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NBA Daily: The Wizards Have Been Reborn

Just over a month ago, one Basketball Insiders writer foolishly suggested that the Brooklyn Nets — despite all their youth, determination and overall grittiness — should strongly consider tanking out for the remainder of the 2018-19 season.

At the time, the Nets were floundering without do-it-all playmaker Caris LeVert — holders of a dismal 3-10 record following that gruesome injury, in fact. Between their lingering injuries, the once-neverending on-court debate over D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie and an inability to finish games to the final buzzer, it almost seemed like a no-brainer. After all, losing might’ve resulted in a Zion Williamson-shaped prize headed the borough’s way, coincidently, during the first season in which the Nets have owned their own first rounder since 2013.

Since the original piece was posted on Dec. 8, the Nets have done little beyond rattling off 13 wins in their last 17 contests, becoming one of the NBA’s hottest teams along the way. In a mere instant, Dinwiddie got paid and continued to play out of his absolute mind, Latvian rookie Rodions Kurucs was jettisoned into the starting lineup to great success and even Russell suddenly appeared to approach that metaphorical corner.

As of Friday, Brooklyn has gone from single-digit winners (9-18) to the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed (21-22). So, uh, unfortunately, it looks like a once well-thought out article belongs firmly and totally in the garbage. The Brooklyn Nets are not tanking in 2019 and nor should they be — but just how wrong has that take become over the last 36 days? Well, let’s find out.

Take No. 1: “But with so many crucial, organization-altering decisions on the very near horizon, Brooklyn will need to reevaluate their direction if the losses continue to pile up. At what point does incubating culture come at the expense of missing out on an elite prospect?”

Strike one.

The record obviously speaks for itself — and per Nets PR recently, their 13-4 record over the last month is only bettered by the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers’ three-loss efforts. During that stretch, the Nets have ranked fourth in field goal percentage (47.9), fifth in three-pointers made (12.8) and sixth in points (114.7) per game. The defense is still a work in progress — although Brooklyn been much better at getting crucial stops when they need them — but the offense has hummed like a well-oiled machine.

From Oct. 17 to Dec. 8, the Nets’ offensive rating came in at 107.9, a mark that left them just 17th-best. In the last 18 games, however, head coach Kenny Atkinson has worked his magic touch and elevated his oft-injured roster all the way up to 111.6. Not only does it rank 10th-highest, but it’s additionally better than the Clippers, Bucks, Trail Blazers and Thunder in that time span as well. All of these plaudits have come with the useful Allen Crabbe missing most of the red-hot streak and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the team’s best man-to-man defender, sitting for the last six contests.

In layman’s terms, the Nets have gotten a whole lot better in a hurry, even without their roster at full health.

And on the other hand, it’s not that the Nets have rid themselves of all their important choices — the immediate futures of Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, Hollis-Jefferson and others remain — but they’ve addressed one of their biggest difficulties already. Dinwiddie may not have received his sought-after extension right on Dec. 8 — and he even left money on the table to boot — but the now-financially-secured point guard has been the consistent key and engine behind Brooklyn’s fast resurrection.

Which brings this teardown to the second previous point of conversation…

Take No. 2: “As two of the Nets’ best players, a desire to retain them both is understandable — but unless one is willing to come off the bench for the foreseeable future, it may not be the road the franchise wants to head down.”

Of course, there are some variables left to play out here: Mainly, Russell’s foray into restricted free agency this summer. Even then, the last month of basketball has gone a far distance toward proving that the-one-or-the-other notion may not be the only way forward for Brooklyn. Over the last 18 games, Dinwiddie has confidently poured in 19.3 points and 5.5 assists per game — both upticks on his averages from Oct. to early Dec — even hitting a number of clutch buckets in the process.

Dinwiddie has continued to come off the bench in a hyper-aggressive sixth man role — and may even be the current odds-on favorite to win the annual award come April — but it hasn’t slowed down his backcourt partner lately either.

Amidst this recent stretch, Russell has averaged 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists on 44.2 percent from the floor. He’s tallied multiple, complete 30-plus point efforts while also distributing the ball seamlessly in a quick-moving offense. Most importantly, the Nets have deployed their promising guard in the fourth quarter at a higher rate as well — he’s no longer just cheering his teammates on through clutch moments, Russell is leading them. Sure, there are nights where Russell still struggles — like his five-point, six-turnover disappointment versus Boston last week — but his improved play has onlookers asking if the fourth-year’s sky-high potential is finally coming to fruition.

