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Brooklyn Nets: Which Version of this Team is Real?

The Brooklyn Nets saw early season success before an injury to Jeremy Lin took the wind out of their sails. Losers of seven straight games, will the Nets right the ship when Lin returns?

Preseason pundits delighted in picking the Brooklyn Nets as the worst team in the NBA. Perhaps enticed by the delight of the Boston Celtics receiving the first overall pick via a pick swap with the Nets, the narrative was woven with the Nets floundering to a last-placed finish.

Then the season began, and the Brooklyn Nets began winning games. Two weeks in, the supposed worst team in the league was actually 4-5, playing smart basketball and unleashing a new-and-improved Brook Lopez on opponents.

But their floor general and star free agent, Jeremy Lin, hit the bench with a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for the last 10 games, and the Nets folded along with him. Losers of their last seven, the Nets have gone from ground floor to the cellar in the Eastern Conference.

With Jeremy Lin close to returning, which version of the Nets best reflects this team’s strength moving forward? Is Brooklyn a team ready to play .500 ball, or are more six-game losing streaks in their future?

The Case For Optimism

Jeremy Lin is a good basketball player.

That’s a vanilla statement on the surface – there are plenty of good basketball players in the league. But the problem the Brooklyn Nets are facing is a dearth of good basketball players. Just by being competent, Lin raises this team in a positive direction.

In Lin’s absence, the Nets have trotted out a series of answers to obscure NBA trivia questions. Gone is fallen star Deron Williams, aging veteran Jarrett Jack, and even NBA journeymen Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan. Instead Brooklyn has been starting rookie second-rounder Isaiah Whitehead at the point. While Whitehead has played his hardest on defense, on the other end he has proven unable to run an NBA-level offense. In 12 games, Whitehead has scored 66 total points; in Lin’s five games, he dropped 75.

Yogi Ferrell has served as the primary backup to Whitehead; Ferrell was an undrafted call-up from the D-League, and he has played like he’s experiencing the learning curve everyone should expect of him. Randy Foye slid over from the 2-guard spot to provide some veteran presence, but what he hasn’t provided is scoring, passing, ball-security, or defense.

Those problems will be assuaged to a major extent upon Lin’s return. While Brooklyn has been a painful 8.1 points per 100 possessions worse than their opponents without Lin, when he has played the Nets have outscored opponents by 1.8 points per 100 possessions.

Lin averaged 15.0 points and 6.2 assists per game in the five games he played; those numbers rank second and first on the team, respectively. His 6.2 assists rank ninth in the Eastern Conference, and of the players ahead of him only Ish Smith averages less turnovers per game than Lin’s 2.4.

Jeremy Lin proved last season on the Hornets that he can be an important part of a playoff-caliber rotation, and Brooklyn can use such a player this year. Lin’s ability to attack the basket fits perfectly in head coach Kenny Atkinson’s smart-play system, where the team seeks to take shots primarily at the rim and behind the arc.

If the Nets can slide Whitehead into a bench role playing 12 minutes a night instead of starting and send Ferrell back to the Long Island Nets, they can right their point guard rotation. That will go a long ways to taking back control of this team’s trajectory.

The Nets can win basketball games with Jeremy Lin. If they can stay healthy around him, there is reason to think they can begin fighting their way up the standings in an unimpressive Eastern Conference. Brook Lopez is a good center, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a good young wing, and Kenny Atkinson is a good coach. Jeremy Lin could lead such a team back to respectability.

The Case For Pessimism

Jeremy Lin was at best the fifth best player on the Hornets last year, and they were the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Jeremy Lin is by far the second-best player on the Brooklyn Nets, and that doesn’t bode well for them moving forward.

The Nets’ roster can be divided into three categories, the first containing Lin and Lopez. These are legitimate NBA players, guys who would be in the rotation on most every team in the league. Most teams have four to six of these guys; the Spurs seem to always have 15 of them.

Brooklyn has just two, with a chasm between the next groups. These are young prospects and fringe veterans. The first group contains players such as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, and Isaiah Whitehead. With varying levels of potential, these players represent the future of the franchise in some way.

The fringe veterans fill the Nets’ roster more than almost any roster around the league (Miami and New Orleans are part of that conversation), from former starters who have aged towards replacement level, to journeyman veterans keeping their NBA careers alive. A team should have a few such players filling the cracks of a roster, not supporting the foundation.

Simply put, despite Lin’s value, Lopez’s new outside shooting, and the intelligent coaching of Kenny Atkinson, this team does not have enough talent to win basketball games. With everyone healthy they can be scrappy, a team that hangs around in games longer than expected. But fighting back into the playoff picture? The paint isn’t there to paint that picture.

The Outlook

The Brooklyn Nets need an All-Star to fight their way back into the playoff picture. New Orleans, Boston, Indiana, and Utah have all received such a player back (or are expecting one soon) and can regain their preseason expectations. Jeremy Lin is not an All-Star caliber player.

But the Nets don’t need to make the playoffs; they need to be competitive, and Jeremy Lin gives them that. Brooklyn’s final place in the standings is immaterial; Boston is swapping for their first-round pick regardless of how many games they win.

Instead, the Nets should be focused on evaluating and developing their young talent. That can best happen with a talented point guard running the offense for them, and Lin will help the Nets do just that. And upon his return they will arrest their losing streak and win a game here or there.

That’s probably the ceiling for this team, and with the roster nightmare the new regime inherited, it’s all anyone can hope for this year. A competitive team that wins a few games. It’s bleak, but it’s the reality for this team.

At least Jeremy Lin is fun to watch.