Playing Out Of Place

The Valley
The Valley
The Valley

It’s an odd feeling, returning to a place that no longer belongs to you. With a three-day break and no travel budget to make it to Sacramento (or Phoenix, or Los Angeles), I took the time “off” (though there are no days off in blogging) to go to Massachusetts, both to see family and Hampshire College, the uber-liberal bastion where I spent four years pretending to earn a bachelor’s degree in the Pioneer Valley of Amherst, Massachusetts. It was my third time back post-graduation, and every time it seems a little further than the last. Familiar faces get fewer and fewer. Advisors and coaches, a bit older, deal with new students with new names. Some buildings are a little creakier, some completely redone. It’s the place you recognize, but not the place you remember.

During halftime of Brooklyn Nets-Sacramento Kings game, YES Network (our FABULOUS partners — watch YANKEEography when you’re done reading this!) showed highlights from NBA games around the league Wednesday night. Phoenix Suns 23-year-old lightning bolt Eric Bledsoe dropped 11 quick points in the first half of a game. A highlight showed Suns forward and 19-year-old Archie Goodwin leaking out on a fast break for a dunk. The Suns eventually lost to the Trail Blazers, led by 22-year-old Thomas Robinson, on a game-winner by Damian Lillard, the reigning Rookie of the Year. Elsewhere, 24-year-old James Anderson had the game of his life, dropping a career-high 36 points for the 76ers in a 123-117 victory. The Sixers are one of the league’s surprise teams. Everyone thought they’d be too young to win any games.

Marcus Thornton, Alan AndersonThis highlight package came after a rough first half for Brooklyn, the second-oldest team in the NBA, where 23-year-old DeMarcus Cousins and 26-year-old Marcus Thornton piled in the points for Sacramento as they ran out to a 52-40 lead. Cousins got inside and scored through every Nets defense (minus the 25-year-old Brook Lopez, who held his own) and ran the floor well, even putting down an alley-oop on a fast break. Thornton fired away from deep over Brooklyn’s defenders, hitting three threes in that first half. Later, in the third quarter, Thornton drove left around Deron Williams and hit a layup at the rim, putting the Kings up 72-51. Greivis Vasquez, Isaiah Thomas & Thornton piled in points on Williams & Joe Johnson as the Kings ended up blowing out Brooklyn, 107-86.

While watching another young, fast team beat up on the Brooklyn Nets, another team outscore the Nets in second-chance points and fast-break points, another team pounce on Nets turnovers, another listless second-half performance (save one fourth-quarter run when the wackiest lineup — Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Jason Terry, Alan Anderson, and Reggie Evans — took a significant chunk out of the Kings lead, only to give it right back after a Terry technical), one thought kept crossing my mind:

Is it possible that the NBA is just passing Brooklyn by?

I know, I know. It’s early. We’re seven games into an 82-game season that’s full of twists and turns and evolutions. The Nets aren’t ending the season 23-59, barring some incomprehensible catastrophe. This team has too much talent for that. But at this point, aren’t their weaknesses also kind of… well, obvious? And easily exploitable? They struggle to stop teams in the fast break and on the perimeter. Their biggest strength (aside from Brook Lopez inside) is midrange shooting, inherently basketball’s biggest offensive weakness. They don’t rebound well and give up careless turnovers. Meanwhile, some of the NBA’s youngest teams are its biggest surprises.

They’ve now lost two embarrassing blowout losses to two young teams, who many assumed were tanking, by a score of 107-86. They’ve lost close games to two other teams led by young, blazing-fast point guards and former #1 overall picks. (But: they did beat the Utah Jazz, who were winless until Wednesday night, and the Miami Heat, the reigning NBA champion and the only team older than them.)

They’re playing 2009 basketball in 2013. The team’s energy level, player-by-player, reads almost inverse to their birthdates. They’re 24-year-old me, standing on my old stomping ground, not feeling so far gone but still distanced from the 18-year-old freshman that’s just getting the knack of hard drugs and homework at the same time.

There’s many months left. The Nets have a lot of time to tweak and tinker and figure out the right combination of moves, lineups, and defensive schemes to right this ship. They’ve also got multiple All-Stars with too much pride to lose like this, night in and night out, over the course of many months. But they’ve also got a record of 2-5, good for second-to-last in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Washington Wizards, a team that’s beaten them. Certainly a 2-5 start isn’t encouraging, even with three close losses. This was not Billy King’s vision, nor Mikhail Prokhorov’s or Jason Kidd’s. If brighter days aren’t ahead soon, it’s going to get very, very dark, and quickly.