Picking up the Pieces from the Brooklyn Nets’ Roller Coaster Season

The Brooklyn Nets’ season ended last night.

The 2014 Nets proved to be less than the sum of their overpaid pieces.

The 2014 Nets proved to be less than the sum of their overpaid pieces.

The Nets, playing in Miami in Game 5 of their second round series with the Heat, led LeBron & Co. for most of the game. In the fourth quarter, however, they self-destructed, choking away a late nine point lead. With the ball, a two point deficit, and five seconds left on the clock, the Nets didn’t even manage to get a shot up. No Paul Pierce playoff magic. No big shot from Joe Johnson. Just a sloppy, ugly conclusion to a sloppy, ugly season.

Brooklyn hardly put up a fight in the five game series with the defending champion Heat. For a team supposedly built to beat Miami, the results were uninspiring: two blowout losses, two late collapses, and just one measly, irrelevant victory. Still, the outcome was hardly shocking.

Following a busy offseason, expectations for the Nets this fall were lofty. After pegging  Jason Kidd as their new coach last June (I still haven’t made sense of that one), the Nets flipped their future (a trio of first round picks) for the Celtics’ past (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry). The blockbuster move improved the Nets on paper, ostensibly providing a team that won 49 games in 2012-13 with more offensive options, more experience, and more grit. The hype train started rolling immediately (our own Danny Cooper helped put the trade in historical perspective at the time) and rolled all the way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated’s NBA Preview (see above).

Then the season started and the good vibes ended. Jason Kidd looked lost on the sidelines. Paul Pierce’s shot was all over the place. Garnett’s offensive game, in decline for years, finally evaporated altogether. The Nets’ offense had no flow, as Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Johnson, and Pierce took turns dominating the ball before hoisting shots. Defensively, the Nets were a train wreck.

Then, on December 20th, the Nets lost Lopez, to that point their best player, for the rest of the season with a foot injury. Come Christmas, the $180 million Nets were 9-18. How’d they do on Christmas? They got bullied by Chicago in Brooklyn, losing 95-78.

Then, as if by magic, the Nets turned things around. In Lopez’s absence, Pierce moved to the 4 and started to play better. The Nets improved dramatically on the defensive end. Meanwhile, their second unit began to click. By the end of January, the Nets had improved to 20-24. With a win over Memphis on March 5th, they got back over .500. Eventually, they earned a playoff spot, finishing 44-38.

The Nets benefited from the historically putrid state of the Eastern Conference. In a conference filled with tanking teams, the Nets were aiming for a playoff push. By no means did they suddenly turn into a great team, but they looked pretty darn good compared to the sputtering cross-town Knicks.

And then they were good enough to subdue DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the up-and-coming Raptors in the first round of the playoffs, winning in seven exciting (if ugly) games. The Raptors are on the rise, and DeRozan is fast becoming one of the league’s best players, but the high-priced Nets had enough fight to get by them.

The win over the Raptors will go down as the highlight of the season for the Nets, along with their 10-3 January mostly spent beating up on bad Eastern Conference foes. In the end, the Nets spent $36 million per playoff win. For all their star power, they were often at their most fun to watch when role players Mirza Teletovic and Marcus Thornton were pouring in threes.

Ultimately, the Nets were an average team this year. Garnett, who may now decide to retire, was a non-factor. Deron Williams proved himself to be a far cry from the star folks once thought he was; he has become shockingly limited in his ability to create and penetrate. Pierce still may have something left in the tank, but he rarely was a consistent scorer for the Nets.

Somehow, Joe Johnson was the guy for the Nets this year. That didn’t work for years in Atlanta, and it didn’t work in Brooklyn either.

Playing in the Barclays Center, which resembles a theater more than a gym, the Nets never ceased to pass the coolness test. Jason Kidd, dressed in business casual, calling the shots for a team filled with recognizable names never ceased to possess appeal.  The Nets threw care, their future, and, at times, common sense to the wind to provide us with the strangest, most unpredictable team in recent memory. There likely will never be another team quite like the 2014 Nets.

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