The Five Best Nets in (Brooklyn) Franchise History
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NBA writers only selected a New Jersey Net seven times for an All-NBA Team. A Brooklyn player has not yet received that honor. In the early stages of 2019 free agency, the Nets added three players who’ve already accounted for 14 All-NBA selections throughout their careers.
When Kevin Durant signed with Golden State in 2016, it was viewed as an awakening of apocalyptic forces conspiring to turn the NBA into a pseudo-competitive sham. I loved it. I loved the inevitable dominance, I loved telling my friends they were wasting energy hating it, and I loved seeing historical events unfold on the west coast after the Nets had already lost their umpteenth consecutive game. Maybe it’s the Yankees fan in me, but rooting for the villain became second nature.
The main reason I loved it, though, was because I knew we would never see it again. It’s how I justified my adopted fandom, and the reasoning by which I implored others to do the same. We rarely understand the historical implications of a once-in-a-lifetime event in real time. There will never be another Steph Curry, but if there is, he won’t be winning unanimous MVP while making $11 million due to shoddy ankles. It’s possible, but he likely won’t be playing with two fellow All-NBA talents, both drafted by his franchise. However, if all that falls into place, then the only domino left is a 34% salary cap increase coinciding with a 28 PPG career scorer hitting the open market for the first time in his career. Simple, really.
Assembling the ‘Hamptons Five’ Warriors wasn’t representative of a new NBA vanguard. Lightning in a bottle is so cliché, it’s the only way to describe it. It happening at the nadir of my favorite team’s existence only made me feel less guilty about indulging. (At least when the Nets were 12-70, they had their own draft picks.)
No, that same Kevin Durant (and co.) signing with Brooklyn in 2019 was the culmination of the new NBA. Nets fans, supporters of possibly the nondescript-iest franchise in the NBA, seven years into their Brooklyn existence, woke up on July 1st with a pair of generational superstars on their team. Rarely is this phrase not hyperbole, but it was truly franchise-altering.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying the Nets’ experience at the Orlando Bubble will be a send-off to their first era of Brooklyn basketball. 2020 is, and was always supposed to be, a transition year between eras. The title-chasing phase will begin in earnest, with a rehabbed Kevin Durant, next winter. There will nightly expectations to not just win, but dominate. The 2020 season, as change is wont to do, brought about growing pains and uncertainty. But this edition of Brooklyn basketball is not going to be defined by the prologue. Only a likely-brief stay in Disney World stands between the Nets and getting to the actual f**king book already.
For an unofficial commemoration of the inaugural epoch of Brooklyn basketball, and partly inspired by a conversation with Jac Manuell (co-host of the Brooklyn Buzz – a podcast Nets fans should definitely be listening to), I wanted to figure out who the defining Nets of the 2010’s are. Brooklyn, in large part, is going to be defined by whatever happens in the next three years or so. So, before the Nets’ first eight years in New York is lost to history, here are the five best players (at their peak) to play for the Brooklyn iteration of this franchise.
*I did not consider Kyrie Irving, of 20 games as a Net, for this list.
This final spot was a tough decision between Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie, who will not appear on this list. Just warning you now. It came down to asking the question, “Who would I rather have on my team?”. It’s hard to turn down the man who just posted career high averages of 20.6 PPG and 6.8 APG for a playoff team, but I’m going to do so anyway.
Spencer Dinwiddie has been pressed into a leading role in each of the past two seasons. With injuries to LeVert and Kyrie in 2020, Brooklyn had nobody else to help set up the offense and create looks for himself or teammates. It’s true that Dinwiddie filled that role admirably, and took over quite a few games in mid-December. It’s also true that that alone is not enough to push him onto this list, despite the gaudy counting stats. His shooting splits are a disturbing 41/31/78 in 2020, only marginally worse than the 44/33.5/81/ he put up in 2019. Dinwiddie has never taken over two three-pointers per game while making at least 34% of them.
The temptation of Dinwiddie is obvious: a long guard who can shoot, attack the basket, and pass. There’s constant flashes of it. In 2020, Dinwiddie’s peak season thus far, he’s posted career-bests in both turnover and assist categories. He gets to the line with superb proficiency, and can hit 80% of his freebies. But his usage rate, top-20 in the league, is right behind Damian Lillard this year. If Spencer Dinwiddie is deciding that many possessions a game, your team probably is not that good. Right now, Spencer Dinwiddie is an above-average offensive guard with a few nice tools, profiting off increased opportunities.
