Shifts in Eastern Conference can help Brooklyn Nets exceed expectations

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

The Brooklyn Nets are used to being underdogs. Drastically low expectations have become the norm surrounding the Nets ever since the futile Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce “super team” experiment left the team bereft of draft picks. It doesn’t help that Brooklyn finished in last place last season, though as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, the team was much better than its win total spoke for.

ESPN essentially wrote Brooklyn off in its initial projections for the 2017-18 season, where the Nets come in at a disappointingly low 28.5 wins (13th in Eastern Conference). Dire forecasts could change soon enough for the Nets though, thanks to the many shifts in the NBA this offseason, particularly in the Eastern Conference.

Although expectations are low, the Nets still have their competitive spirit, and some players have even voiced aggressive goals for the year. Jeremy Lin stated on an Instagram Live video that the Nets are making the playoffs, while at the Nets’ basketball camp, D’Angelo Russell boldly said, “I want teams to hate us.” The rest of the league may not see Brooklyn as much competition yet, but you best believe it, the players aren’t here to settle for mediocre.

Without possessing the rights to their draft pick next year (more on this later), Brooklyn has no reason to tank, and the team will be expected to hit the hardwood aggressively once again. Hopefully, this time around, with greater success.

Talent heads west

This offseason saw some of the most outrageous transformations around the NBA. Paul George was dealt to Oklahoma City, the Hawks are a complete disheveled mess and the Bulls are bound to face the inevitability of being god-awful for the first time in a decade. Unsurprisingly, the talent gap between both conferences has only thickened, and the East is left in somewhat unpredictable, utter chaos.

Diving back to ESPN’s projected 2017-18 standings for every NBA team, here’s how the publication has the East playing out. (Note: These projections were produced solely through ESPN’s real plus-minus, and ESPN was not completely accurate in predicting how the 2016-17 season went down. I’m simply using ESPN’s projections to provide perspective on how the Eastern Conference is generally viewed.)

  1. Boston Celtics
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers
  3. Washington Wizards
  4. Milwaukee Bucks
  5. Charlotte Hornets
  6. Toronto Raptors
  7. Miami Heat
  8. Detroit Pistons
  9. Philadelphia 76ers
  10. Orlando Magic
  11. Indiana Pacers
  12. New York Knicks
  13. Brooklyn Nets
  14. Chicago Bulls
  15. Atlanta Hawks

Aside from the top three seeds, nothing appears to be set in stone, largely due to other teams’ successes being dependent on how much each team develops from last season. Additionally, the Nets are surrounded by some good company in the few spots above and below them — mainly consisting of other rebuilding teams or teams that are only beginning to tear it all down. These teams’ downfalls (particularly Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando and New York) will be Brooklyn’s best bet at finishing above their forecast.

This is just to name a few, but for the most part, even inside the playoff bracket, many what if scenarios need to happen in order for things to play out as anticipated. Here are some negative what if’s to illuminate my point. What if Milwaukee doesn’t continue to make that leap into higher standings? What if Charlotte misses the playoffs for two consecutive years? It’d be silly to claim to be all-knowing when making predictions — the reality is, that’s impossible (which is quite alright). Sports perhaps involve the most unpredictable situations; that’s how all the fun, amazing stuff — eighth seed upsets, lottery-turned-championship teams and out-of-the-blue MVP-caliber players — happens.

The Nets could end up exceeding expectations if their player development speeds up, competitive nature pays off or even just by other teams not meeting expectations. Again, even this involves what if scenarios, though Brooklyn finishing with more than 29.5 wins could be a lot likelier than an average NBA would imagine.

Keep in mind: The Nets simply meeting expectations with 20 wins last year can be attributed to their many battles with injuries. Another team could find itself in the same, frustrating boat next season, which could open the door for a different team to rise above.

How the Celtics-Cavaliers trade affected the Nets

Something strange happened after the Isaiah Thomas-Kyrie Irving trade was announced. I’m not talking about the IT jersey burnings, all the memes that went viral on Twitter or the Cavs demanding more assets after actually seeing Thomas’ condition.

First, here are the details of the trade (not yet finalized):

  • Celtics receive: Kyrie Irving
  • Cavaliers receive: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Nets’ 2018 first-round pick (unprotected)

Of course, almost everything the Celtics do comes back to the Nets in some way (we have 2013 to blame for that). In this case, some arguments stating why Cleveland may have gotten the short end of the stick in the deal had a lot to do with how the Nets might perform this upcoming season. Ironically enough, even with the usual low expectations, the Nets were heavily praised by various NBA writers on Twitter. The Ringer’s Kevin O’ConnorYahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix, among other writers all weighed their thoughts on why people shouldn’t count the Nets out just yet.

All of a sudden, with the Nets’ 2018 pick in the hands of the Cavaliers, Brooklyn was no longer a team that’s destined to finish as a lottery team for the second consecutive year. Or, at the very least, conflicting opinions generated some stir on NBA Twitter, with Nets fans not being the only people attempting to convince others with optimism.

Sure, it might’ve just been Boston media propaganda (though O’Connor has constantly applauded the Nets; exhibit A and B), but the Nets rarely get positive attention from general NBA media. It took until their March Mania last season for them to be taken semi-seriously, though the culture Sean Marks has been building in Brooklyn was widely covered throughout the year.

The Nets could possibly be bad once again. But, for their 2018 draft pick to be locked in as a sure bet in the top-5 lottery, is a faulty notion. They’ve implemented numerous changes on their roster, from eliminating dead cap space, to bringing in a still-emerging, flashy shooting guard.

“Everyone thinks we’ll suck… So no pressure.”

–Jeremy Lin (via NetsDaily)

That says it all.