — and because his offensive brilliance is not reliant on at-the-rim explosion.
Kyrie’s injury is indeed frustrating and thanks to the Nets closed mouth (and we’re being kind here) policy on injuries and other bad news, we know little about what’s going on ... other than he hasn’t started contact drills yet. Still, surgery seems unlikely and rest keeps coming up when experts are asked for their treatment of choice.
Of course, Irving has become the easiest target in the NBA, his time in Boston coloring a lot of the assessments about his character, etc. But the extent and sheer maliciousness of the attacks on him are way out of bounds, in our humble opinion. He isn’t a player like Allen Iverson who squandered a lot of his talent nor Paul Pierce, the ever critical ex-Celtic who regularly “played himself into shape” (meaning he showed up out of shape) nor even Jason Kidd, the Nets legend whose personal issues tarred his time in New Jersey. Irving has as many banners to his credit as Pierce and Kidd, one more than Iverson.
We will ultimately find out just how healthy he is. Shoulders, as Atkinson has said, are indeed tricky things. No joint has a greater range of motion. So we wait.
Caris LeVert IS injury prone, losing significant time every year going back to his college days. Not his fault, but he’s played four fewer games that Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who was taken four spots after him in the 2016 Draft class. TLC is a journeyman or has been up until this point and has played for five NBA teams. LeVert has the potential to be an All-Star. We should all recall what he did in last year’s playoffs. The 76ers shut down D’Angelo Russell but Caris stepped up big time.
LeVert should be back this week. Atkinson can’t keep saying he’s “very close”without challenging the laws of physics. He’s slicing the concept of time very thin.
Beyond recent losses and all that injury news —plus David Nwaba’s own tragic Achilles injury, there are a LOT of positives to take from this season, now a little more than a third of the way done. The obvious one is the development of Spencer Dinwiddie and not just as a player. He’s now a leader on the team and in the NBA, he’s seen as one of the smarter guys on and off the court.
We all know his numbers, but more important long term is that confidence Dinwiddie has developed. He’s on the verge —at age 26— of taking the next step. (And let’s not forget that none of the Nets four guards/swingmen are over the age of 28. LeVert is 25, Dinwiddie 26, Irving 27 and Joe Harris 28.)
And pull-eeze, no hand-wringing over what ever will the Nets do with all much talent?!? How can they possibly make it work?!? Let’s recall three years ago when the Nets point guard rotation was an injured Jeremy Lin, an injured Greivis Vasquez and rookie Isaiah Whitehead. Fitting good to great players into a rotation is a lot easier than rummaging around the locker room to find bodies.
At the center, there was similar concern about how would the tandem of Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan work out. Allen’s had a couple of rough games lately as teams try to take away the very effective Dinwiddie-to-Allen pick-and-roll, but his overall improvement has been better than could have been expected. AND he’s 21 years old. Jordan has proven he can easily step in when needed and is the NBA’s leading rebounder off the bench. Not to mention his hair care tips and entreaties to the refs. (We love watching this giant using hand gestures to, yeah, intimidate the Lilliputians in stripes.)
There are other players who may (or may not) develop as a result of the games lost to injury but they’re getting time to prove themselves. The aforementioned Luwawu-Cabarrot is getting better as he showed with his “waterfall of TLC” (copywright Ian Eagle) the other night vs. Minny.
Rosters and injuries aside, the Nets still have the Markinson duopoly.
Sean Marks has constructed a team with a lot of talent and salary cap flexibility. Despite the big signings, the Nets are currently only 14th in team salary out of 30 teams. Half the team are on contracts that extend three years or longer ... and that even includes 20-year-old Nicolas Claxton and 21-year-old Rodions Kurucs. The Nets will have to re-sign Harris, their only significant free agent, in the summer, but he seems happy and there’s every indication Tsai will be willing to pay the luxury tax to keep him.
The Draft picture is positive. Although they won’t have the Warriors first rounder this year — it’s protected 1-20— they do have the 76ers first as long as it’s not in the lottery. They have all their firsts going forward (no swaps, thank you very much) after this year and eight seconds over the next six years.
