You don’t see many Brooklyn Nets fans these days. And by these days, I mean these years. Seeing someone sporting a Brooklyn sweatshirt or rocking a D’Angelo Russell jersey is just about as rare as meeting a proud Jets fan (if those even exist).
It’s understandable that a large portion of Brooklyn supporters have entered a fandom hibernation of sorts. Why not lie low for these torturous seasons, and awaken when the team is halfway decent?
Well this is the alarm clock. I can hear the groans, the desperate reaches for the snooze button. I get it, it has been a nice slumber. I understand the wariness, the distrust. The Nets have been bad for so long, how could they be anything else?
I can see the frowns, the looks of unsurprised disappointment in your sleepy eyes. After all, the Nets are just 9-14, the cellar of their division. Arguably their two most talented players are injured. Their home game attendance, even in the beautiful Barclays Center, is bottom-three in the league. On the surface, nothing has changed.
But before you throw that wrinkled Joe Johnson or Deron Williams shirt back into the bottom of your closet, hear me out. Subtle changes are already underway, and it’s only a matter of time before that number under the “W” column—if you can believe it—is greater than that under the “L.”
Brooklyn is watchable once again. In fact, they’re not only watchable, they’re fun. When at their best, the Nets are a blur of youth: fast, creative and reckless. That’s not always a formula for winning games, especially on the defensive end, but boy is it entertaining.
Russell, when on the court, is as imaginative and daring a player as there is in the NBA. I was admittedly a little skeptical when he arrived, but in just 12 games he’s proved he can be a player to build around. That said, as much as I’d like to declare D’Lo the next greatest point guard, he’s not quite a star—yet. Russell needs to become a more consistent passer and defender, but when he puts the pieces together, he’ll be special.
He’s not alone. Jeremy Lin was primed for a career year before he heartbreakingly ruptured a tendon in his knee, ending his season. He’ll be back. In the meantime, other players have filled the void more than adequately.
Just pick a player on the Nets roster, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by their output. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is having a quietly-superb third season. Spencer Dinwiddie has been exceptional in the replacement of the injured guards. Allen Crabbe is draining threes left and right. Even veteran Trevor Booker is putting up career-highs in almost every category.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson—yes, that’s the coach now—has been masterful, working around devastating injuries and pushing players like Dinwiddie and Booker to accept and thrive in larger roles than they’re used to.
It’s the youth of the Nets that is most exciting. Russell is 21. Hollis-Jefferson and Isaiah Whitehead are 22. Caris LeVert is 23. Rookie center Jarrett Allen hasn’t even celebrated his 20th birthday yet.
And there’s more on the way. Brooklyn had a great offseason, due in large part to being a trade partner for teams looking to unload excessively-high salaries. They took on Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, and Timofey Mosgov, taking the hit in their pockets in return for draft picks and young talent like Russell. Collect overpriced players now, while stockpiling draft picks and making teams forfeit their future over to the Nets. It’s a welcome strategy in Brooklyn, whose “win now” deal with the Celtics in 2013 is viewed as one of the worst in NBA history.
And while their record certainly isn’t inspiring, the Nets are playing far better than the sum of their parts. Brooklyn is averaging the fifth-most points per game in the league at 109.8, and is top-five in rebounding. Of course, only Phoenix has allowed more points per game than the Nets, but most coaches would take great offense over great defense any day of the week. The team’s ability to score should keep them in ballgames even against the toughest opponents—and it sure makes them a whole lot more fun to watch in the process.
And if you’re not sold on the Nets investing in their future, as I’m writing this, Brooklyn just reached a deal with Philadelphia to send Booker to the 76ers in return for Jahlil Okafor, Nik Stauskas and a second-round draft pick. That’s two more young players that Brooklyn has relieved from their original teams (Okafor has wanted out of Philly for months), and the Nets are receiving draft picks and future contributors as well. It’s an unorthodox rebuild, but a brilliant one.
For the first time in years, there’s cause for excitement in Brooklyn. The team is playing with heart again, and Russell has undoubtedly brought swagger and energy to the Barclays Center that has been missing since its opening. It hasn’t consistently shown up in the win column yet, but it won’t be long before the Nets are a legitimate threat in the East.
So go ahead, Nets fans-in-hiding, throw on that dusty Brook Lopez shirt, invest in a new D’Angelo Russell jersey, rehang that Brooklyn poster, because the Nets are (almost) back. I already have.