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No Man's Land: The Fruitless Path of the Brooklyn Nets

Once a contender with a superteam, the Brooklyn Nets now face an existential crisis: embrace a slow rebuild or chase another star and risk becoming a punchline

In the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks won their first title since the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. On their way to beating Phoenix in the NBA Finals, the Bucks biggest challenge likely came in the second round against the Brooklyn Nets. When the series concluded, I remember thinking that it was akin to a supervillain in a comic book movie being thwarted by a hero. The Nets had three superstars with two of which dealt with injuries for a few games during the series. At the time, it felt like a minor roadblock on the way to the team making a breakthrough and competing for a title. And then it all unraveled. 

Over the next two seasons, the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving would request trades and be shipped out of Brooklyn. In return the Nets received an abundance of draft capital in addition to players such as Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and whatever is left of Ben Simmons. Since Durant was traded, the Nets have been below mediocre with a 37-52 record. This season they have been struggling to remain competitive, might miss the Play-In Tournament, and have fired head coach Jacque Vaughn. The team has some draft capital and claims that it wants to build around Mikal Bridges, who has shown some offensive potential since arriving in Brooklyn. But ultimately, it seems that Brooklyn is forever chasing the next superstar in an attempt to remain relevant, for better or worse. 

Big Name Shopping

Since the Nets moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2013, the team has been perpetually star hunting. To make a splash in their new home, the first thing the Nets did was trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the Celtics. Five years removed from their championship in 2008, the Celtics lost in the first round to the Knicks and felt it was time to start over. The Nets still saw the potential in the duo, felt that these two players brought championship pedigree and could make them competitive immediately. And on paper they looked impressive. They featured players like Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Brook Lopez in addition to Garnett and Pierce. That team went 44-38 and lost in the second round and the Nets were a below 500 team for the next four seasons. 

Both Pierce and Garnett only lasted one full season in Brooklyn before fading into role players and eventually retiring. Their arrival in Brooklyn was not successful on the court, but it brought the Nets headlines and notoriety. The cost of this move for the Nets was tremendous however. With the draft capital that the Celtics received in this deal they were able to draft the two foundations of their current era: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The trade is often looked at as one of the most lopsided deals in NBA history, and after one decent season it plunged the Nets into a long and arduous rebuild that eventually led to a couple of respectable first round losses at the hands of teams with more star power. 

This modest success led the Nets to try acquiring superstars again but this time through free agency. In the summer of 2019, the team was able to lure both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to New York to relaunch a new era of Nets basketball. Most people applauded the move, even though Durant was coming off of an achilles injury that he suffered in the NBA Finals the previous season. The signing of Durant with an injury that he was still rehabbing could have been considered an omen for what was to come. 

Irving, Durant, and James Harden (who was later acquired via a trade with Houston) all battled various injuries and absences during their short time together in Brooklyn and never got past the second round. The Nets had again gambled on big names and lost. They seem poised to potentially do the same again in a few years when they rebuild their draft capital. There is a reason why the team seems so insistent on competing this way, and that reason can be found six miles away in Manhattan. 

New York’s Team

Since making the Finals in 1999, the New York Knicks have been an underperforming franchise to say the least. They have the third worst winning percentage (42%) in the NBA during that time, trailing only the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets. In the 21st century the Knicks have dealt with a lot of losing, the toxic reputation of their team governor James Dolan, and the constant disappointment of not acquiring the right talent to bring them back to continued success. But through it all, the Knicks have still remained New York City’s favorite team. 

The Nets have always been in the Knicks shadow to some degree even before they moved to Brooklyn. Because of New Jersey’s close proximity to New York City, the team always had to battle to retain fans who had been Knick loyalists for years. This was magnified when the team moved to Brooklyn and was a short train ride away from Madison Square Garden. Much like the Mets, Islanders, and Jets, the Nets had to get used to the fact that the older New York franchise was generally the more popular one. When the two teams play each other at Barclays Center, it is common to see an overwhelming number of Knicks fans because they are the more popular franchise and quite frankly tickets cost less at Barclays Center. 

