It was 24 minutes of basketball bliss, the perfect half to respond to Joe Johnson’s vicious comments lambasting unnamed teammates for selfishness. At a rare moment of full health, the Brooklyn Nets spread the ball around to find open shots with slick improvisation and skillful execution. They took command against the Phoenix Suns, a tough team from a tougher conference, leading by as much as 19 points and boasting six different players with at least three makes from the floor.
Twenty-four minutes later and the house of cards had come crumbling down. The Suns, led by New Jersey Nets castoff Gerald Green, took full control over their suddenly hapless opponent, winning 112-104 as Brooklyn reverted to isolation basketball and confoundingly poor play for a collection of stars.
It was the perfect summation of the Nets’ first three seasons in Brooklyn: a flashy beginning, flush with promise, ending in a thud.
Since moving from Newark in 2012, the Nets have tried to have it all: Spurs crispness, Celtics legacy, Lakers glamour and Knicks fans. A supremely executed marketing blitz took over the perpetually up-and-coming borough, with players plastered everywhere from subway advertisements to bridge billboards. The team opened last season flush with 36 combined All-Star appearances on its roster, with marquee names and championship aspirations.
But nearly four years since the day the team cashed in its blue-chip assets for Deron Williams, one that then-Nets coach Avery Johnson called a "celebration," they’ve ended up with … well, the Nets: a collection of overpaid, underathletic, fading stars who can't keep up with the newer, fresher NBA flying past them.
They had a plan: win before 2016, and if they didn’t, wipe the slate clean and try it again, with superstars like Kevin Durant entering the free-agent market. But outside of a few surprising moments of clarity, their on-court product has been bland and depressing, leading to rumors of an expedited rebuild. Even Russian ownership seems willing to take a step back, listening to offers for minority stakes (and, as the rumor goes, for majority ones) this season. So much for faith in 2016.
With two years left on the docket, with two playoff exits and a $144 million loss in basketball-related expenses last season, the Nets can only claim exhausting mediocrity. This isn't an identity crisis; that would require having an identity in the first place. There's no unifying aspect of the Nets to point to. They're just trying to make sure you're pointing at them.
Their three best players, earning a combined $58.65 million this year, are now on the trade block, and more known for their flaws than their strengths. Williams has regained some of his quickness and shooting touch, but has struggled to score around the basket the past two seasons. Joe Johnson earned the moniker "Joe Jesus" for his near-invincibility in crunch time, but is one of the worst offenders in the team's isolation-heavy attack when things go downhill. Brook Lopez is a talented post scorer and walking trade asset who has barely been able to walk the past year.
Sure, there was one exciting five-month stretch, starting in January 2014, when the Nets went full-bore weird to smooth over the loss of Lopez and confounded opponents by favoring players over positions, putting Paul Pierce next to three perimeter players and using Shaun Livingston as a point guard/power forward hybrid. The Nets went 34-17 in that stretch, played an exciting-as-all-hell first-round series with the Toronto Raptors that went down to the last play of Game 7, and eventually fell to the Miami Heat in Round 2.
Outside of that, the Nets have largely gone to the same formula, despite three coaching changes since the move to New York. They've played one of the league's slowest paces. When their offense begins to fail, they inevitably fall into the traps of iso basketball. They have yet to figure out how to put together a top-10 defense around Lopez, or how to get Johnson and Williams clicking together for long stretches. They run Lionel Hollins' throwback flex offense in staggered stretches, and turn to Johnson at the end of close games. That’s about it.
They leave you wanting. You see the flashes of greatness, and at the same time know they won’t ever be great. There's no dynamic star, no blue-chip building block, no ace draft pick. Just a lot of money and an increasingly disinterested group ambling toward nowhere.
The Brooklyn Nets have built their identity on what they could be, what they should be. But in three seasons, they have yet to be much of anything at all. Now comes hints of another rebuild, which almost seems necessary at this point, if only to give a wavering fanbase a fresh face to believe in. But for now, they are what they are: walking and talking, but yet to figure out where they want to go or what they want to say.