Everybody remembers the day the Brooklyn Nets died. Ironically enough it was supposed to be the day they were born. An organization led by Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z in their corner, the Nets wanted to be cool. They had the clean black and white jerseys, a brand new arena in Brooklyn, and they were hell bent on stealing away New York from the Knicks. New Jersey was in the past. This was a new Nets team. A better one.
They made a big splash immediately. With Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and Brook Lopez already on the roster the Nets wanted to bring championship pedigree to the roster. So they brought in Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce. This veteran group, led by franchise legend and just out of his playing days Jason Kidd as coach, was going to take the NBA by storm. The plan was simple. Go all in on the short term future and use a culture of being a fresh new winner to carry them through the inevitable hard years that would follow. All it took was selling their soul.
The Nets gave absolutely everything away to make it work. Three first round picks, completely unprotected, went to the Celtics. They then built around their already aging core with aging players like Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry. This would have been fine if they could have found a few diamonds in the rough young players, but Mirza Teletovic and Mason Plumlee didn’t pan out that way and what was supposed to be the birth of the new and improved Nets was merely signing their future away.
The Nets never got past the second round. They were old and slow. Jason Kidd left after a failed power move. Pierce became unhappy and bolted to become a journeyman ring chaser. Garnett stayed around until he was traded back to Minnesota for his swan song. Johnson collected checks and did his Iso-Joe thing while Deron Williams failed to recapture the early magic and promise he had shown so early in his career. It was a complete disaster in every way.
Two years after the Nets were supposed to take the world, the world took them. They were on the quickest path to cutting as much salary as they possibly could. The problem being that they had to do this while watching the draft picks that shoul’ve assisted in a rebuild go towards the Celtics. Boston was able to use the Nets failure as its own asset, which might have been the biggest kick in the gut of all.
Which is why it’s almost ironic now that, after spending years trying to make up for that mistake, the Nets are returning to relevance in full force with one of the Celtics own players. The biggest reward of the Nets trade for the Celtics was being able to trade for Kyrie Irving two summers ago, using a Brooklyn pick as the chief asset going back to Cleveland.
On June 30, one hour before free agency was set to officially begin it was reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania of The Athletic that the Nets were going to be signing Kevin Durant and Irving. A long rebuild completed, a process accelerated by Brooklyn successfully selling three friends (including DeAndre Jordan) on playing together in New York City. The Celtics did well to replace Irving with Walker, but lost Al Horford in the process to Philadelphia. The Nets are no longer the league’s punching bag, instead morphing into a potential powerhouse seemingly overnight.
There are multiple ways to rebuild a team, but the Nets might have taken the hardest path. It’s so rare to see a team rebuild this successfully without top draft picks, but credit has to go to Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson. They didn’t show fear to offer, or take on, big money from free agents in an attempt to bring talent to the roster. Then when it came time to flip that talent for assets Marks would do what was necessary. They bought low on candidates that were worth it, such as D’Angelo Russell, Joe Harris, and Spencer Dinwiddie and found those necessary diamonds like Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen outside the lottery. Atkinson’s staff helped get the most out of those players, leading the Nets to a playoff berth and showing that something positive was happening there while New York’s other team simply hoped guys would choose them.
While every move wasn’t a resounding success, there was a long-term plan in place, and there’s something to be said for that. Once they finally pulled themselves out of the darkness from mistakes past, they were able to put them into a flexible situation where adding superstars became a possibility.
This is where the advantage of being in Brooklyn helps. The Nets had a unique situation. Teams in small markets can’t afford to lose the way the Nets did without recouping talent via the draft. They quickly become irrelevant or potentially worse have a permanent label of loser stuck on them. Free agents rarely want to go to these places. It’s up to these teams to draft smart, develop well, and try to attract mid-level stars to join their young cores. Now, the Nets did do this in some ways, but coming to Brooklyn is way more attractive than say Orlando or Charlotte. When the Nets finally built themselves into a playoff squad, they immediately became a free agency destination thanks to their location.
So when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving simultaneously were looking for new teams, there were the Nets. Ready with cap space in hand to sign two big name superstars to push them from a solid young team on the rise to a full contender. It took one offseason to make that transformation, but it was years of groundwork that got them to that point.
The key difference between what the Nets did though, and what other big market rebuilding teams do, is that they created a culture that was attractive. The Knicks are in the same city and have a much greater history and an iconic building, but can’t attract stars because nobody wants to go play for James Dolan. The Lakers haven’t made the playoffs in six seasons and proved that even when you’re in Los Angeles if you show dysfunction you’re going to struggle getting stars. They had to convince LeBron James to come there and make an aggressive trade to land a second star, before they could have hopes of another superstar in free agency.
This is what’s so impressive about the Nets. They were in arguably the worst situation in the league, playing second fiddle to the Knicks in New York, and they still managed to make themselves appear attractive. It took years of hard work, but the Nets did it. They’ve escaped NBA purgatory. They’re back and they want to take over the NBA. Just like they attempted to do last time, but the process was better this time. Maybe it will work.