For a good part of this decade, the Brooklyn Nets were the laughing stock of the NBA. There were irrelevant in regards to the power dynamics of basketball. If the franchise was ever spoken of in the national discourse, it was in regards to one of the worst trades in the history of basketball. They did receive too soon to be Hall of Famers - in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -though neither would stay in Brooklyn for two seasons. Their aim with trading for the duo was to contend for a championship. Instead, it sent them to rock bottom. The Nets are currently four games above 0.500 - a full four seasons from the last time they were a good team.
Currently, the "Other" New York teams are on a six-game win streak as the sixth seed in the East with a very high chance of making the playoffs. Their Head Coach Kenny Atkinson has been at the helm of their recent success with D'Angelo Russel being their surprise best player. The former Number 2 overall pick is in serious contention to make his first All-Star game. Their season looked to be dire after Caris LeVert dislocated his right foot and was emerging as their most versatile player on both ends of the floor. An eight-game losing streak stretching from the end of November through to December was supposed to personify their season; a bright start that was full of optimism that would eventually crumble with a long-term injury to their best player.
The losing for nearly half a decade (where they failed to win 30 games in three consecutive seasons) did lead to the light at the end of the tunnel. Kenny Atkinson did not let his roster slump into bad habits. Similar to the 76ers in their Process days, Atkinson enforced the right NBA habits to his squad and made them play hard on a night-to-night basis. And this has paid off.
Brooklyn finished the 2015-16 season as the 4th worst offense in the league 2nd worst defense in the land. MIdway through the 2018-19 season, the Nets have improved to 13th on offense and 18th on defense. Significant improvements considering how much work there was ahead of them and they are only going to grow from here. Atkinson also spent some time under the tutelage of Mike D'Antoni during their stint together with the Knicks. He too has employed many of the same principles that D'Antoni uses. With Russel running the offense, there is plenty of emphasis on getting to the paint. The Nets have made the second most drives to the paint this season. Basketball will forever be about the painted area. In decades past, it was about feeding the ball to a dominant low-post center. In today's game, it is about driving to the lane to collapse the defense to find open shooters or cutters. And it helps to draw fouls where the Nets rank a respectable 11th in Free Throw Percentage.
Their defense is anchored by one of the league's emerging shoot blockers; Jarret Allen. The 20-year-old center in his sophomore season has bested the likes of Anthony Davis and LeBron James at the rim.
Their combination of an emerging offense and a big man who is trending towards being an elite rim protector has put their dreary days behind them. They create efficient shots attempts on offense and negate those same shots at the other end of the court. Luck is also finally on their side. Despite their hard work, the Nets were torrid in the clutch going 4-10 in clutch situations during the first six weeks of the season. Ever since Bill Simmons crowned them terrible team in close games, the Nets have emerged as one of the best teams in the clutch.
The rise of Spencer Dinwiddie last season (in Russell's absence through injury) was always going to create problems. While Dinwiddie will undergo surgery to repair a torn ligament on his right thumb, the two have found a way to share the ball of late. Russel is finally looking like the player that had so much promise when he was drafted second overall in 2015. Their ability to co-exist would have decided Russell's future as a Net given that he is approaching restricted free agency in the summer and Dinwiddie was handed a three-year contract extension last year. In their hot run over the past six weeks, the two have marshaled a team that has the best record in the NBA. While this is a small sample size, this is indicative of how an unlikely pairing could thrive for years to come.
Despite all their successes, there are areas where significant improvements are to be made. Their backcourt is still young - as is much of their roster resulting in them being among the league leaders in turnover rates. Allen is an exciting center though he is ineffective when matched up against smaller line-ups and floor spacing big-men. Injuries have plagued this roster with LeVert still out of action and Dinwiddie expected to miss significant time. While some of their rotation players have thrived in their absence, both are expected to return before the beginning of the playoffs (which they are likely to make). Seeing how the likes of Joe Harris will adjust to LeVert and Dinwiddie returning might be more than a teething issue.
Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks constructed a team that is finally attractive to the marquee free agents in the NBA. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler headline this year's free agency class. All will seriously consider the opportunity to call the Barclays Center home. Being situated in a big market, they are making strides in areas that the Bull and Knicks have failed at. Their young player and exciting style of play coupled with the fact that they can create room for two max free agents has created the perfect basketball situation. This time next year, the Nets have a chance to be a legitimate contender for the Larry O'Brien trophy. D'Angelo Russell and the offers he could command might stifle the Nets' plans.
Russell is not the player that was deemed an outcast in Los Angeles. That being said, he and the Nets might be on Cloud 9. Their hot run could soon come to an end given that they had one of the easiest schedules for the first half of the season. The strength of schedule they face starting at Boston (particularly towards the end of the season) could derail the run they are on.
The hell the Nets have been for the past five years appears to be a thing of the past with a bright future ahead of them. Given how competent of team strategy they have along with their grit and an emerging star in D'Angelo Russell could be a pretty decent backup option in the event the Nets are passed up on as a free agent destination.