Considering the current state of the NBA and what normally has to go into building a contender, one can classify the Brooklyn Nets making the playoffs as almost miraculous.
Almost improbably, the former laughing stocks of basketball are back in the postseason for the first time since 2015.
And they went against the grain in doing so.
Before we get into that, though, Brooklyn’s 12-point victory over the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed, the Indiana Pacers, on Saturday night finally allows us to stop talking about the trade.
You know, THE trade.
Alright, if you don’t know, the Nets gutted a promising team prior to the 2013-14 season to trade for the aging Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics.
While the Nets got two semi-productive years out of it, though Pierce, Garnett, and Terry didn’t last two years with the team. Things simply fell apart as age, injuries, and poor decisions from former general manager Billy King saw the Nets nosedive to the very bottom of the Eastern Conference.
From the 2015-16 season to last year, the Nets won a combined 69 games, which is an annual average of a measly 23 victories per year. Due to King’s decision to deal a number of his first-round picks, the Nets could not even take advantage of the lone positive of being bad: draft picks.
In the meantime, the Celtics took the Nets’ assets — mainly those picks — and flipped them into Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, two key members of a team that made the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
The dismissal of King (and a few other general managers) led to the introduction of current GM Sean Marks, who began to turn the tide in Brooklyn despite being stuck in one of the worst stretches in franchise history. The New Zealander brought in Kenny Atkinson, a point guard specialist, as his head coach and began to make do with what he had.
His resources were minimal, but Marks and Atkinson are proving to have the magic touch.
Marks traded his first-round (No. 27) draft pick in 2017, Kyle Kuzma, along with the face of the franchise in Brook Lopez to the Los Angeles Lakers for D’Angelo Russell — a once-promising point guard who was outcasted by Magic Johnson in Hollywood after drafting Lonzo Ball.
Under Atkinson’s guidance, Russell has gone from potential draft bust to NBA All-Star who has put up a career year with 21.1 points and seven assists per game.
He joined a backcourt that was built on bargains and never-will-be’s. Marks traded Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers for Caris LeVert, while signing Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie off waivers.
The guys never given a chance by the likes of the Pacers, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Detroit Pistons are flourishing with Atkinson. LeVert has shown flashes of becoming a star while dodging some injury scares. Spencer Dinwiddie should be a lock for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, and Joe Harris is one of the most lethal three-point shooters in the game.
That’s quite a four-man rotation created out of basically nothing.
In the frontcourt, Marks may have found a future NBA Defensive Player of the Year in center Jarrett Allen with the No. 22 pick of the 2017 draft. He’s made sensational blocks around the rim seem common as he’s tangled with the likes of LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo and come out on top.
Marks’ second-round pick in 2018, which was the little-known Rodions Kurucs out of Latvia, has stepped up admirably when called upon and given valuable minutes at the power forward position, considered by many to be the Nets’ biggest hole within the starting 5.
Atkinson has been delegate work — and get important minutes from — journeymen and those considered washed up like DeMarre Carroll, Shabazz Nappier, and Ed Davis.
Sprinkle in the contributions of Allan Crabbe and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and the Nets have put up 41 wins this season, their most since 2013-14.
They didn’t have to make the staggering free-agent signing that included a supermax contract, they didn’t have to keep the likes of Dwight Howard for brand recognition, they didn’t have to buy their way back into contention.
Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson worked a modern-day miracle in the NBA: rebuild on a budget through true development and a touch of savvy.
Now they’ll face the Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs beginning Apr. 13.