Joe Harris is decidedly not that. He’ll never be prone to putting up the stat lines Spencer can accumulate with a hot hand. That doesn’t mean Joe has not grown into an elite NBA player. His skillset handicaps his production levels, but he is an elite version of the player-type he’s embraced. Joe Harris evolved into such a wonderful shooter in 2019 that he led the league in three-point percentage, and natural regression only dragged him down to 41% the following year. That’s elite. He is not just here because of Spencer Dinwiddie’s flaws. Playing over 30 minutes a night was heresy in the bygone Kenny Atkinson era, Joe Harris’ per 36 stats from last season translate to 16/5/3 on a hilarious 50/47/82.
There are two types of floor-spacers in the NBA. There’s the P.J. Tucker-prototype: someone who can stand in the corner with his hands up waiting for a kick-out pass that almost never comes. Then there’s the JJ Redick School of Movement, which Joe Harris devoutly attends. He doesn’t space the floor; he warps it by running all around it. So many possessions for the 2019 Nets started with some sort of stagger screen action; Joe Harris demanded the defense scramble around it every time down the floor.
He also blossomed into a genuinely reliable driver whenever the defense closed out too aggressively. As you may have guessed, that happened quite a bit to the league’s three-point champion. Harris wasn’t foolish or indecisive when he put the ball on the deck, making 53% of his two-point field goals. In terms of his defense, he grew into a strong team defender while holding his head above water individually. Always in the right spots and calling out assignments, Harris managed to elevate himself above liability-status. That alone mandated he be on the floor in crunch time. The advanced metrics generally place him as a league-average to slight positive presence on the defensive end, which backs up the eye test that rarely saw him on the wrong end of gaffes or blown coverages.
2019 Joe Harris raised his three-point shooting to A+ level while being solid in every other facet. Brooklyn has tried and failed before to fill that hole, as have many other teams (see: Ellington, Wayne). Harris is going to enjoy a long and fruitful NBA career, provided his body holds up. He became the type of player any team would instantly improve by adding. Trade him right now to the Clippers, Lakers, or Bucks, and he would see big minutes in big situations creating chaos around All-NBA level scorers. Joe Harris is never going to be an All-Star, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an extremely valuable player.
On December 5th, 2018, the Nets were 8-18. From that point, the squad went 34-22 to sneak up to the 6th seed in the East, mainly on the back of D’Angelo Russell. He posted per 36 minute averages of 26.4/4.5/8.8 on 55% True Shooting (TS). Those numbers, across a full season, have only been reached by James Harden, LeBron, Russell Westbrook and Luka Doncic (this year).
And it’s not as if he wasn’t the first option on just about every possession, attracting the brunt of defensive attention. The massive January comeback in Orlando, where D-Lo had 40, his fellow starters included Joe Harris, but also Treveon Graham, Rodions Kurucs, and Jarrett Allen. Of course, that lack of help is a double edged sword. As with Dinwiddie, Russell’s numbers hugely benefit from pure usage rate. Under Kenny Atkinson, the lead-guard’s role was to be the focal point in every half-court set, no matter who. D’Angelo Russell wasn’t even closing games until around Christmas.
That’s part of the reason he’s not higher on this list, someone had to take shots for Brooklyn. It shows up in the advanced metrics, many of which rate him barely higher than league average on offense, despite those flashy numbers. The Nets scored just a measly 0.2 points/100 possessions more with him on the floor than off. However, he does get credit for going against the other teams’ starters.
Part of his ample counting stats are 4.0 turnovers per 36 minutes. The occasional carelessness with the rock, manifesting in some needlessly high-wire passing attempts, is what kept him off the court in the fourth quarter early last year. And for all the clutch moments he delivered Nets fans in 2019, his fourth quarter shooting splits were just 40/30/77 for the year.
It feels wrong to keep piling on the negatives, but it’s also important to point out that D-Lo’s defense ranged from almost passable to doormat-status throughout the year. But despite all that, he was the unquestioned top dog on a playoff team in 2019.
Ultimately, though, his flaws were inescapable in Brooklyn’s first-round defeat to Philly last April. Being guarded by giant vulture Ben Simmons didn’t help, of course, and neither did Joe Harris going ice cold. But D-Lo’s antipathy for getting to the line (<3 FTA’s/game) pushed him further and further away from the basket in the playoffs, and he never got it going in a series where he only shot 36% from the floor.
But that’s enough of listing his flaws. D’Angelo Russell was the best player Nets fans had rooted for in a half-decade, and he delivered as such. In games Brooklyn won, he shot well, and the negative is true as well. There were no inflated stats under his box scores. D’Angelo Russell was the engine for a team that got into the playoffs by winning more than 60% of their games from December on.
