The Brooklyn Nets won 20 games last season—four fewer than any other team—and for a majority of the year, even 20 wins felt like a dream. They dropped 14 straight heading into All-Star Weekend, then emerged on the other side with an eight-game road trip that resulted in an 11-53 record with one month still to go.
The Nets were bad—as unwatchable as an NBA team gets—but tried really hard, with "A for effort" stamped across their forehead. No roster had less skill or promising upside across the board, but for most of the year Brooklyn's style of play reflected that of a team that excelled at controlling its environment. They played extremely fast, shot a ton threes, forced opponents to jack up a bunch of long twos, and hustled back on defense. Talent obviously matters, but general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson were smart to sew good habits into their club.
It paid off down the stretch, as Brooklyn flickered with signs of progress and created a glint of optimism heading into the summer. (The most obvious caveat here is that their success started right around the same time teams across the NBA start to rest players, either to focus on the lottery or the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Nets didn't own their first-round pick and were miles from the postseason.) They finished their final month with a higher net rating than the Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta Hawks, and Charlotte Hornets.
Since, the Nets have made foundational changes to their roster, adding intriguing young prospects, shedding their franchise player, and picking up a few helpful contributors at useful positions along the way. It's now fair to wonder just how good they can be in 2018. Take a quick glance at the Eastern Conference's desolate landscape: Paul George, Paul Millsap, and Jimmy Butler have all gone west. What if the Nets are no longer an on-court laughingstock?
The conversation starts with D'Angelo Russell, the organization's most talented 21-year-old since Brook Lopez (and before him, probably Stephon Marbury). A shifty playmaker who can post-up, shoot threes, and attack on or off the ball, the second overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft is an ideal offensive complement for Jeremy Lin (and vice-versa). The other side of the ball is a different story, but as a pair of drive-and-kick engineers, this backcourt will constantly pressure opposing defenses in a way Brooklyn could not do over the past two years.
Supporting both guards on the wing will be an athletic, versatile fleet of two-way contributors. DeMarre Carroll—wisely acquired in a salary dump that allowed Brooklyn to take on a lottery-protected first-round pick in 2018—is 31 years old, can't guard LeBron James in the playoffs, and is coming off a down year shooting the ball.
But two seasons ago he made 39.6 percent of his spot-up threes. He nailed 41.1 percent the year before that. Carroll is not bad, and played for Atkinson when both were with the Atlanta Hawks from 2013-2015. If healthy, he'll create space, get out in transition, help out on the boards, and cover the opposing team's top perimeter threat from the jump. He's the type of player they didn't have last year.
To boot, earlier this week the Nets traded for Allen Crabbe, quietly one of the league's premiere spot-up shooters. (Seventy five players launched at least 300 threes last year, and Kyle Korver was the only one more accurate than Crabbe's 44.4 percent.) But with $56.3 million due over the next three years, the Nets have to bank on their coaching staff's ability to expand the 25-year-old's role from what it was on the Portland Trail Blazers, and watch him evolve into a multi-dimensional weapon (aka someone who can put the ball on the floor) for any of this to make fiscal sense.
In a conversation with VICE Sports, a member of one team's front office who quickly dismissed Brooklyn's playoff hopes in 2018 wondered aloud why they didn't just target Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. KCP signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this month. Compared to Crabbe, he's better (astronomically so on the defensive end), one year younger, and—even though the Nets wouldn't get to offset salary by dumping Andrew Nicholson on Portland if they signed Caldwell-Pope instead—less expensive.
While trading for Carroll made sense for a team that otherwise wouldn't have a first-round pick in next year's draft, the jury is still out on how taking Crabbe on now helps this team in the long haul. Cap space remains valuable for a franchise that should continue to exist as a dumping ground for unwanted salary. It's hard to see what Portland's leverage was, and why the Nets couldn't at least get a second-round pick for their trouble.
But it's a transaction that hints at where Brooklyn wants to be over the next few years. Their desire to plop out a competitive product is clear, as is the need to make life easier for Russell. Last year, Damian Lillard shot 59.7 percent within five feet of the rim when Crabbe was on the court. That number dropped to 52.2 percent when Crabbe wasn't out there. Gravity matters.
Elsewhere, 31-year-old Timofey Mozgov will replace Lopez (whose ability to space the floor will be missed) and 29-year-old Trevor Booker is still around as a half-decent backup power forward who's coming off a career year. Brooklyn's frontcourt is still a tad thin, and it's likely they'll get worked on the glass. But there are worse plans than deploying as many like-sized athletes as they can when Mozgov needs to rest.
Two of Brooklyn's three most recent first-round picks—Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert (the Nets outscored opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions in the 829 minutes those two shared the court last season)—provide useful skills even though there are a few debilitating flaws involved as well. Hollis-Jefferson can't shoot, but he's a feisty defender who can seriously rebound. Both he and LeVert will have an opportunity to sprout this year.
Incoming rookie Jarrett Allen has a monstrous wingspan and should see minutes as a backup five who can hopefully develop into a helpful pick-and-roll partner with Russell and Lin.
If Lin stays healthy and Atkinson can do for Crabbe what he once did for Carroll, cracking the eight seed isn't impossible. The Nets could have a better record than the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Hawks, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, and New York Knicks. That isn't necessarily good enough for the postseason, but it's a massive jump from where they were a year ago.
Brooklyn is clearly more interested in resembling a competitive squad than tanking through the 2019 season when they finally have their own first-round pick. Their ability to actually do so depends on Russell's ability to thrive in his new home like James Harden once did with the Houston Rockets. The results won't be immediate (Harden was two years older than Russell when the Oklahoma City Thunder traded him) but that should still be viewed as a best-case scenario.
In the meantime, the Nets are no longer God awful. And given their bottomless expectations and scarce collection of assets (plus the fact that they've only won 41 games in the last two seasons), any sign of demonstrable growth should be seen as a minor miracle.