Hope springs eternal.
That’s how we are wired as human beings. No matter previous incidents or situations. We almost always believe things will be different, often better, going forward.
It’s hard not to have that feeling if you’re a member of the Brooklyn Nets organization.
In just three years since Sean Marks became general manager, the organization has gone from a basketball wasteland, to a franchise with infrastructure, state of the art facilities, and a ton of expectations.
That’s what happens when you hit in the draft and on player reclamation projects.
Not to mention, in the much heralded summer of 2019 free agency sweepstakes, you walk away with: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, and Wilson Chandler.
Add those players to a core consisting of: Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs, and Theo Pinson, and you can see why there is cause for optimism.
The Nets held their media day on a Friday in late September at their training facility, and it was quite the scene. The excitement was palpable. There were at least 100 media members in attendance. Certainly more than in years past.
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) September 27, 2019
Since then training camp has begun and ended, the team made it to China and back after a series of games (though that situation remains tenuous), and the regular season begins tonight.
The question on everyone’s minds is, who exactly are these Brooklyn Nets?
No longer the scrappy upstart with players that “overachieved” and made the playoffs last season. This team now has top end talent and there are real expectations, both internally and externally.
In many ways this season will be the ultimate referendum on the culture built by Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson.
The franchise was ripped down to the studs and there was even a transfer of majority ownership over the last three years.
Things were changing despite the ugly 20 and 28 win seasons, lack of draft picks, and low attendance. It culminated in last season’s aforementioned playoff berth, but visiting players and people around the league were already taking notice.
Enter the two marquee names, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
The two friends have a bond that began to solidify during the 2016 Olympics, along with DeAndre Jordan.
When it looked like 2019 was going to be an opportunity for the three friends to play together they jumped at the chance.
In all of their preseason media comments they’ve talked glowingly about Brooklyn as a borough and organization. Everything is run “first class” and with a “championship” mentality the players have said.
Durant and Irving, in particular, often talk about “family atmosphere” and creating an environment where they can deal with the everyday pressures and stress of life and still perform basketball at its highest level.
For Durant, he has always talked about camaraderie and a sense of “brotherhood” with his teammates. As successful as his three year stint with the Golden State Warriors was, something beyond basketball always seemed to be missing for him.
Brooklyn, with Irving, Jordan, and the rest of his Nets’ teammates will be the place where he continues the search for that elusive element.
Of course the challenge this year is that he will likely miss the entire season as he rehabs his surgically repaired right Achilles tendon.
But the Nets will forge on, and he will function as a hybrid coach, teammate, supporter until he’s able to get back on the floor and compete.
In many ways how the Nets evolve over the course of this season and how much Durant is able to be part of that, despite not being on the floor, will be crucial for this team’s future success.
The addition of marquee free agents and the taste of the playoffs have made this franchise hungry. But those core principles and that culture that was established will be put to a stress test this season.
Atkinson is coaching a multiple time All-NBA player in Irving and eventually Durant. With that comes a level of ego and belief in how things should be done.
Irving and Durant have championship pedigrees and know what it takes to ultimately reach that mountaintop. There will need to be give and take on both sides for this team to be the most successful version of itself.
What did Irving learn from his failure in Boston? How will the development of Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen continue with the presence of veterans and higher expectations?
As the media intensity increases, how will the Nets as an organization handle it?
“This is the heart of basketball. This is where I grew up playing.”
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) October 22, 2019
Time will tell.
Atkinson often talks about the culture and the program being “player led.” That will have to continue, but he also knows he’ll have to be true to himself and the principles that guided this team from the dregs of the league to a playoff squad with championship aspirations.
“You have to be authentic,” Atkinson said. “If you’re not authentic they’ll see through that, then you’re in trouble.”
Right now optimism abounds, but there’s also uncertainty, as with the start of anything new.
To that end, don’t ask Atkinson what kind of team this is, or even what he expects over the course of the first few games, because frankly he doesn’t know. But he’s excited to find out.
“Who are you? How good are you going to be? We can say whatever we want, we added guys. But I don’t know,” said Atkinson. “I’m not going to say we’re a playoff team. I’m not going to say that right now. It’s going to reveal itself, after 10-15 games I’ll be able to tell you more. But [figuring it out] that’s the exciting part!”
Don’t be fooled. Yes, Atkinson isn’t exactly sure who this team is yet. But he, and they believe they can be good even without Durant this season.
The majority of the roster that begins play tonight went 42-40 last year and made the playoffs. It’s true, it was in the weaker conference. But you are what your record says you are, and playoffs are the playoffs. They ultimately wound up losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in five games, but they were competitive.
It’s hard to imagine adding Irving, Jordan, Chandler, Prince and Temple to that squad with expected improvements from LeVert, Allen, and Kurucs not to equal another playoff berth this season.
Frankly, it would be a huge disappointment and setback.
Not only should this be a playoff team. They should have designs on winning a round and advancing to the conference semifinals. If things break well and they get a favorable matchup, pushing that next tier opponent.
If that doesn’t happen, with the caveat of bad injury luck, some serious questions need to be asked. But, that’s for later during the season if things are not going according to schedule.
Right now, it’s the beginning of a new school term, and hope springs. We’ll see where this team actually is, come spring.