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ESSAY: The Brooklyn Nets are who we thought they were

The Nets have issues, yes, but their performance should be surprising to no one.

Brooklyn Nets v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

It has not been an inspiring holiday season for the Brooklyn Nets. Over their last nine games, they’ve only managed to defeat the worst team in NBA history, and are quite fortunate to have played them twice in a row. Any good vibes that could have possibly emanated from that mini-winning streak were shredded and burned by a give-up home game against the Milwaukee Bucks followed by an outright failure that was Friday night and an ignominious loss to the 5-25 Washington Wizards.

I was probably the biggest apologist for Brooklyn’s blatant load management on Wednesday night. The season is an 82-game trek, with every team pulling a stunt like this once or twice, my reasoning went.

Brooklyn’s main dudes could clearly use a rest, and games like this can be fun for the group, with all the fringe players who are promised a nebulous “chance to contribute” at the start of the year actually getting that opportunity, supported by their veteran teammates on the bench. Does anybody remember how awesome the Nets winning such a game against the Indiana Pacers was last season?

But to do it with one of the NBA’s worst teams lurking on the schedule sends a clear message, a message that blew up in Brooklyn’s face on Friday. I was on board, but you can’t lose to the Wizards in fall-from-ahead fashion after pulling that stunt. Just can’t do it. The Nets have officially reached the low-point of their season.

Now. Let’s zoom out. Through 32 games, the Nets are 15-17 with a net rating of -0.2; their remaining schedule is the 13th-easiest (or 17th most difficult,) when sorted by win-percentage. Our eyes and the data are telling us the same thing: The 2023-’24 Brooklyn Nets are an average NBA team.

They are who we thought they were.

This is the team that was promised to Nets fans in the offseason, when the front office never seriously considered trading players like Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton for a bevy of draft picks to ignite a rebuild. Later in the summer, Sean Marks confirmed Brooklyn never had any interest in trading for Damian Lillard and trying to summon a brand-new contender on the fly.

Sometime in between those decisions, I wrote a long article pining for Brooklyn to do anything but stand pat with the current roster and willingly subject themselves to NBA mediocrity, a purgatory that most franchises sacrifice limbs trying to avoid.

I’ve since softened a bit on Marks’ strategy, which relies on the promise of financial flexibility as Ben Simmons’ contract nears its end, and a whole lot of Suns/Mavs/Sixers draft picks to throw at teams whose stars may hit the trade block. It also gives Brooklyn time to evaluate the current roster, to gather larger samples on key players before making big moves. I understand the vision.

The vision, however, included fielding an averaging, unexciting basketball team in 2024 and potentially 2025, depending on how external circumstances — like the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes — unfold. It is the least appealing part of that vision, and we are now seeing why.

The Nets are an average — perhaps slightly worse — basketball team going through a rough patch, but rationalizing it doesn’t make it less aggravating. Average teams don’t lose to every team better than them while beating all the bad squads; they go through season-long oscillations that result in a 6-2 stretch here and an 0-4 stretch there that all evens out to, like, 40 wins.

Here’s Nikola Jokić describing the difference, quite eloquently, between good and bad teams:

The Nets fall into neither category, and thus, are frequently at the mercy of the winds. Over this brutal 2-7 stretch, opponents are shooting 42% from deep, the highest mark in the league, per Brooklyn’s defense hasn’t been stellar, but that’s still some of the worst shooting luck the Nets will see all year. Until Dennis Smith Jr.’s recent return, they were missing their only two bench guards, and their absences increased everybody else’s burden.

That stuff happens during an NBA season. Sometimes, the shooting luck goes your way and opponents get injured or resting players. Good teams power right on through, bad teams wilt anyway. The Nets, though, thrive on circumstances.

Sitting at 15-17, Brooklyn has been within three games of .500 in either direction since Opening Night. Then, most sportsbooks had their over/under win total set at 37.5; now, Brooklyn is on pace for 38 wins. It made sense then, and it makes sense now. Just look at the roster.

This is not to excuse every loss, or to warn fans against investing too much in the team for this season. It doesn’t take championship aspirations to enjoy winning games, and it doesn’t take being the Detroit Pistons to criticize the coaching staff.

For example: The Wizards’ bench is fun for a 5-25 team, but can’t be lighting up Brooklyn three meetings in a row. The Nets still have no answer when they encounter an opposing stretch-5. There is little-to-no natural movement or second-side actions within Brooklyn’s offense. And while I think the offense collapsing against every switch-heavy defense is more of a roster issue, there’s no excuse for the continued ineptitude against zone.

The players have to be better, too. Drop coverage vs. switching aside, Vaughn has openly begged his guys to cheat in the passing lanes and be aggressive on digs, so...six takeaways after three days of rest? Against the Wizards? Taking thirty-nine mid-range shots on offense? That’s losing basketball no matter the roster.

The second half of the late, great Dennis Green’s quote about the Chicago Bears is less remembered than its fiery beginning: “But they are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook.”

Nobody is letting the Nets off the hook, not after the embarrassing week they just had. Nor should you. Otherwise, I’d be a hypocrite to keep watching film and trying to analyze any of it.

Some perspective though, is in order. These moments are tortuous, but the team is at least good enough to deliver the joy of a 6-1 stretch or beating the Suns in Phoenix which took place a mere two-and-a-half weeks ago. It’s just that neither vibe will stick around for too long.

The Nets need to turn it around in the short-term, but this is the long-term path they chose. Sean Marks & co. fielded an average team, and plan to take the next step by adding outside pieces. That’s no secret, whether judging by their words or their actions.

Brooklyn is 15-17 by design. It is a transition year, still hungover from the boozy Big Three Era. It’s not because the coaching staff is incompetent or because the players are drastically underperforming. Rather, the Brooklyn Nets are who we thought they were.