If the Brooklyn Nets have been known for anything over the past few years, it's the trade. The 2013 deal sending three unprotected draft picks and one pick-swap to Boston for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce has become a cruel joke, a cautionary tale, and a recurring nightmare whose effect on the franchise has been profound and lasting.
It's a sensitive subject.
"We've never addressed it," said Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson before his team took on the Lakers in Los Angeles last week. (Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks were hired in 2016.) "Sean and I don't talk about it...Really, no one in the organization—from the secretary down to the coach—we don't talk about it."
They might as well not, even if it is the reason the Nets are presently comprised of three salary cap scourges, five G-League flyers, and a few quarters that Marks found in owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s couch. Atkinson is so absorbed in coaching this collection of castaways that his brow seems to have furrowed permanently, and the players, hell-bent on proving they belong, have emerged as a young, fun, and feverish outfit that is running opponents ragged. These Nets are playing valiant, if futile basketball. They have nothing to lose.
In the locker room, Caris Levert is lacing up his standard-issue Kyries before he hits the court. He doesn’t care about the trade—he didn’t even realize he was (sort of) part of the return. In 2015, the Nets flipped Garnett for Thaddeus Young; the following year they shipped Young to Indiana for LeVert's draft rights. “I just knew I was traded for Thaddeus,” LeVert said.
The slender second-year shooting guard is a league-pass aficionado's delight: obscure, as raw as he is lanky, and dripping with style. He doesn't so much attack the basket as burrow his way there, surfacing at the rim to lay in the ball or dish it at some bizarre angle. LeVert had foot issues throughout college, the main reason he fell out of the lottery in the 2016 draft. But everyone on this team has some reason they got picked too low, LeVert just puts his head down, and gets where he’s trying to go.
In that respect, he’s like the rest of this team, a group that embodies every sports cliche about determination but without being insufferable. That Brooklyn is near the top of the NBA in free-throw rate only begins to convey the group’s relentlessness. They are overachievers by definition. The only lottery pick on the roster is D’Angelo Russell; most of the players are ex-G-Leaguers. (That includes the team’s highest-paid player, Allen Crabbe, and Lin, its most recognizable.) Some of the Nets player bios read like the narrative arc of a bad commencement speech: Sean Kilpatrick, a shifty scoring guard, was cut by four different NBA teams before the Nets plucked him from the G-League last year. "We all got chips on our shoulders," Kilpatrick said. "That's why we're all here.”
There is no advanced stat to measure high-five rate, but anecdotal evidence points to the Nets as the touchy-feeliest team in the NBA. Even against the Lakers, in a game they never lead, they are all over each other, greeting each other at timeouts, dashing over to peel a teammate off the floor, high-fiving excessively.
“It’s because we like each other a lot,” Kilpatrick said. “We hang out together, which makes things a lot easier for us on the court. It makes it a lot more genuine.
“It all goes to the fact that we play for one another. It doesn't matter what the score is—it doesn't affect how we look at each other. We always want to make sure that we know that we have each other's back, and I think that's the best part of our team.”
A quick heat check: the Nets, while perhaps not headed for last place in the East—that will be Atlanta, or Chicago, or at this rate maybe Cleveland!—will still be pretty bad this season. They hemorrhage points no matter who’s on the court. They hoist up bad shots, and they aren’t particularly accurate, either.
But Atkinson’s gunners are still making teams bleed. The Nets are second in the league in scoring, playing at the fastest pace. You can’t play them hung over. “Everybody needs to stop looking at them like the 15th team in the East,” Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel said recently. “They're a much-improved team, and they're hard to guard."
To watch the Nets is to watch the messy, earnest pursuit of growth. Russell, masquerading as a grayscale James Harden, has rediscovered some of the creativity that had stunted under Luke Walton. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is blossoming into a proper two-way player while wearing what appears to be Nike brand chubbies. Timofey Mozgov is shooting threes now. Trevor Booker continues to do Trevor Booker things.
And then there’s Jarrett Allen, the rookie big man who’s hurt right now. Allen is simultaneously nineteen years old and seven feet tall, and about as diffident as they come in the NBA. But he is fearsome around the rim at both ends, showing promise as the team's center of the future. Between LeVert's stop-and-go drives and Allen's honest-to-goodness (also good-as-hell) afro, Brooklyn's future might look a lot like an ABA-era Nets revival.
There’s a growing trend of hashtag-branded rebuilds in the NBA, but there’s no catchphrase yet for what this franchise is trying to pull off. If Philadelphia has The Process, and Phoenix has The Timeline, what does Brooklyn have? "That's a good question," Allen said. He looks like he wants to come up with something but knows that whatever it is will be terrible. "The Grit? I don't know." Brooklyn has The Grit.
The Lakers handed the Nets their third loss in a row that night, led by Brook Lopez and Kyle Kuzma—the player and pick sent to Los Angeles this summer for Russell. The pick used on Kuzma was originally Boston’s—the one that got swapped for Jayson Tatum. Naturally, Kuzma is looking like the steal of the draft. (The trade never dies.)
Atkinson did the postgame scrum looking like he’d just housed a full styrofoam cup of instant coffee. There was a lot to go over, clearly. "We're 16 days without a practice," he said, wincing. "The film work we're doing isn't translating. We're trying to do it through film but it's not getting the point across. So we gotta take advantage of practice time."
The visitors' locker room was hushed and featured the saddest platter of PB&J triangles you've ever seen. Allen Crabbe preached resilience. Russell evaded questions about facing his former team. Mozgov hobnobbed with a Russian reporter. There will be many more nights like this over the next few years. Most of the characters will probably be changed out before this team makes the playoffs again.
Or, maybe not.
"A lot of people count us out," LeVert said. "But we feel like we're a really good team. We're not caught up in the outside noise at all. We feel like we're really good."