This season should’ve felt like a disappointment. A joyless experience. A year of “what could’ve been.”
And yet it just hasn’t.
Ask any Nets fan the “magic number,” and they’ll provide it like a knee-jerk at the bang of a rubber hammer.
186 total minutes. That’s how long Brooklyn’s “most hated” “Big Three” of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden have shared the floor together. That trio has been available for just 56 percent of Brooklyn’s 64 total games. Then, there’s the other numbers ... all franchise records: 27 players, 34 starting line-ups, 18 players who’ve been in those starting line-ups.
Just glancing at all these numbers, you would’ve assumed that Year 2 of Brooklyn’s superteam was a complete and utter disaster. You also would’ve figured that the Nets had spent the greater part of the year toiling at the bottom of the standings, searching for an identity while shorthanded, you know, just something to lean on while the stars were in and out of the lineup like the Grandpa Simpson meme.
And yet, that just hasn’t been the case.
To compound matters, a majority of Brooklyn’s marquee matchups have been struck by the cruel magic wand of unavailability. The second of the two Nets-Jazz matchups was a starless experience that resulted in the Nets’ largest loss of the season. The first was the Nets biggest blow-out before Harden, without Durant but with Irving. Go figure. Both games against the Lakers were a total wash (seriously, good luck learning anything from those two games). Even the three games against Philadelphia were tainted by crucial absences on each side.
It hasn’t mattered. This season has been a total blast.
The Brooklyn Nets have been must-watch TV, though not from the sheer brilliance that ascends from star power. Brooklyn’s “plug and play” assembly line has been the heartbeat of this Nets season. You typically think of “next man up” as a generic sales pitch that NBA coaching staffs use to rally the troops in spite of unfortunate circumstances; for the Nets, that slogan has been the team’s reality, its tenet to live by regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.
“It’s just having that support from our coaching staff allows a lot of guys to go out there and play free,” said Kevin Durant. “You see guys developing throughout the season because they are being put in different situations. Landry, Joe, Tyler, Alize came in and gave us great minutes. I think guys who are the younger guys in the league that are still trying to find their footing, this year is good for them because it allowed them to develop different parts of their game, play with different lineups, play more minutes. I think the next-man mentality has been preached to us since day one and guys are taking advantage of it.”
It's been Brooklyn’s ecosystem.
Don’t believe me? Just take a glance at the last week. Kevin Durant’s 42-piece against the Indiana Pacers was a majestic thing to witness, don’t get me wrong. But how about Alize Johnson getting possessed by the spirit of Dennis Rodman, becoming just the third Net EVER to grab 20 points and 20 boards off the bench. Yes! The same Alize Johnson who was scrapping and grinding in the G-League bubble in hopes of securing an NBA contract just two short months ago.
Backtrack two games and you’ll find yourself marveling at perhaps one of Brooklyn’s most joyous victories of the season, the 116-103 victory against the Toronto Raptors in which Mike James, who hadn’t laid a foot on NBA hardwood since the year 2018, stole the show with 11 points, eight assists, and three rebounds in just 21 minutes. We wrote about it extensively, but the dude looked off KEVIN FREAKING DURANT to nail a stepback 20-foot jumper during Brooklyn’s fourth quarter. It was madness, an indescribable feeling watching a relative unknown close out the game for Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant on the same dang floor.
You know, an experience like no other.
Just a few weeks prior, Landry Shamet capably manned backup point guard duties for a roster that had just one available lead guard (Kyrie Irving) with Chris Chiozza and James Harden all but ruled out for the regular season. Oh, and he did this while shooting a tremendous 50.8 percent from deep from April 1st to April 20. Just bonkers.
March was defined by the astronomical efforts of sophomore center Nicolas Claxton, who came off a year-long layoff to almost instantly demand rotational minutes on a veteran-laden team looking to solidify its lineups. Seriously, the dude clamped up the likes of Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, CJ McCollum, Russell Westbrook, and former Net Caris LeVert all in the same week! In fact, his defensive efforts have been the difference between the best defense in the league and the fourth-most porous defensive rating depending on whether he’s on or off the floor.
Shoot, you could even point to 24-year-old Bruce Brown as the guy who kickstarted all of this madness by revolutionizing the (non-)shooting guard position during February. Brown unleashed a floater that was worthy of big-time praise, showcased a hunger for offensive boards that still gets the people going, and flashed an instinctive understanding of how to better accentuate Brooklyn’s record-breaking offense with timely off-ball cuts, even sometimes handling duties as a small-ball 6’4” center.
“I think every night you watch us play, it could be Tyler Johnson, Landry, tonight Mike James played huge for us. This is literally his second game playing with us,” said Joe Harris about the Nets’ ever-prosperous depth after the win against Toronto. “But this is just one of those things where everybody comes in; I think Steve and the coaching staff, they just instill a level of confidence; your teammates instill a level of confidence and you just go out and play your game, be aggressive; and I think there’s a level of respect amongst each other, individually, and in the locker room where you can play free and you can play with confidence.”
This Nets season could best be described as a series of dualities. Brooklyn is a team with three stars, though it boasts incredible depth that can carry the load when its best players are unavailable. The Nets are a veteran-heavy group, but with a collection of scrap-heap finds and castaway youngsters like a rebuilding franchise, leading to a series of breakout performances that would rival most lottery-bound teams.
This tweet put it best; Nets fans are currently reliving the glorious hopefulness of the 2018-2019 season, but with bigger stakes on the line. Plug-and-play away, Steve Nash. It’s made for a miraculous season.
Enjoy it, Nets fans. You’re witnessing something special.