All in all, the Nets and D’Angelo Russell formed a wonderful, mutually beneficial partnership. Brooklyn isn’t gearing up for a title run right now if D-Lo doesn’t turn that 8-18 team around; he’s not making $30 million this year if Kenny Atkinson doesn’t hand him the keys to the offense.
It’s fitting that the second-hardest decision I had to make came down to who belonged in the 3-spot, D’Angelo Russell or Iso Joe. Their best Brooklyn selves faced and conquered similar situations. In 2014, the Nets recovered from a slow start and a Brook Lopez injury to, again, sneak into the six seed. Brooklyn was 10-21 at the end of the 2013 calendar year, before finishing the season 34-15. This year accounts for Brooklyn’s only playoff series win to date, featuring the infamous Paul Pierce Block in Game 7 vs. Toronto.
Joe was their leading scorer, and over the last 25 games, where Brooklyn posted an 18-7 record, he splits a gorgeous 49/42/85. It’s not the raw numbers that vault Joe’s Brooklyn peak over Russell’s. It’s the combination of his efficient scoring on a more well-balanced team, and his status as an undisputed closer. The game that brought them to 11-21 came in Oklahoma City vs. a fully operational Thunder squad, where Joe sized up Serge Ibaka for a game winner.
“Joe Jesus” had a lot of clutch moments, but it’s easy to point to that game as the turning point in Brooklyn’s most successful season. And it felt that way at the time. Johnson didn’t do much other than score, and you hoped for average D on a given night, but he was a reliable iso-man when Brooklyn needed it badly.
He settled into a perfect offensive role in the 2014 season in Brooklyn. It made you wonder how his career could have gone had he stayed backcourt mates with Steve Nash in Phoenix. In 2014, he posted a career-high TS%, mainly because he was an absolute deadeye catch-and-shoot man from three. Pair that with a smooth iso game in a 6’7″ frame, and he was a threat on every possession. When you absolutely needed a bucket, you gave him the ball and let him eat. He, more than possibly anyone in recent memory, was a victim of being born a few years too soon.
Atlanta tried to turn him into a shoot-first, shoot-second iso scorer. It almost completely phased out his lethal catch and shoot ability. It’s not a coincidence his career high in 3PT% came playing off the ball in one season alongside Steve Nash. He wouldn’t shoot over 40% from behind the arc again until this 2014 season, providing the only real floor-spacing Brooklyn got from non-Mirza Teletovic players. Today he’s probably a combo-forward, going to the 4 in small-ball lineups. But the catch with Joe was there was no way in hell you were hiding a smaller defender on him. That big frame and soft touch around the rim was truly overpowering once he put his shoulder into you. Of all players with at least four (admittedly not a ton) post-up attempts per game in 2014, he led the entire league on post-up FG%.
His versatility was no more on display than in those 2014 playoffs, first vs. the Raptors, then the Heatles. Nets fans saw Iso Joe lead all Brooklyn scorers in the first three games first Toronto, almost lead a 25 point comeback in game 5, and then score 13 of his 26 in the fourth quarter of Game 7 to win the first round. Against Miami, it was more of the same. Erik Spoelstra didn’t even try putting Dwyane Wade on him after the opening game. Too little. Brooklyn absolutely blows game 5 in Miami, but Joe had 34 on a ridiculous 15/23, hitting shot after shot in LeBron’s chops. That playoff success gives him the slight edge over D’Angelo Russell; “Joe Jesus” is the best closer that fans in the Barclays Center have gotten to root for.
There’s an argument that 2013 featured Deron Williams at the height of his powers, regardless of the uniform he was wearing. In the Nets’ inaugural season in Brooklyn, D-Will posted the highest per minute win share rate of his career, as well as the 5th most offensive win shares in the NBA. As much as Nets fans may not like to hear it, 2013 Williams was the player the Nets envisioned leading their move to Brooklyn. Even if he did never return after that.
Brooklyn’s offense was nearly 7 points better per 100 with him on the court vs. off it in 2013. A large part of that has to do with his sudden resurgence from behind the arc. Though D-Will was always as a well-rounded offensive threat, he only eclipsed 34% from deep once in the four seasons prior to 2013. All of sudden, he was taking 6 threes a game and making 38% of them. As his legs started to give out during his Brooklyn tenure, inhibiting his ability (or desire) to attack the rim, his renascent outside shooting maintained his impact for a couple seasons. Once he turned 30, though, it was over.
But during his age-28 season, Williams had a legitimate claim as a top-two point guard in the conference. Kyrie Irving deservedly got an East’s All-Star nod, but after that, it’s wide open. John Wall was still in the “shooting 27% from 3” stage of his career, and while Rajon Rondo did average 11 assists a game, he missed the entire second half of the season, where Boston played significantly better without him.