Russell turns just 23 years-old next month but if he keeps playing like this, the will-they-won’t-they match debate will disintegrate long before free agency. Needless to say, if this positive turn is a permanent look for Russell, he’ll be staying in Brooklyn long-term. In the course of a month, ultimately, it may be just the road this franchise wants to head down after all.

On a more interesting note, not only have the Nets toyed with playing both Russell and Dinwiddie at the same time, thus eliminating the Sophie’s Choice conundrum between choosing who to sit, but Atkinson has also thrown Shabazz Napier into the mix. A three-guard lineup wouldn’t work for most teams, but the Nets must utilize their talent in any shape or form they can. The electric ballhandlers have both been exceptional as of late, so Brooklyn hasn’t had to worry about taking turns or trying to guess who’ll possess the hotter hand.

Their ability to play together could be a major development as the Nets decide how to ride this rebuild into 2020 and beyond.

Take No. 3: Play the kids, trade the veterans

Last but not least, there was a hope for a youthful jolt of energy to the arm. If the Nets were going to flounder, they might as well do it with some panache, right? Turning the keys to the wobbly wagon over to the kids — specifically Rodions Kurucs, Džanan Musa, Alan Williams and Theo Pinson — would theoretically grant them valuable experience for years to come. Past that, the Nets and the always trade-savvy general manager Sean Marks could then ship off effective veterans on large, expiring contracts for future assets. Instead, almost the opposite has happened.

Obviously, Kurucs’ role promotion been undeniably prudent and invaluable within this Nets mini-run — but after that? Musa, who had averaged 20.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals in 32.4 minutes for Brooklyn’s G League affiliate in Long Island this season, was diagnosed with a left shoulder subluxation in mid-December and has yet to return. Williams, although a G League menace, was released by the Nets on Jan. 2 so the center could pursue a more lucrative contract in China, only to return this week after complications. And despite torching the Maine Red Claws for 43 points on Thursday, Pinson has yet to totally sort through his burgeoning skills at the NBA level.

That lack of consistent in-game burn has allowed the roster’s strong veteran presence to shine on through entirely. DeMarre Carroll was cold in the season’s early aughts, but he’s torched opposing defenses lately with a new-look approach. Last week alone, Carroll dropped 19-, 20- and 20-point efforts back-to-back-to-back on a combined 19-for-33 from the floor. The junkyard dog likely won’t regain his effortless wizardry from his career-best 2017-18 campaign, but this revitalized version — which Carroll chalked up to assistant Jordan Ott — isn’t just expiring trade bait, he’s absolutely essential to the Nets’ successes.

It’s often tough to predict the daily statistical contributions from Jared Dudley — but for what he lacks in big scoring performances, the 33-year-old has been universally hailed for his leadership. Aside from being well-loved, Dudley has started in 25 games for Brooklyn this season, always willing to hit some much-needed late three-pointers and do the dirty work without complaint. While he’s not the future answer at the position by any means, it’s safe to say Dudley is going nowhere during this busy trade deadline season. Without Carroll or Dudley, there’s no way the Nets would’ve stayed this hot for this long — that seems almost certain.

Kenneth Faried is still glued to the bench, but in two of his three appearances since Dec. 8, the Manimal has turned in double-doubles lines. Whether there’s a trade or a buyout on the horizon, something else must be in store for the handy power forward.

At the end of the day, it was too hasty to turn a watchful eye toward Zion Williamson and his killer draft class that early. But after falling prey to a bad 3-10 streak, and without LeVert for the foreseeable future, it looked like a potential route with merit. It’s strange how quickly things can change in the NBA and the Nets, once again, appear to be a shining example of this clause. Thirty-six days ago, the Nets were tumbling down the conference ladder with a bubbling point guard controversy and a glaring need for an exit plan. Now in mid-January, the Nets look wholly competitive despite a slew of injuries, while Dinwiddie and Russell have not only existed in conjunction with each other, they’ve thrived.

Brooklyn won’t be looking for a youth movement to save them, or even see the season out — that’s a strategy for those secret tankers. And although this writer incorrectly doubted the Nets, the franchise never wavered. Not everything has been fixed, handled or dealt with, of course, but it no longer feels like slapping a band-aid on a massive bleeding wound and calling it good enough. These Nets, competitive and scrappy, are here to stay, which is a significant accomplishment considering where the team stood not too long ago.

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