Real-life people were heard chanting “Brooklyn, Brooooooklyn” at a NBA game recently. Not at the Barclays Center though, which, more often than not, has hosted the chants of the opposing teams temporarily taking residence in its minimalist walls. It was actually Wells Fargo Center, the home of the Philadelphia 76ers.
On Tuesday night, as the Nets walloped the similarly downtrodden 76ers 141-118 behind a franchise record-tying 81 first half points, a large group of season-ticket holders made the trek down the New Jersey Turnpike and were treated handsomely. Eight different Brooklyn players reached double figures as the blowout was on right from the opening tip. Win No. 19 in another losing season.
At least for the past couple of weeks, there hasn’t been as much losing as there was back in December or January, or even February. The boys from Brooklyn — playing for nothing but pride, and certainly not their own draft pick — have won exactly half of their last 20 games, a remarkable feat for a team that went 0 for the month of February.
Everyone got in on the act, be it Sean Kilpatrick — who spent some time in the 2015-16 season with Philly’s D-League affiliate in Delaware — or even Archie Goodwin, recently signed to a partially guaranteed two-year deal. You want the embodiment of a team win? This was that game.
The win even kept alive Brooklyn’s hopes of not having the worst record in the league, made possible by the completely shameless tanking effort from both the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers. It would take a near-miracle for the Nets to do a number on the lottery odds for their fortunate trade partner — the Celtics — but, as they say, it’s the thought that counts. Well, in this case, maybe it’s effort.
If you were to tell me back in January that the Nets would post a three-game winning streak at any point in this campaign, I’d have you committed. Forget going .500 over a 20-game span.
With a healthy Jeremy Lin, a streaking Brook Lopez and a cast of characters ranging from former first round picks to D-League veterans to trade throw-ins, the Nets have somehow managed to transform from one of the worst teams in NBA history to one that is exciting, dangerous and actually pretty competitive.
Maybe Kenny Atkinson knows something we don’t. With all this talk of a culture shift in Brooklyn, it’s starting to feel like there’s a non-basketball aspect to the Nets’ resurgence. What seems absolutely clear, though, is that the Nets are in an infinitely better place right now than they were 365 days ago. It doesn’t even feel like the same team.
Thankfully, I don’t remember too many details from the 2015-16 Brooklyn Nets season.
I know they won 21 games. I know they gave the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft to the Celtics. I know Lionel Hollins started the season as the coach, and also know he often more looked pained on the sideline than most people look in line at the DMV. I also know Andrea Bargnani, Henry Sims, Thomas Robinson and even Sergey Karasev suited up in the Brooklyn black-and-white, which should have warranted an anti-competition fine from the league office. I think my brain has repressed the rest.
But one specific game stands out to me among the other 81 the Nets played in that forgettable six-month stretch spanning around 180 more days than necessary.
It was April 3rd, 2016, and the Nets hosted the New Orleans Pelicans at a half-full Barclays on a Sunday afternoon. Neither team was anywhere close to the playoffs, and both Anthony Davis and Brook Lopez were out of the lineup.
Just another run-of-the-mill placeholder game between teams without much interest in adding another win to the ledger. Sound familiar?
If you watched last year’s team nearly as much as I did — so, too much — you’d correctly ascertain that the Nets lost this game. It happened to not be particularly close either.
Of the nine Pelicans to play that day, only four are still with the organization (Tim Frazier, Omer Asik, Dante Cunningham and Alexis Ajinca). Kendrick Perkins and Toney Douglas are free agents, Jordan Hamilton is playing in Venezuela while Luke Babbitt — who led the way with 21 point on 8-of-15 shooting — and James Ennis are in Miami and Memphis respectively.
Safe to say the 106-87 loss was a low point in an already dreadful season. But, it feels like a distant dream.
Sean Marks was hired a month or so before and Atkinson would be brought in two weeks later, and both immediately put their stamp on a previously identity-less organization. The Nets are playing hard, with a purpose, and are actually putting together winning performances. They’re having fun both on and off the court, and a new culture is undoubtedly developing.
The biggest problem with the Billy King years is that the Nets were always on borrowed time. They went out and got other team’s stars, on the downward-sloping end of their primes, at the cost of building a team from the ground up. You can’t build a strong army with thousands of mercenaries and only a few true believers.
With a new-age offensive system, some (hopeful) franchise cornerstones and a player-first philosophy that the current group has bought into, Brooklyn finally has some hope and that hope is not unfounded in the slightest.
When Shane Larkin played over 33 minutes on that April afternoon a year ago, there was no hope. Brooklyn had no picks, barely any talent and absolutely no organizational stability.
Now, Larkin is playing for Baskonia in the Liga ACB along with other Jilted Bit-Part Nets Club members in Bargnani, Tornike Shengalia and Chase Budinger. All reminders of the previous regime, those names should give you a little shiver.
Yeah, it’s been a long year.