In the Eastern conference, D-Will finished 8th in points and 3rd in assists, as well as peppering the leaderboard in all the advanced acronyms. His passing numbers deserve some deeper digging, though. Firstly, he has about the same AST/TO ratio as Rondo, who was pursuing the all-time record for consecutive 10+ assist games before an ejection vs. very Nets.
Secondly, who Deron is passing the ball to in 2013 cannot go unnoticed. In Utah, D-Will was running pick and pops with a 20 PPG guy in Carlos Boozer. Mehmet Okur was one of the first stretch 5’s this side of Sam Perkins, and had über soft hands. A spry Paul Millsap was backing up Andrei Kirilenko, one of the savviest forwards in the league. Deron Williams had no shortage of options to choose from once he got going downhill.
Fast forward to the Nets 2013 roster, whose best scoring big is a post-centric, prodding Brook Lopez. You couldn’t run many 1-4 pick and rolls either, because on the receiving end of Williams’ passes would be either Reggie Evans or Kris Humphries. Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries, on the same team! Go re-read that last paragraph, for comparison. Skilled big men don’t grow on trees, but really, I have no idea how Billy King expected Deron Williams to succeed.
And yet, he did. The bowling ball-style a broad-shouldered Deron Williams had played in Utah had nearly vanished by 2013. D-Will started coming off high pick and rolls and splashing threes, and everything fell into place after that. The abrupt collapse of Williams’ confidence and skills so early on in Brooklyn left a sour taste in most fans’ mouths. Which is only reasonable. Maybe in the near future, an inside source will reveal on some podcast what stumped Deron’s career. Maybe not. Or, everyone on those early Brooklyn teams really did despise each other, and he couldn’t take it. Either way, it shouldn’t overshadow just how dynamic he was immediately following the Nets’ arrival in the borough. But he wasn’t quite their best player.
Bobby Marks, Brooklyn’s former assistant GM alongside Billy King, has sprinkled himself throughout the YES Network’s quarantine programming. On one recent appearance, he mentioned that he had the paperwork “ready to go” that would’ve brought Dwight Howard to Brooklyn. We can speculate how Howard’s Nets career might have played out, as Brooklyn would have shipped Lopez away as part of that deal in the 2012 offseason. But one thing is undeniable: Brook Lopez has been the better player since the trade fell through. That would’ve been an unthinkable prospect at the time, as Dwight Howard had already established the base of a Hall of Fame career.
365 days later, Brook Lopez had finished 5th in the league in PER for the 2013 season. The stat itself, as many of the early advanced models did, relies too much on box score stats to spit out a holistic number. It even helped Larry Sanders earn a $63 million contract on the back of his blocks and boards. But Brook Lopez did more than just that. A lot more. And yes, he did rebound the ball.
That’s the common knock when fans go back and look at Lopez’ prime, that he didn’t rebound nearly enough. It helps feed into the perception of the 7-footer as soft, that he didn’t toughen up until his current stint with Milwaukee. It just isn’t true. As alluded to before, he shared the frontcourt with Reggie Evans and Kris Humphries, two guys who brought the same skill to the table: defensive rebounding. It’s how the forward tandem cashed their checks; it ate into Lopez’ rebounding numbers, and fostered this notion of Brook as a soft interior presence.
Brook Lopez, per 36 minutes in 2013, posted 23 and 8 with 2.5 blocks. This was the peak of the version of Lopez who hadn’t yet learned to shoot from beyond 15 feet yet. He dominated the paint on both ends. Currently, he steadies Milwaukee inside, a historically proficient defensive team. Inside six feet, opponents are shooting a putrid 44.1% against him. Through 17 games in the 2013-14 season, it was 44.6% for Lopez! I’m cheating a bit by including his beginning to the 2013-14 season, but he suffered a season-ending injury just 17 games into it, which looked like his true coming-out party. Through those games, he had the fifth-best DFG% (opponents shooting %) in the whole league, right behind Paul George, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard!
Unfortunately, that type of shot-tracking data only goes back to the 2013-14 season, but it’s clear Lopez was blossoming into an all-around monster before his foot injury. Players legitimately couldn’t score on him. He was also coming off a season in which he grabbed a respectable 8.2 rebounds a game, including nearly 3 off the offensive glass. That foot injury stunted what seemed to his adding on to a special 2013 campaign.
