I acknowledge that it is not the time, not yet at least, to declare these Brooklyn Nets a legit successful story. We may be close to that moment, but right now it feels a little bit early to say such a thing. The Nets made it back to the Playoffs after a four-year absence, but they haven’t gotten past the first round yet. They didn’t advance back in 2015 against the Hawks either, when the team last played postseason basketball.
The fact is, though, that the current Nets’ iteration is redefining the way the franchise is seen around the nation and could be on the verge of making the ultimate leap towards real contention. It may sound like a stretch, but this might be the first season in which the Nets have been closer to the turnaround they experienced back in 2002, when the lost in the very own Finals against the Lakers.
The 2019 Brooklyn Nets = The 2002 New Jersey Nets?
I know, I know. You think I’m crazy in thinking that this young and inexperienced team is anything like those good-old Nets of yesteryear. Turns out, things are not that different.
The 2001-02 New Jersey Nets featured 16 players during the season. Of those, four were rookies and another four were one or two years into their pro careers. Of those eight players (half the roster, in case you have not counted), Richard Jefferson played 79 games, Jason Collins 77, Kenyon Martin 73, and Todd MacCulloch 62. All of them had been in the league for less than two years. Even with that, they helped New Jersey reach the Finals after finishing the regular season with an all-time franchise-best 52-30 record.
The 2018-19 Brooklyn Nets featured 16 players during the season. Of those, three were rookies and another three were one or two years into their pro careers. Three more were players with three years of experience. Of those nine players, D’Angelo Russell played 81 games, Jarrett Allen 80, Joe Harris 76, Spencer Dinwiddie 68, and Rodions Kurucs 63. It is hard to argue those were not the main pillars of this team, a truly young one core. Even with that, they helped Brooklyn reach the playoffs after finishing the regular season with a 42-40 record and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.
What is most striking, though, is the fact that these Nets have made for the greatest W/L% improvement season-to-season since the 2002 Nets, not counting the 2013 Nets, which played after a lock-out shortened season.
After finishing with a paltry 26-56 record in 2001, and a winning percentage of only .317, New Jersey was able to put together a season for the ages and reach the Finals in 2002. The Nets went from .317 to .634 in a year (a staggering .317 improvement). It marked a turnaround in the franchise history and although it ultimately didn’t amount to a championship that summer, it helped the team come back for a second try (also unsuccessful, sadly) in 2003.
This season, Brooklyn has posted a .512 record after finishing 42-40. It is not a great winning percentage, but it marked the first winning season in Brooklyn since 2014. Last year, the Nets finished with a 28-54 record that translated to a .341 winning percentage. That is a .171 improvement. The number is not as high as it was in 2002, but it was the biggest change since then — again, not counting the lock-out situation.
It is indeed hard to put the 2019 Brooklyn Nets on par with the 2002 Nets. By Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System (a measurement of how good a team is, with zero being average), the current Nets are a negative minus-0.4 while New Jersey was a positive 3.67 in 2002 (only behind the 2003 Nets which got a 4.42 SRS). This team is a long way from those heights, but there are good signs flashing.
As I have already mentioned, the core of this team is younger and brighter than that of 2002. Back then, the team’s main players were Jason Kidd and Kerry Kittles at 27 and 28 years of age. Both were at their peak years at that moment and Kittles would leave New Jersey in 2004. The best players of the 2019 Nets, though, could be said to be Russell and Allen, 22 and 20 years old respectively. Although D’Angelo is a looming free agent this summer, it looks like both still have a lot of time ahead playing for Brooklyn and they are definitely years from reaching their peaks, yet they’re already putting on some legit performance levels.
On top of that, the front office has done a massive job lately approaching team construction. The rest of the staff working around players is deemed one of the best at developing players. Drafting and player acquisition and nurturing is one of the key aspects of the current Nets’ program, having adapted to the trends and turning into something much stronger than the old 2002 Nets were able to do and exploit back then.
Another interesting thing to happen to that 2002 team is how they regressed a little the following season (winning three fewer games and finishing 49-33), yet improved from an SRS of 3.67 to one of 4.42. Young players improved and those already in the spotlight (Kidd and Kittles) saw a better supporting cast around them. This is expected to happen to the 2019 Nets too. Young players are already the nucleus of the team and they will improve even more with time, starting right now.
One thing the 2002 Nets didn’t do that the 2019 Nets could realistically be on the way to is strengthening via free agency. They based their improvement and their second consecutive trip to the Finals on pure in-house player development. Although that will be the main way for these Nets, too, they can add one or two free agents this summer that could help the franchise make the ultimate leap toward a chip. Not to get too hyped but we’re talking names such as Durant, Irving, Butler, Cousins, Klay or Kawhi. Any of them could be the final touch to an already winning roster, let alone bringing in two.
Of course, these are all hypotheticals and what happened in those fourteen months between the start of the 2002 playoffs to the end of the 2003 ones saw a great team make the Finals, become better somehow and make another run to be finished again in the last possible round of the playoffs. For that to happen again, we would be re-writing the same story and hoping for history to repeat itself, which we all know it is not how things often work, much less in sports.
Anyways, the present can’t be better given the late franchise’s mishaps concerning its management. The team is young, improving by the day, yet to reach this peak, and has been able to put together the biggest turnaround since the Nets made back-to-back Finals appearances.
Call me crazy for dreaming and wondering a bit too much, but I can’t wait to see this whole promising run unfold.