The first two years of the Brooklyn Nets were marked less by their on-court product than by their lavish introductions, interweaved with bombastic pronouncements of the team’s rapid rise to greatness. “Hello Brooklyn. I’m Joe Johnson,” the first campaign began, a simple introduction befitting Johnson’s subdued style, before intersecting Johnson the star and Johnson the man: “Six-time NBA All-Star and lifelong Razorback.” The Nets wanted to get across three things: they were here, they were human, and they were great.
But after two seasons of building the buzz, there’s a muted subtext to this year’s Nets. The team stayed home for training camp. They went away for two of their preseason games, and only two of their regular season games will be on national television. No one is barking about championships. After two years of lavish spending, bombastic marketing campaigns, and prideful declarations of dominance, the Nets have finally become the Park Slope roommate that’s gotten used to his leaky shower and loud neighbors, and just wants to pipe down and pay rent until he can move to a cheaper apartment.
On a related note, the Nets this year project to finish the season with their worst year in Brooklyn. ESPN’s SCHOENE released their annual NBA projections (Insider), and they have the Nets finishing 36-46, which would leave them out of the playoffs for the first time since moving to the borough, and projects them as a below-average team on both ends of the floor. Their Real Plus-Minus Projected record has them around the same, at 35-47.
Before you go off the rails and admonish SCHOENE for its inherent bias against Deron Williams or Brook Lopez or Brooklyn Brewery or whatever disdain is folded into the projection, remember that SCHOENE is nothing more than a statistical projection model, with no bias or human error involved. Also remember that the model projected the Knicks to finish 37-45 last year, a projection the team and many of its fans scoffed at as proof of how SCHOENE was foolish, and then watched as the Knicks finished the season… 37-45.
But there’s noise in the signal. Health is a tricky thing for any model to take into account; the Nets remain the hardest team to project in the NBA, with a dizzying collection of variables means they could easily end the season with either 30 or 50 wins. They’re relying on Brook Lopez to stay healthy, unless his departure from the team actually makes them better, as it did last season. They’re relying on Deron Williams to return to form after two ankle surgeries this offseason, even after Williams struggled last season. They’re relying on Joe Johnson to remain ageless, Kevin Garnett to turn back the clock, and Lionel Hollins to impart elder wisdom. They’re relying on a flex system that takes time to implement but couldn’t be easier to create open shots. SCHOENE’s projections are often spot-on, but on a team that projects anywhere, 36 is as good as 46.
If most of those things happen, they shouldn’t have any issues competing for the Atlantic Division. ESPN’s projection acknowledges that, with that first question mark as its biggest one: “If Lopez does manage to make it through the season, though, the Nets are the one team that can challenge the Raptors atop the Atlantic Division. The other development that would bridge that gap is a potential bounce-back season for Williams. He claims his ankles are finally healthy, and if that’s the case, he should be able to improve on his 14.3 points and 6.1 assists from last season — his worst numbers in both categories since he was a rookie.”
If optimism is your game, you can argue that the Nets, who never had both a complete roster and competent coach at the same time last year, are primed to compete throughout the year with a core that led them to a 49-win season two years ago. Last season, one ESPN statistical projection had the Nets winning 64 games, which looks silly in hindsight. But the Nets aren’t asking for any accolades, and they’re not getting any, statistical or otherwise. Come October 29th, we’ll get some answers.