They have six stashes, two of whom —Isaia Cordinier and Jaylen Hands— might work out as players or as assets. That’s four more than they’ve ever had. They bring the stashes in occasionally for health checks, skills work, or just familiarization. Just like second rounders, they can be used in complicated trades. It’s all about flexibility.
Then, there’s the infrastructure. Dmitry Razumov told Forbes Russia recently that Mikhail Prokhorov and he left Joe Tsai with the best infrastructure in the NBA. Tsai inherited a seven-year-old arena and a four-year-old training center that is the envy of the league, from the view of the New York skyline to the state-of-the-art equipment. Razumov wasn’t exaggerating. Even the Long Island Nets home court at Nassau Coliseum is the best G League venue. So many of the others look like hyped-up versions of high school gyms.
At the top of the pyramid is ownership. Tsai, according to Razumov, paid an “exorbitant” price —$3.4 billion, according to league sources— for the team and Barclays Center. He wanted it that bad. He is a basketball junkie who sits courtside (unlike Prokhorov) often with his family, traveling halfway around the world on a regular basis.
He is now the second richest owner in the league, his net worth jumping $3.4 billion, nearly 40 percent, in 2019, finishing at $12.2 billion. League sources describe him as a “legacy owner,” meaning he’s in it for the long haul, the very long haul. When Marks was fined for entering the refs locker room during the playoffs last April, he backed up Marks and got hit with a $50,000 charge. (Of course, that’s pocket litter for most of us.)
His ties with the Chinese government put him in the middle of an ugly situation back in October after the backlash to Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong. But now, he could be crucial in getting the relationship between the NBA and China back on track. It’s hard to overestimate what a big deal that is for the league.
He is already a powerful owner (or “governor”). In addition to his wealth and the China connection, he’s one of only two NBA governors who own an NBA team, a WNBA team, a G League team, NBA2K team and his team’s home arena.
His wife Clara, whose official biography describes her as the team’s “co-owner,” has shown a commitment to community efforts in Brooklyn and beyond, contributing millions to Meek Mills’ Reform Alliance where she’s one of the founding partners. She’s on the bench more than he is, cheering and occasionally hosting a celebrity like Kobe Bryant and his daughter last month.
Bottom line: The organization is “renowned” (a pretty neat word), as one pundit put it recently, for its ability turn the franchise around and develop players and staff at the same time. One rival GM told us that Marks record with trades has made some of his colleagues reluctant to make deals with him. (Another executive said he was arrogant ... we’ll live with it.)
While Marks gets credit for finding gems on crutches (LeVert), in the G League (Dinwiddie) or sitting at home (Harris), it’s Atkinson and his very underrated staff who bring out the best in them.
“Culture” may be an ideal word for a drinking game while watching a Marks press conference, but the Nets are deadly serious about it. Culture is encouraged in a lot of ways, from pushing players to live in Brooklyn and thus near the training facility to having them cheer for the two-ways at a G League game. It seems to have worked.
There are subtle things as well, like Marks’ relationship with agents. When he walked in the door in 2016, he knew he needed agents as a constituency. The exaggerated offer sheets tendered to marginal players ultimately cost the Nets nothing but got the agents’ attention. When the Heat, Blazers, Rockets and Wizards matched the Nets sheets, each player’s agent got a nice commission. At the other end of the scale, the Nets manipulated the 10-day contract market and got players an extra year of service which could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars. Agents noticed that too.
Then, there’s Department of Little Things Mean a Lot: the family room off the practice court at Barclays; custom-made oversized furniture for big players at both Barclays and HSS; an outdoor lounge nine stories above Brooklyn’s streets with summer time views of the city; rides on the team plane for family and friends ... extra time with loved ones, a scarce commodity in a player’s nomadic season.
It may not matter to fans or (most) pundits, but it all matters to players. So fans should take a breath now and then and focus on bigger picture. The Nets will face a tough opponent in Luka Doncic Thursday. He may hang a number on them. That’d be bad, but overall, as Joe said, not that bad. We got time.