In 2013, the Brooklyn Nets graced the cover of Sports Illustrated with a tagline of “Who wants a piece of these guys?”. The cover featured six members of the Nets — coach Jason Kidd was at the center, surrounded by Brooklyn’s starting five of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez. The cover story touched on how the Nets — who cost owner Mikhail Prokhorov a whopping $193 million after the luxury tax kicked in that season — were optimistic about their chances of contending long-term and then being good enough in 2016 to pursue a top shelf free agent such as Kevin Durant when several big salaries came off the books. Immediate success was key for a franchise still settling into a new home, and that roster was supposed to be the beginning.
The Nets, of course, didn’t win a title in 2013 and really didn’t even sniff it — they finished sixth in the Eastern Conference with 44 wins and lost in the second round to the Miami Heat in five games. That team, which was put together to win right away, does not exist anymore.
Kidd left after the season following a conflict with the Nets’ front office and has found success with the Milwaukee Bucks. Pierce signed with the Washington Wizards and has extended his career by transitioning from featured scorer to cagey role player. The Nets traded Garnett to the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, finding a deal with the one team that had a reason to trade for well-past-his prime Garnett. Williams — who at one point was supposed be an attractive centerpiece — was waived over the summer and had the last two years of his contract bought out. Lopez and Johnson are still here. Barely.
As it exists now, this Nets team is hapless and operating in an incredible difficult reality of their own making. The only team worse than the Nets in the Eastern Conference are the winless Philadelphia 76ers, and there’s not a lot of reason to think that things are going to get better (for either team). To date, Brooklyn has posted the league’s second worst net rating against what is roughly a league average schedule. And while no one expected Brooklyn to be good necessarily, their current 3-11 record is certainly worse than expected. This was a team, after all, that reached the playoffs last year and didn’t make any significant roster changes other than dropping the inconsistent Williams.
As bad as they are, the rebuild is on hold because the Nets don’t have a realistic path to finding young, interesting talent right now. They don’t control another first round pick until 2019 — Boston holds Brooklyn’s 2016 and 2018 picks first rounders and has the option of swapping picks in 2017. Because of how the Nets chased a title, dealing future draft picks for aging stars, Brooklyn will continue to struggle as the Celtics use the picks to draft their own young talent or trade for an available star. Or both.
How tough will it be for Nets fans to watch a top prospect like LSU’s Ben Simmons or Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere play for the Celtics and know that player perhaps could have been playing in Brooklyn? Is it even worse that the Knicks, of all teams, found a young star of their own in Kristaps Porzingis, just one borough away?
The most frustrating part of Brooklyn’s situation is that they don’t appear to have a plan other than trying to stay afloat. Some younger players like ex-Knick Shane Larkin, rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and former Cavs draft pick Sergey Karasev have been brought in, but none of them move the needle in the future potential department. Lionel Hollins is a respected coach but developing youth is not really in his wheelhouse. Making deals for players like Jarrett Jack, to whom Brooklyn is paying $6.3 million this year, instead of chasing young players and draft picks doesn’t help. It extends to paying Lopez over $20 million per year for the next three seasons, not doing something, anything to get Johnson’s contract at least partly off the books and signing veteran Thaddeus Young — whom they received in exchange for Garnett — to a multi-year deal this summer.
The result is a mediocre product on the floor that cost will Prokhorov an enormous amount of money — the Nets have the fifth highest payroll in the NBA and are the lone team amongst the top-10 that doesn’t have a legit chance to make the playoffs. Johnson, long a consistent scorer for all of his flaws, is having the worst year of his career at age 34 and is still eighth in the league isolation shot attempt frequency. Lopez and Young are having decent years, but they aren’t good enough to improve the Nets in a meaningful way. And the young players, while talented, aren’t must-watch. Aside from Hollis-Jefferson, there is nothing here that implies a rosy future. Hope is in short supply.
In truth, there’s nothing really exciting about watching the Nets, unless Johnson and Jack isolation mid-range shots or Lopez post-ups are your thing. There’s also nothing about the Nets that should make Brooklyn confident about landing a top-name free agent (or any quality free agent) during next July’s 2016 free agent period. The fanbase is responding to the mess on the floor and has largely stopped coming to games. Per ESPN, the Nets are 27th in the league in average attendance per game so far this year.
Most teams would be embracing the chaos, playing their young guns, bottoming out and plotting a rebuild. Brooklyn doesn’t have those players and they won’t have a real chance to get them until the next presidential election cycle is fully underway. This path became inevitable after the 2013-14 team failed to meet expectations and the players on that SI cover went in different directions.
In the aftermath, the Nets have a woeful team with a future that already has been partly written.