Disappointment, but not despair: the story of the 2017-18 Brooklyn Nets

What a long, strange trip it was.

The season was filled with injuries, last two-minute reports, moral victories and development. Of course, it looks like a bad season when the record shows 28-54. But bad isn’t the right word, unfortunate might be more appropriate. No, it was still pretty bad.

It wasn’t easy for fans either, but the internal gains might outweigh what the record shows given where they stand in the rebuild, somewhere above less than zero.

Sean Marks made sure expectations were clear from his pre-season press conference on. The only “P” words that came out of his mouth was patience and progress. That’s just the way it is. Marks also understood how one misfortune can factor into another losing season.

“As we saw last year, one major injury can derail every plan you may have had. So for us, it’s gonna be about staying fluid throughout the year, see what happens,” Marks said in his preseason press conference.

The misfortune began in the first game when Jeremy Lin went down with a ruptured patellar tendon. It felt like the air was sucked out of a balloon. The look on Lin’s face when he knew was heartbreaking. And all talk about the Lin and D’Angelo Russell tandem was already over.

But Lin, the leader he is, told Atkinson the Nets were better equipped and that the season was not lost by any means.

The Nets weathered the storm the following couple of weeks behind the lead of Russell. Then, after a 5-7 start, Russell went down with a non-contact injury to his knee. Surgery. He missed 33 games right smack in the middle of the most promising campaign of his three-year career.

Poor luck, but the Nets preached a “next man up” mentality since day one. No excuses. And with that, Spencer Dinwiddie emerged and weathered the storm. The Brooklyn Nets became a gritty team behind his lead, along with homegrown developing players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Joe Harris. Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen picked up momentum in their young careers. DeMarre Carroll revitalized his career and served as the voice of the locker room.

The Nets were respectable and stood just 2.5 games out 25 games into the season, but it wasn’t sustainable.

UNBALANCED ROSTER THAT DIDN’T FIT STYLE OF PLAY

They entered the season with a “position-less basketball” philosophy – Get talented players and let Kenny sort it out. They entered the season with three players taller than 6’10” – none of whom were able to stretch the floor. Only 19-year-old Jarrett Allen fit the vision.

With Hollis-Jefferson serving as one of the top performers on the team, it became an issue because the offense was set up for there to be four players who can stretch the floor. Quincy Acy was the closest thing they had to that, but he’s only 6’8”.

They tried to beat teams with their pace-and-space style that was essentially super small ball. They weren’t good enough from three early in the season to make up for the awful defense they played, particularly down low where they became notorious for allowing career nights against any talented big.

They kept fighting, but they were also extremely predictable with their game plan. After a second, third time around teams knew how to play them. Maybe that’s why they went 1-15 against the Atlantic Division, their only win coming against the division champ 76ers.

Regardless, it’s easy to understand Atkinson’s vision. He didn’t have much talent to work with and Brooklyn’s offense is setup to get the most out of every player. The high-octane, 3-point savvy offense is the modern way of playing. It forces you to play like a team. That’s why we only saw four players have 30-point performances. There were very few ‘one-man’ shows.

They struggled as the season grew and injuries became more frequent.

An exhausted Atkinson sat in front of the podium in February and said, “next guy up” after Caris LeVert was blindsided by a screen the night before. RHJ was already out with a groin injury. Acy was out with a finger injury.

This was amid a 13-game span in which the Nets lost 12 games.

MORAL VICTORIES

It was bizarre. Bizarre because the Nets weren’t that bad. They lost 18 games by six or less, 14 games by five or less. They played 49 games where they were within five points with five minutes left in the game.

Your record always represents who you really are. It certainly didn’t feel that way with this Nets team.

It became hard for the players to accept moral victories, which is fine.

“You can look at it in a good way, but at the same time you don’t want no moral victories. When you look at a stat like that you’re looking for moral victories,” said Carroll.

Then, he followed up with the positives of moral victories for a team with 11 players 25-years-old or younger.

“But at the end of the day, it says a lot about our group and how hard we play all the way until the end of the games.”

It’s become their identity since Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson took over. They play extremely hard from start to finish – from game No.1 to game No. 82 no matter who’s playing and no matter how many games they were out from contention.

Remember when Russell told NetsDaily he wanted teams to “hate” playing against the Brooklyn Nets? They did just exactly that. They received praise from other coaches and other players all throughout the season, as the culture continues to grow, and a reputation is being built.

That’s extremely refreshing for an organization that hasn’t had direction since Jason Kidd was point guard of the team.

The bell went off for a lot of folks inside the organization a few months in – January 15 to be exact – when coach Atkinson echoed to the media what he told his players, “I told them, I feel like we’re getting close. This is San Antonio, Toronto and Boston. These are elite teams in our league and there are no moral victories, but we’re improving and getting better.”

They proved they could run with anybody on any given night. It was their inability to close out games that plagued them. It’s also understandable for a young team.

WHAT IF?

It’s difficult to find silver linings if you didn’t watch the games. Marks brought Atkinson in to develop young players… and he is. Marks brought in Atkinson to help develop a culture, an identity… and he has. It felt like this season could’ve been something special “if” things went there way.

But everything has “What if’s?” What if Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell weren’t hurt? What if the Nets weren’t on the wrong side of calls 29 times in the final two minutes of games?

But that goes for anything in life. What if will always be an illegitimate question that you’ll never get the answer to. In Brooklyn’s case, they need to find the good that came out of their misfortunes (injuries, L2M, etc).

So, this is where they’re at. It’s year two of the rebuild with a lot of work to do. Nothing is ever going to be the same after this season, though.

Next year, they’ll have their own first round pick for the first time since 2013. They have a lot of questions going into next season.

They’ve seen steady growth with 20 wins in Atkinson’s first season and then 28 in his second. No one should suggest the progress will be linear. Sometimes, an individual player can jump the schedule … and sometimes, a misfortune can junk it.

This season didn’t provide the answer(s), but it gave some hints how they can figure out a solution to the mess they originally acquired. If you look close enough, something special might be looming in Brooklyn.

But it won’t happen overnight. Expect “Patience” to be the only “P” word you hear… again.

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