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Nets big question: Where do ‘nice guys’ finish?

It’s one of the most enduring New York sports quotes: ‘Nice guys finish last.’ This year’s Nets, free of expectations and pressures — and with an agreeable group, will try to prove it wrong.

Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets - Game Four Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

In 1946, Leo Durocher, the legendary manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had this to say about the lowly New York Giants, his crosstown rivals in Manhattan, “The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.” It got shortened along the way to “Nice guys finish last,” which became a mantra in sports, politics, whatever. Teams or individuals who are decent are at a disadvantage when faced with the more aggressive, the more mean-spirited.

Is this where we stand now with the Nets? Over the last three years, the Nets had been seen as super talented, arrogant and controversial. But at the end of the day, they couldn’t win either.

More than one former teammate of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden have had unkind words about their play, how often times they were more about individual than team achievement. How true? Well, that’s controversial, too. Now, though, they are gone, having asked out, and Nets are all about players who are not as talented as the three Future Hall of Famers but want to be in Brooklyn.

“I would say I’m excited,” Joe Tsai told The Post this weekend, talking about the upcoming season. “I’m excited about the season because we have a group of guys that are excited to be in Brooklyn. Yeah, that’s what I see now.”

Not much code to unravel there.

Indeed, led by the “Twins” Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, this year’s iteration of Brooklyn sports, are more or less “nice guys,” at least compared to their predecessors. There’s no controversy stealing headlines from their play on the court, no finger-pointing (other than Bridges’ signature had gesture,) no trade requests or demands. Kumbaya, my lord!

Brian Lewis writes Sunday, the day before the Nets hold their annual Media Day, that the change in culture is welcomed in Brooklyn’s ownership suite at Barclays Center and at the practice facility in Sunset Park. Most fans seem to welcome the change as well, but many are skeptical, even churlish about the changeover. Overall, Lewis notes...

This Nets team doesn’t have the championship-or-bust pressure of years past. The goalposts have been moved. What they have is a chance to develop together without that burden on their shoulders. At least, not for 2023-24.

Don’t tell that to the players, of course. They’re locked in and optimistic. In fact, there are only five players left from KD and Kyrie’s last game together back in January: Nic Claxton, Royce O’Neale, Cam Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe and Ben Simmons. Not a lot to look back on, to reflect, not with 13 new faces.

“I think it’s an opportunity for us to grow and get better,” Cam Johnson said. “We’ve got a great team around us. And very versatile. A group that’s very versatile with a lot of size and a lot of unique opportunities to play that way.”

Spencer Dinwiddie, who is on his second stint with the Nets, recently said he believes that if Ben Simmons returns to form, Brooklyn has a “a real puncher’s chance against anybody.”

Lewis notes how this year’s Media Day is likely to be a lot less about the external, more about basketball. There won’t be questions about Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated. Nor will any of the Nets players be asked about trade requests, trade demands, or contract controversy. It’ll will be more about basketball, as it was last week when Sean Marks and Jacque Vaughn met with the media. On more than one occasion during the session, Marks said he didn’t want to talk about the past. Who could blame him?

All that said, fans want to see their home team pile up wins, not merit badges for sportsmanship. Can they? No one up top or in the locker room is making predictions about the won-loss record or playoff seeding, etc. Are they lowering expectations or do they believe they can lull opponents and pundits alike into thinking they are just nice guys?

So much will be on Bridges’ shoulders. He shocked a lot of people last season when he took over the team leadership and averaged 26.1 points a game (27.4 if you don’t consider his four second cameo in the season finale.) He is now the face of the franchise on and off the court.

“Mikal [is] special, when you’re talking about creating an environment, a community, a co-op, everyone doing their part,” Lewis quotes Vaughn who then threw in a comment very much in a Brooklyn real estate frame-of-mind. “He is the quintessential president of the co-op.”

Vaughn has said the Nets plan on having Bridges taking on an even greater burden this season, as a playmaker, a closer.

Marks has also talked about how he likes having a roster filled with players who have “chips on their shoulder.

“We have all put ourselves in a position to have an exciting few years here where we’ve got a much younger roster than we’ve had in the past and a lot of guys have chips on their shoulders which I think is pretty important,” he told a New Zealand podcast at the end of August.

The player with the biggest chip, of course, is Simmons, who’s trying to prove he can get back to his previous form. He will remain a question mark until he can get out on the court and push things the way he did before he dealt with physical and mental issues. He, too, is hitting all the right themes when he talks to the media.

“I’m super excited to be in Brooklyn, he told Fox5 New York’s Tina Cervasio. “We got a great team. I think this year is going to be a completely different year (compared to) the last couple.”

It’s no secret by now that there was some grit in the Nets machine that prevented things from going smoothly for Ben10, in addition to his back issues. As Lewis writes:

After some significant voices in the Nets’ locker room had lost patience with Simmons last season, it’s noteworthy that his relationship with Vaughn is in a better place and the always-positive Twins have been supportive.

All that said, when the Nets had KD, Kyrie and James, they barely played together, didn’t win much either despite unparalleled firepower. They played a total of 365 minutes in 16 games over the year and a half they were together, won one post-season series. Then after Harden moved on, they were unceremoniously tossed out of the first round in the last two post-seasons.

The standard now is not as high as it has been. The pressure is largely absent. They won’t “contend,” but they hopefully will “compete.” For the nice guys of Brooklyn and their fans, that could be refreshing ... but they had better win.