Nets forward Mikal Bridges recently commented on this dynamic, noting that hearing “Let’s Go Knicks” chants make playing at home feel like a road game. Nets fans, much like Clippers fans in Los Angeles, have had to endure jokes about their fan base being non-existent especially compared to those of their counterparts in the same city. It is this perpetual game of catchup that makes a team like the Nets decide that they constantly need to make a big splash in free agency or the trade market. Because they are not only battling to build a successful team, but one that needs to grapple with a market that will quickly lose interest in them if they are not interesting. 

In the current New York sports landscape, the Knicks have rebuilt themselves into a playoff team. The Yankees will always contend for star talent and recently the Mets have become big spenders under the ownership of Steve Cohen. In football, the Giants have a high draft pick this season to use on an impact player and the Jets signed Aaron Rodgers last off-season to create a buzz around their franchise. These interesting storylines apply to women's sports as well, as the New York Liberty of the WNBA have assembled a superteam with Jonquel Jones, Courtney Vandersloot, Sabrina Ionescu, and Breanna Stewart and Gotham FC of the NWSL have signed two US Women's National Team players in Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett. 

In this landscape, the Nets have to make a splash to contend with these other behemoths for mind share in a crowded sports city. Building around Mikal Bridges and making him unavailable in trade talks is not the way to do that. In the immediate future, the Nets have much of their future tied up in the stars that left them. They do not have a pick in this upcoming draft and do not have a draft pick of their own until 2028. Is it time for the Nets to do a proper organic rebuild or could we be looking at yet another foray into the unknown ocean of superstars?

Filling the Seats

The Nets currently rank in the bottom third in attendance in the league, whereas all of the other teams in their division are in the top 10. Fan interest is a definite issue for the franchise and the easiest way to combat that is by bringing in a marquee player. When Damian Lillard requested a trade from the Portland Trail Blazers this summer, it was reported that the two teams he would want to play for were the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets. The Nets were reportedly uninterested in the deal, perhaps still nursing the wounds of losing their trio of superstars.   

To build organically in the NBA, teams need to exercise a lot of patience and have a fair bit of luck on their side. A team needs to be able to identify a great player and then be fortunate enough to be in a position to draft them. The Nets unfortunately do not have the type of picks that lend themselves to a high probability of generating a star. While the team is in possession of unprotected picks from Phoenix as a result of the Durant trade, there is no guarantee that the Suns will be bad enough to be in the lottery over the next few seasons while still in Devin Booker’s prime. The likelihood becomes that they will need to try and flip some of their future draft picks in the pursuit of yet another star. 

But who is out there? Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Donovan Mitchell come to mind. These are all players that have been linked to playing in New York (whether with the Knicks or the Nets) and would certainly elevate the ceiling of the Nets future, especially if they were able to keep Mikal Bridges. But Embiid has battled injuries throughout his career, Towns has not proven himself to be a reliable top option, and Donovan Mitchell has had his share of struggles in the playoffs over the years. 

Perhaps in a twist of irony, they are hoping that the Celtics falter this year in the playoffs and they can lure Jaylen Brown to Brooklyn. Or they could even go after Trae Young if his time in Atlanta is coming to a close. These are all options available to the Nets, but none of them seem to give them the tremendous chance to win a title in the way that the Irving and Durant signing did.

The Nets as it currently stands are in a strange place. They have players that could be useful on playoff teams like Cam Johnson and Dorian Finney-Smith. But they are not good enough to make any noise in the playoffs, and yet not bad enough to completely bottom out like the Detroit Pistons or Washington Wizards. They are in no-man's land, but also in a market that demands them to be competitive. It is a difficult place to be, and the way that the team chooses to approach these next couple of off-seasons will be crucial. It is a time to analyze what is available and determine what kind of franchise this team wants to be and see if there can be any substance behind the splashy headlines that they have become so reliant on.

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