Sitting at 10-21 after yet another listless, lethargic, blowout loss, the Brooklyn Nets season (and future, for that matter) looked about as bleak as any in the NBA. The Nets were among the worst teams in the entire league; a $180 million dollar disaster. Brook Lopez wasn’t walking through that door and Jason Kidd was on his last legs as a head coach. All the hype, hope and excitement was gone. This was a team on the brink of becoming, dollar-for-dollar at least, one of the most colossal failures in the history of American sports and to make matters worse, the Nets don’t have control of their own draft pick until 2019.
What a difference 10 days makes.
Somehow, someway, when all looked lost, Brooklyn has salvaged their season, come back from the dead and put themselves squarely in the middle of a playoff race in the Eastern Conference that’s essentially become wide open after the first two spots. Amazingly, the Nets are 5-0 since the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31. They’ve beaten some quality opponents along the way, including the Oklahoma City Thunder (in OKC), the Atlanta Hawks, the Golden State Warriors and now the Miami Heat. At 15-21, Brooklyn sits in seventh place in the East, just three games out of first in the Atlantic (good for a guaranteed No. 4 seed) and 4.5 out of a third overall seed in the conference.
So how in the world did the Nets get here and seemingly overnight nonetheless? Is it Jason Kidd’s open collar look? Indeed, the Nets are undefeated ever since Brooklyn’s coach elected to make every single day casual Friday. But the real key here has been a lineup tweak that’s enable the Nets to play much faster on defense and much more fluid offensively.
When Brook Lopez went down, many expected the Nets to struggle offensively, and initially they did, losing four of their first five games with the big man sidelined. Jason Kidd went with a traditional lineup in those games, going with either Mirza Teletovic or Reggie Evans at power forward and sliding Kevin Garnett over to center. But desperate times call for desperate measures and after it seemed like nothing would work, Brooklyn rolled out a wonky, unconventional lineup that featured Paul Pierce at power forward and two point guards playing together as they headed to Oklahoma City.
Playing small isn’t something new in today’s NBA. The versatility of today’s perimeter players has gotten the league as close to positionless as it’s ever been, and the team at the forefront of what some have called a revolution has won two championships in a row featuring that style of play. Brooklyn’s “small lineup” is actually quite long, with guys like Livingston, Andrei Kirilenko, and Kevin Garnett able to guard multiple positions. And guard they have. The Nets have been incredible defensively in the new year, holding each team they’ve played under 100 points and utilizing a quicker, more nimble lineup to rotate significantly better on the perimeter. That, combined with a renewed sense of energy and motivation, is the main reason Brooklyn has gotten back into playoff contention and gotten Jason Kidd off the hot seat.
Can it continue? Or is this “fools gold,” as Bill Simmons snarked during halftime of ESPN’s broadcast last night? Health is a concern. Garnett is playing bigger minutes and it remains to be seen if he can stay healthy unit April. Deron Williams is out again. Andrei Kirilenko appeared to stiffen up near the end of the Miami game; will he be able to stay on the floor? There are question marks, but this is still an extremely talented, deep, and versatile group that will probably see another half dozen or so different looks and lineups as this season progresses. Skeptical optimism is probably the safest course of action for Nets fans these days.
But skeptical optimism isn’t such a bad thing. Not after how badly this team played earlier this season; back when all hope was gone.
What a difference a year makes.