Hope is every sports franchise’s currency. For all we talk about pick-and-roll coverages and flex options, reason is not the goal here, and it never has been. This is a league that inherently requires you to suspend reality and seek inspiration in a group of large men wearing tank tops.
The goal is hope, the hope in something to marvel at, to laugh at, to give a damn about beyond the confines of reality’s drudges. For teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, the hope is a championship, the former to build on last year’s conquests and the latter for their homegrown superstar to bring a title to his state. For the 76ers, their malaise rests on the hope that their Spinal Tap “turn it up to 11” rebuilding mode eventually leads to long-term dominance. For, say, the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s about deifying their venerable superstar Kobe Bryant as he tears through rationale on the road to legacy. Every NBA team has a unique identity that gives you some reason to watch, whether it’s developing the young, honoring the old, or just trying to win.
Every team except the Nets. The Nets don’t have hope, they have patience. They reside somewhere in basketball purgatory. Their three biggest stars are aging, injured, or both. They have underwhelming young prospects, most closer to 25 than 20. They have almost no draft picks and almost no flexibility. Their most exciting asset is cap space two seasons from now. Their big offseason splash, Bojan Bogdanovic, was moved to the bench after multiple poor performances and went scoreless, missing all five of his shot attempts. They have no chance at winning a conference championship or the NBA draft lottery.
The team has lost their last three games by a combined 70 points, most recently shorthanded to a shorthanded Chicago Bulls team 105-80, dropping them to 8-12 on the season.
Missing three of their best players in Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, and Mirza Teletovic, the Nets rocketed out to a 10-1 and 20-8 start, with Mason Plumlee controlling the glass and the Nets forcing the Bulls into some surprise turnovers. But the Bulls erased the lead quickly after Plumlee and Deron Williams picked up some early foul trouble, and Derrick Rose scored seven quick and pretty points in under a minute during the second quarter.
The Nets held a 55-53 lead shortly after the third quarter, but went ice-cold as the Bulls rocketed out to a 13-0 run, punctuated by a twisting two-hand slam in traffic by Bulls forward Taj Gibson. They missed 24 of their final 33 shots to close the game, looking listless and getting outscored 53-25 in the final 21 minutes.
“This is just a tough team,” Deron Williams said of the Bulls, who were without reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, replayed on YES Network’s postgame show. “You know, defensively, they just make you work for every shot.”
The plan was, and always has been, to wait this crew out until 2016, hit the reset button, and hope to reload with a shiny new practice facility and four years of modest success in Brooklyn. But the rebuild may get fast-forwarded. It’s now being reported that the Nets are seeking opportunities to trade their “Big 3” of Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, and Joe Johnson. Wednesday night, it was reported that they traded away Andrei Kirilenko, one of their top bench contributors last season, for as little as possible, after Kirilenko had fallen out of the rotation and left the team for a personal matter.
“When it rains, it pours,” Kevin Garnett said Wednesday night. Garnett finished with 13 points on 6-15 shooting, providing his usual vocal boost throughout the game, and needed x-rays on his foot after the game, which came back negative.
Coaches often say that they have a bead on their team 20 games into the season, and even that’s fungible. The Nets began their season 10-21 last year, after all, before they got weird and had their most entertaining few months in some time from January to May. But 20 games in, it’s clear the Nets don’t have the same potential for weirdness that team had. Not without Paul Pierce’s shotmaking at power forward, and Shaun Livingston’s ultimate glue guy skillset, or with Lionel Hollins’s rigid style, which the team either doesn’t believe in or can’t properly execute.
The light at the end of this tunnel lies in one of two places. You either believe that this Nets core can rekindle some of what won them 49 games two seasons ago, that Bojan Bogdanovic can shoot his way out of this slump, that Brook Lopez can return to a form he hasn’t shown in a full year. Or, you believe that the Nets can find a way to dismantle the roster, get back young and/or competitive pieces, and start fresh without hampering their ability to pursue top talent in two years.
But that’s the problem; hope in the Nets is wrapped the idea that they’re just not what they are.