One Year Later, Where Do Things Stand?

I was pretty panicked about the state of the Nets a year ago. And I still contend I had every reason to feel that way. The superstar defensive stalwart center the team had been chasing all year had just opted to finish the season in Orlando while indulging in a bowl of his “favorite candies” (I think at this point, it’s become a prerequisite for every rant of mine to mention Dwight Howard ACTUALLY being bribed by candy to waive his opt-out clause – good luck with this clown LA). On the same day, the Nets traded their lottery pick (with minimum protections) for a month-long rental of a nearly 30-year-old player who’s nickname was “Crash” based on his reckless, bone-crunching style of play. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez were expected to become free agents – unrestricted and restricted respectfully. And the team’s best player under contract going into the following season was a toss-up between a one-dimensional gunner (Anthony Morrow), or an all-offense, no-defense rookie who had lost the confidence of his coaching staff (MarShon Brooks).

Remember all that from a year ago? Obviously, the daring dreams and aspirations known as the “Brooklyn Nets” did not actually go up in smoke as I had feared. But I also don’t know if I’m in a position to look back at the events of 3/15/12 and laugh at myself for being irrational. There are still some inherent problems that are not going away, and the negative repercussions from the decisions made last y ear are still reverberating in how the team is constructed today, and will be built going forward.

Let’s review, shall we? The “Dwightmare” officially ended last summer when he was traded to the Lakers, thereby ending any chance of uniting long-time friends and conspirers DWill and Dwight Howard. In an effort to get DWill to stay with the organization, the Nets acquired arguably the league’s most toxic long-term contract in Joe Johnson. Gerald Wallace opted out, but signed a four-year extension while the Nets 6th pick was used by Portland to select Damian Lillard, the presumptive Rookie of the Year (and yes, I understand he’s a point guard and the Nets had no use for him, but it certainly debunks Billy King’s “we only like three players” theory about the draft). It’s also worth noting that Wallace is in the midst of the worst year of his career and he’s on the wrong side of 30. Lopez was resigned to a “mini” max contract and has been healthy and was FINALLY named an all-star this season. He still struggles to consistently rebound, can’t defend the pick and roll, and is currently playing for a coach who randomly likes to sit him during crunch time. Just saying. Meanwhile, Brooks, the one player who I saw as a guaranteed positive coming into Brooklyn, still can’t get out of the coach’s doghouse, regardless of whether it’s deserved or not.

All of these factors add up to a team that’s currently good but not great. A team that can feast on the NBA’s worst (except Monday night in Philadelphia) but wilts before its best (or just good). A team that with a little bit of luck, might survive into the second round of the NBA postseason, but is far from an Eastern Conference title contender with a black hole playing PF, a struggling veteran at SF, and three other stars whose games seem to come and go inexplicably.

And while watching a better than average team play basketball 82 times a year (plus the playoffs) is infinitely better than the past few years of Nets seasons, it’s also not lost on me just how emotionally devastating the events from last year still remain. Prior to 3/15/12, the Nets had seemingly constructed a master plan to go from also-ran to title contender overnight: pair off a top 3-5 PG with the league’s best center and defender and compliment with role players and a few other pieces acquired via trade or the draft. Despite Howard’s struggles in Los Angeles, it still seemed like this plan was the “Blueprint for Greatness” Mikhail Prokhorov was touting when he first bought the team.

And there’s no changing the fact that despite the dramatic improvements made to this franchise last summer, the dream of a clear path to the NBA Finals was extinguished exactly one year ago. With the way this current assembly of players is over the salary cap, any improvements that can be made to this organization are minor at best. Maybe a better coach can guarantee this team a top-four seed next y ear in the Eastern Conference. Maybe a healthier Deron Williams can get to the team to 50 wins. Maybe some of the team’s younger players like Mizra Teletovic, Brooks or Toko Shengalia prove themselves to be worthwhile (and affordable) rotation players, eliminating our need to trade bad contracts like Kris Humphries and Wallace, for potentially worse contracts down the road. But absent of LeBron James and Kevin Durant ripping their knees to shreds tomorrow, these are not improvements that will put the Nets over the edge. Instead, all I’m left with is the vision I had of this team prior to a year ago today.