I touched on his per 36 minute averages of 23/8 with 2.5 blocks, which led to an All-Star appearance for him. He posted those on 57% TS, which included 5.3 FTA/36. That number spiked to 7FTA/36 next year, which he hit 82% of. Before the injury, he was fifth in the entire league in TS%. It was his age-25 season. The makings of a perennial All-Star, drafted and groomed by the Nets, were there. Then, the franchise cratered and the NBA shifted away from Lopez’ style of play.
2013, though not as dominant as the small sample size the following season provided, represented happy times for Lopez. Let’s focus on those. He’s in the top 20 in usage rate; he was undoubtedly the focal point of Brooklyn’s offense every night. And just about every night, he delivered. Brook actually beats D-Will out on a per minute win share basis. The Nets’ defense is leaps and bounds better with him out there, although we can partly attribute that to Andray Blatche‘s backup role. Their skillsets don’t fully compliment each other, but with Deron and Brook, the 2013 Nets have two top-15 players in the East. Brook’s ceiling is a bit higher than that.
Dwight Howard is the All-NBA third team center as a Laker, after narrowly avoiding a Brooklyn stint. Los Angeles was a dystopian nightmare full of petty grievances that year, but Dwight is still almost Superman. Yet, Brook would appears to be the better player. Per 36, he scores six points more, while his excellent-by-comparison free throw shooting level him with Dwight’s efficiency numbers. They block the same number of shots, too. And while Dwight does have a sizable advantage on the boards, Brook is a hair better on the offensive glass. Dwight, also, for some reason, turns the ball over a ton this year. You can blame circumstances, but Lopez’ season looks a lot better in retrospect, especially according to every advanced stat. VORP, PER, BPM, win shares, you name ’em. He’s also the focal offensive point on a top-4 seed in the East, albeit the weaker conference.
Lopez may be a top-15 player in the world in 2013, not just the East. David Lee makes the All-NBA third team, a selection that ranges from defensible to embarrassing, depending on your generosity to the voters. Brook Lopez is unquestionably a better player that year than Lee, and so is Joakim Noah, either of whom could have joined or replaced Howard on the team, although their lack of positional flexibility wouldn’t have allowed for it. Noah wouldn’t truly peak until the next year, finishing fourth in MVP voting, but Lopez’ Nets and Noah’s Bulls would meet in an unfortunately unforgettable first round series in 2013. At least, I wish I could forget it.
Joe Johnson, majorly bogged down by his plantar fasciitis, is unable to contribute much in the series. Everyone on Brooklyn’s supporting cast has one (1) marketable skill, rendering many of them helpless in the postseason. Andray Blatche can’t play D, Reggie Evans can’t play O. Gerald Wallace, two years before his retirement, is a less-than-ideal 3-and-D guy. Marshon Brooks and Jerry Stackhouse each get burn in Game 4, which is a sad, weird, fun fact to share at your next Nets-themed party.
Brook Lopez, one of two able-bodied, talented Nets this series, matches up with All-Defense first-team center Joakim Noah. The other is Deron Williams, who matches up with Derrick Rose-backup Kirk Heinrich, who then gets hurt to bring Nate Robinson to the starting lineup. Lopez is still Brooklyn’s best player. He puts up 22 and 9, and SEVEN blocks in game 3! Joakim Noah has the game’s worst plus-minus!! The Nets lose anyway to fall behind 2-1, because the non-Lopez Nets shoot 20-65 from the floor. I still can’t talk about that game 4. CJ Watson blows the dunk.
Brook goes for 28 and 10, holding Noah to 11 and 4, in a dominant game 5 win. Game 7 is a showdown between Noah and Lopez, who each ball out. Noah has a monster 24-14 with six blocks, while Lopez grabs eight offensive boards along with 21 points. A hobbling Joe Johnson goes 2-14, and Reggie Evans plays 27 minutes without taking a shot. Of course, the Nets lose.
Brook Lopez was awesome in Brooklyn. Go on Twitter, there’s already some revisionist history claiming he was too soft for the Nets, or that his incomplete abilities somehow restricted the Nets to NBA purgatory. It’s just not true. This next era of hopefully-successful Nets basketball should not obscure the fact that Brook Lopez was an elite player by his mid-twenties. He reached nearly the same heights in the NBA hierarchy that Kyrie Irving currently occupies right now: a borderline All-NBA talent.
This spot was the easiest decision on this list, and I wish we as Nets fans could have seen Brook Lopez’ trajectory as the top dog on a playoff team play out. He was on track to be special. Brooklyn let him down far more often than the reverse. I don’t know how any Nets fan could have less than exceptional memories of rooting for Brook Lopez. He’s been the franchise’s best player in the Brooklyn era.