For more than four years, the Brooklyn Nets had been more or less irrelevant on a national scale. Whenever the team came up in a larger conversation, it was usually to discuss how one of its first-round picks — dealt in that infamous trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce — was benefiting another franchise that got to reap the draft payoff. You have to go back to 2013-14, a full season after the Nets left New Jersey for Brooklyn, to find the last time they finished .500.
All of which makes the Nets — winners of five straight and co-owners of the NBA’s best record over the past month and a half — so compelling. At 26-23, the team is currently holding a playoff position in sixth place in the East. Coach Kenny Atkinson, again, is finding enormous success with his point guards, including D’Angelo Russell, who’s in contention for an All-Star spot. And the club, which in early December was mired in an eight-game skid and couldn’t hold late-game leads, is all of a sudden unbeatable in the clutch. And this is after Brooklyn lost perhaps its best all-around player, Caris LeVert, to a brutal long-term injury.
But underneath all that past losing — and there was a lot of it, given that this team has had three consecutive seasons with fewer than 30 wins — there were several road signs that the Nets were tapping into an array of good strategies to begin a turnaround.
Much of that was rooted in ideology and experimentation, necessities because of how bare the draft-pick cupboard was for a while. The team had to take some creative steps (read: accept salary dumps) in a bid to get some talent on its roster. And the club’s front office, led by Sean Marks, had to identify talent that was being ignored or undervalued, like guard Spencer Dinwiddie, and trust its own ability to help develop players like him into everyday rotation pieces.
The hiring of Atkinson, a longtime NBA assistant, was a key catalyst. Well before the wins started outnumbering the losses, and before there was enough talent to expect playoff berths, the 51-year-old quickly began changing the team’s shot profile on both ends of the floor.
During the 2015-16 campaign, a year before he came on, the Nets ranked 26th out of 30 in quantified Shot Quality, which measures the likelihood of shots going in, if taken by an average NBA player, according to stat database Second Spectrum. The club completely overhauled that at the start of Atkinson’s tenure, though, as Brooklyn finished fifth and fourth in 2016-17 and 2017-18, respectively. And this season, the Nets rank ninth in the metric.
Are the Brooklyn Nets really a playoff team?
In layman’s terms, the Nets have essentially adopted the same offensive principles as the analytically friendly Houston Rockets, coached by Atkinson mentor Mike D’Antoni. (Fitting that these clubs combined for an NBA-record 106 3-point attempts in a game last week.) Russell, who leads starting ball-handlers with 61.5 pick and rolls per 100 plays, will run you around screens all day, and he and his Brooklyn teammates generally avoid midrange shots, instead probing for much higher-percentage looks. No NBA team has driven to the basket more than the Nets, and this would mark the third consecutive season that Brooklyn ranks in the top 10 in free-throw rate.
Defensively, the story is much the same. The Nets have excelled at forcing opponents to walk the analytics plank, ranking among the top five in 2016-17, 2017-18 and again this season in terms of how often they coax teams into longer midrange 2-pointers. When teams are fortunate enough to get to the basket, they’re often met by 20-year-old Jarrett Allen, a big man who has erased some of the game’s biggest names at the rim while sometimes playing a one-man zone. The Nets also rank near the top of the NBA in boxing out, to finish those defensive possessions.
That combination — continuing to take the most efficient shots possible on offense while taking those same shots away on the other end — has been the NBA equivalent of Andy Dufresne’s rock hammer in “The Shawshank Redemption.” The team’s strategy and talent, combined with its newfound maturation in the clutch, have finally set it free.
Brooklyn basically looked shackled at the ends of games last year and at the start of this season. Whether it was inexperience, consistently bad whistles or a combination of the two, the Nets were managing to find new, devastating ways to lose close contests each night.
But even that’s changed of late. The Nets, who were a dismal 4-10 in clutch situations as of Dec. 1, have since gone 11-4 in those same scenarios.
One noteworthy shift there is rooted in Russell and Dinwiddie’s ability to coexist during the hot streak — something that had consistently backfired from a net-rating standpoint over the past two seasons. (Their ability to play together, or lack thereof, will be worth watching because of the decision the Nets have to make about the future of Russell, who’s a restricted free agent this summer. Yet it looks like Russell will have the show to himself, as Dinwiddie, who just signed a three-year, $34 million extension, could miss considerable time with a torn ligament in his thumb.) But other elements also stand out. Joe Harris is one of the NBA’s best perimeter shooters. Latvian forward Rodions Kurucs was a great find and is a fluid scorer at 6-foot-9.
While the Nets are clearly ascending, they still have their issues, too.
Brooklyn has one of the highest turnover rates in the league. The Nets can occasionally find themselves with matchup problems against teams with floor-spacing bigs because of how Allen anchors himself to the paint on defense. The lack of pressure on pick-and-roll ball-handlers hurts their ability to force turnovers. For how well the team gets to the stripe, Russell, its leading scorer, takes fewer free throws than any other volume shooter in the NBA.1 Injuries have nagged Brooklyn all year, and while it’s fair to expect a boost from players if and when they return — especially from LeVert — key players’ roles may have to shrink to accommodate everyone once they’re back. And the Nets, who have enjoyed one of the easiest slates so far, will be thoroughly tested by their upcoming schedule — especially from mid-March to the end of the season.
There’s a reason we hear so much about the Nets eventually landing a player like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler. Aside from the fact that they’re one of few big-market teams that seemingly has a direction, a blank-enough canvas (in terms of not having a star) and cap space to make something happen, they also would become an instant contender by adding someone of that caliber. Again, the decision on Russell could complicate that. Yet the reality is that getting past the second round likely requires more than this current cast, even at full strength.
For the time being, though, it has been eye-opening to watch the 22-year-old Russell play this well since the turn of the new year, a span in which he’s averaged 24 points and nearly eight assists on 49 percent shooting from the floor, along with his rainbow-arc triples falling at a 44 percent clip.
While he’ll never possess the sort of bounce that some of his counterparts have, the former No. 2 overall pick has leveraged the threat of his pull-up jumper into being able to beat defenders to certain spots. When he senses defenders on his hip, he’ll often make use of ball fakes to buy himself more space before shooting.
He’s been more consistent with the ball during that window, too, passing teammates open while logging a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2019 — up from 2-to-1 earlier this season and much better than his career ratio of 1.5-to-1 coming into the 2018-19 campaign.
Certain elements of Russell’s offensive run lately, much like the team’s overall, are going to come back down to earth at some point. But with how hellish things have been in Brooklyn for much of the past five years, and with how sound the team’s strategy has been in digging out of that trench, Russell, the Nets and their fans all have ample reason to be enjoying this — even if they aren’t exactly sure what comes next.
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