Tonight’s Nets-Wizards game a lesson in parallel universes

John Wall, Deron Williams
The Nets and Wizards go head to head tonight. (AP)
John Wall, Deron Williams
Divergence. (AP)

Most would agree that the beginning of the “new Nets” era — not necessarily the Brooklyn Nets, but the origin of this team’s formation — came on February 23rd, 2011, when the team acquired Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, and two future first-round draft picks. True, the acquisition of Williams was the first domino that led to Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, and eventually Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

But assembling the Brooklyn Nets goes a little further back, and true to form, the first domino that allowed this entire team’s construction fell months earlier, in perfectly random fashion, and it’s got everything to do with tonight’s matchup.

It was May 18, 2010. I had just suffered through my first season with NBA League Pass, and more sufferable, the worst season in Nets franchise history. They weren’t tanking, they were just awful. They went 12-70, a record only buoyed by a late 5-4 “hot streak” that catapulted their season win into the double digits. I attended a few games that season, mostly to chant “JOHN WALL” from the rafters. I had watched the Kentucky point guard closely throughout the college season and had become completely enamored with his combination of length, speed, quickness, and court vision; it prompted me to post 2,000 words on this very site’s precursor six days earlier about why Wall should be the #1 pick, even if the Nets didn’t have it yet.

It was the NBA Draft Lottery, held in Secaucus, New Jersey. The New Jersey Nets had the best chance of securing the #1 pick, with 25% odds, and heading into a commercial they were guaranteed a top three pick. I was with two friends and on edge.

Sure enough, Adam Silver pulled out the card, and the third overall pick went to… the New Jersey Nets. The first pick went to Washington. I cursed. I yelled. I changed my Facebook name. I thought no team deserved a franchise player less than Washington, now ironically because of their locker room makeup with players like Andray Blatche. John Wall had talked about potentially playing with the Nets already. I thought it was destiny.

The Nets, with the third overall pick, ended up selecting Derrick Favors, the same way a zookeeper selects the freshest cut of meat to attract ravenous lions. Favors was dangled over the GM pit for six months, most aggressively at Masai Ujiri and the Denver Nuggets, hoping to lure Ujiri into taking the bait and handing over Carmelo Anthony as payment.

That, of course, didn’t pan out. Anthony went to the Knicks, Favors went to Utah, and the universe today stands with the Nets primed for a late playoff run. But what if fortunes had changed that night in May?

What if Adam Silver opened that first envelope, and it had the Nets logo? The Nets would have selected John Wall with the first overall pick — that’s of no doubt. But with Wall as a potential franchise player, the entire NBA scope shifts. The Nets still wouldn’t get LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh, but a second-tier free agent forward becomes a real possibility, like David Lee or Carlos Boozer. The Nets likely don’t try to package for Anthony, and almost certainly not for Williams, considering Wall’s game-changing potential. That means no trade for Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson to appease Williams’s appetite for competitive veterans, no acquisition of Pierce and Garnett, and no “We’re In” Brooklyn this year.

But instead, the Wizards won the lottery, selected John Wall, and have scrambled ever since to find talent to fit around him. It looks like they may have unlocked the combination this year, with a solid starting five and a potentially explosive shooter in Bradley Beal. They’re only 1-3 in the early season, but their five of Wall, Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene, and Marcin Gortat, they’re primed for a decent playoff run. Could that five be similar to the Nets today had they selected Wall? Probably not, but there’s a good chance they wouldn’t be a championship contender like today.

(Though with Prokhorov’s free-spending ways, it’s impossible to forecast just about anything he tries to do. For example, the Nets may have acquired Johnson anyway, thanks to Atlanta’s desire to dump him and Billy King’s relationship with Danny Ferry and Prokhorov’s never-ending wallet.)

Nonetheless, amazing what losing the lottery can do to change your fortunes; while the Nets lost the lottery that night to the Wizards, four years later, it appears they won outright.