The Nets aren’t struggling with an identity, they’re struggling to win

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Nets either don’t have an identity or don’t like the one they have.

Through three years in Brooklyn, the Nets have made questionable opening stretches routine. They tumbled out to a 14-14 start in their inaugural season, with a 3-10 stretch costing coach Avery Johnson his job. Under Jason Kidd, they opened the 2013-14 season, one they expected to compete for a championship in, 10-21, before turning their year around just in time to scrape past .500 and make the playoffs.

Now, after a fourth straight loss, this one 95-83 to a Miami Heat team missing Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng in the second game of a back-to-back, dropped the Nets to 4-6 on the season, the Nets don’t like their identity — again.

“(We’re) a long way from an identity I’d like to see,” latest head coach Lionel Hollins drawled. “I can tell you that they have an identity, and it’s not very good.”

Even the four Nets victories have come in underwhelming fashion, against teams injury-ridden or lottery-bound. It’s what prompted Joe Johnson’s earlier comments this season about the team’s selfishness. “There’s no way you can play like we’ve played, you can’t go out on the road like that and play against these caliber teams — Phoenix, Golden State, Portland — those’ll be double-digit losses,” Johnson said before their first road trip. “So first test is… against Phoenix.” It was a test they unequivocally failed.

Identity is an NBA code word, usually thrown around when a team claims not to have one, on the wrong end of a defeat that exposed their biggest weakness or weaknesses. It’s the ideal a team desires: tough inside, sharp outside, and crisp all around, from the biggest star to the smallest role player.

Identity is winning. Teams have one when they win, and win decisively; they don’t have one when they lose.

“We’ve just got to play better,” Deron Williams said Monday night, when asked about what the team needs to do to improve said identity. “Play harder. The effort’s got to be there for 48 minutes. Tonight, we had a good effort (in) the first half. The second half, not as good.”

Brooklyn’s identity has been in constant flux all season. They started out firing on all cylinders from three-point range, before stumbling to a franchise-record low 1-19 shooting Saturday night against the Portland Trail Blazers. Brook Lopez had his best night of the season Saturday, before dropping just five points and one rebound in 22 quiet minutes against the Heat. (Hollins saying “I don’t want to talk about Brook right now” after the game was hardly a ringing endorsement.) They’ve won by double-digits three times and lost by double-digits three times. After adding up the wild up-and-downs, they’re as close to average as you can get, without one significant positive or negative trait.

If anything, Brooklyn’s “identity” has become this annual out-of-the gate confusion, their tinkering and tailoring just to figure out how to play together, despite a nearly identical core. That is, with one glaring exception.

“We’re on our fourth coach in three years,” Williams lamented. “There hasn’t been any consistency. So we’re learning again as a team and you’re going to go through rough patches. You’re going to go through ups and downs. Hopefully we’re going through them right now so that come January, come February, we’ll be hitting stride and on into the playoffs.”

Each coach has had his own concept of identity. Johnson wanted a tight ship, run entirely under his control, even if he altered the reins for his star players. Interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo wanted to ride out the season under Johnson’s rigid principles. Kidd wanted a looser team, with more movement and focus on players making plays, and less focus on practicing or development.

Now they’re led by Lionel Hollins, an old-school motivator who sees only one option to break the franchise out of its latest struggle. “Keep fighting. That’s life. Stuff goes bad in life, and you have to come out and you have to keep scratching and clawing. The one other thing to do is lay down and die, or you can stand up and fight. I’d rather fight.” (Substitute “die” for “lose,” and “fight” for “win,” and you’ve decoded identity.)

One of the good things about the NBA, as players will often say, is that you can have a short memory. The Nets only have one day to rest before their next game, which just so happens to come against the Milwaukee Bucks, coached by the laissez-faire Kidd.

While the Nets once again go through their identity crisis, Kidd has the young Bucks out to a surprising 5-5 start, with a bottom-two offense and a top-two defense. It’s just one game, like any other in the league, but it’s a game the Nets would love to win on their home court, if only just to win. “I think at this point, the way we’re playing, we’re definitely more concerned with ourselves,” Brook Lopez asserted when asked about Kidd’s return.

“We just need to win, man,” Williams agreed. “No matter who it’s against, we need a win. We need to stop the bleeding. It just happens to be against him.”