In this juiced-up arms race of an NBA landscape, you’re either a contender or a pretender – but if you happen to be the Brooklyn Nets, the situation lately has been more akin to a dire, bleak nightmare. Long without control of their own draft pick and the inability to draw a top-level free agent in, the Nets have treaded water since Joe Johnson, the last reminder of their fruitless all-in gamble upon moving to Brooklyn, was bought out in February of 2016. By way of Brook Lopez’s sudden three-point explosion, their tireless chase on defense and their fast, chuck ‘em up offensive style, the Nets earned plenty of compliments last season — but without wins to go along with them, they ultimately mean little in the long run.
That why the Nets are focused on two keywords headed into an important 2017-18 season: Continuity and culture. If Brooklyn can build on a couple of the franchise’s main values, well, then there may just be a way out of this bottomless pit sooner rather than later.
He’s the Nets’ head coach, but that hasn’t stopped Kenny Atkinson from getting his hands dirty for the second straight summer. As the Nets fearlessly charge into the great unknown once again, Atkinson has long loved the opportunity that coaching in Las Vegas affords him. The Nets went 20-62 in 2016-17, the NBA’s worst record, and that means the entire team can stand to improve, even the head coach.
“Quite honestly, I need to get better,” Atkinson candidly admitted on Monday. “I need to improve my game, I’ve had some situations out there where I was like: ‘Man, I could’ve done that better.’ I just feel like you’re in a flight simulator, the more reps you can get, the better you get.”
And for Atkinson and the Nets, there’s always room to be just a little bit better, which is why five members of last year’s team are leading the way in Las Vegas. For many participants, the various Summer Leagues act as an opportunity for draftees to acclimate themselves to their new league and a chance for those not yet on franchise’s radars to do so. But in the Nets’ case, their raw youngsters also double as a large majority of the team’s core – enter Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead and Archie Goodwin.
“Hungry is a good word, but they’re hungry to get better – that’s our whole theme this summer. We’re hungry to get better, we’re just so locked into the process,” Atkinson said. “That’s why we’re all here at Summer League quite honestly, rather than back in Brooklyn.”
The current roster is a complete work-in-progress, particularly so after the Nets moved Lopez, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, to the Los Angeles Lakers in June. Outside of D’Angelo Russell locked in at one of the guard spots and, hopefully, a sophomore year leap for LeVert, Atkinson and the Nets know that they’re far from out of the woods. Of course, they’ve got at least one more year of Jeremy Lin ahead of them – he owns a player option in 2018 – but it’s hard to imagine that he’s a long-term centerpiece in the way that Lopez was for nine years.
From there, the Nets have a chopped-together roster – one part youngsters trying to find their place, the other part a home for bloated salary dumps. Still, for a team that won less than a quarter of their games last season, they intend on bringing a majority of the roster back – well, those of them that aren’t traded away this summer. In fact, mid-way through July, K.J. McDaniels, Justin Hamilton and Randy Foye are the only three that won’t be returning thus far.
That’s because of the front office’s new commitment to continuity. As the Nets see it, it’s tough to find any type of stride with massive roster turnover year after year. Even if the team lacks an All-Star, why willingly start over at ground zero in each successive season? After clicking toward the end of Atkinson’s rookie year at the helm, in part thanks to Lin’s return after missing half the season, the Nets aren’t ready to hit the reset button again.
While Whitehead, LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson are all under contract for the upcoming season, the partial guarantees for Dinwiddie and Goodwin still loom large. As of now, both are expected to stay with the team, but should a few more free agents come along, the situation could play out differently – so that’s why Goodwin is in Las Vegas grinding: He’s trying to earn his spot back.
“I look at it as an opportunity to get better with our young core of guys, I been having up and downs throughout my career,” Goodwin said after their victory against the New Orleans Pelicans. “But I feel like here I really have an opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”
Goodwin is certainly raw, but he’s only just 22 years old and somehow entering his fifth NBA season after the Phoenix Suns waived him before the first game in 2016-17. Although Goodwin has never averaged more than 8.9 points per contest, the flashes are certainly there, lurking. In the pick and roll, Goodwin is a tough guy to defend, gliding to the hoop in Las Vegas like a seasoned veteran. With his 6-foot-5 frame, the Nets also like his potential as a pesky defender – but could he earn significant time on a guard-heavy roster?
The Nets’ patience in Goodwin has paid off and the guard has averaged 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 57.7 percent from the floor in just 20.7 minutes per game during Summer League so far. The Nets are no strangers to taking on D-League projects, but it feels like Goodwin has some legitimate sticking power in Brooklyn – just like key bench scorer Sean Kilpatrick did last season – all because those around him are giving him the chance to succeed.
“When I got here, the guys accepted me right away, so they made it a lot easier for me than I thought it would be,” Goodwin said upon arriving at Summer League last week. “They made it easy for me. . . and hopefully, I’ll be around for the long run.”
Yet, for all the Nets’ losses last year, general manager Sean Marks isn’t looking for any get-rich-quick shortcuts. Their commitment to continuity has gone hand-in-hand with their evolving culture during the lengthy rebuild.
Although Hollis-Jefferson is now Brooklyn’s longest-tenured player at three seasons, the franchise has aimed to cut out the pitfalls that doomed their roster’s former versions. From arriving late to practice to animosity between players, that veteran-laden Nets roster – created by way of today’s missing draft picks – fell short season after season until most were traded, bought out or fled in free agency.
But now, the roster is full of players that actually want to make a name for themselves in Brooklyn, a big difference in just a few years time for a team this far out of long-term contention.
“We can make a huge jump, we’re all young, [those at Summer League are] all under 25,” Dinwiddie told Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders. “We’re all hard workers, we’re all hungry for success, to be better as a team and try to win. The sky’s the limit.”
And it’s true – the team’s oldest players heading into next season are currently Timofey Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll, both acquired this summer via salary dump and each turn 31 next week. But as of now, chemistry is one of the Nets’ biggest foundational supports, banking on kinship and unity to help build the culture that the franchise has lacked since they played a state over in New Jersey. Sure, it sounds hokey, but it’s given this young roster with no expectations a reason to be confident.
That’s why nearly every member of the Nets has popped up this summer in some way, shape or form. There are cuts to Marks in the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center as he speaks on the phone and evaluates his young assets. That’s why Lin, Kilpatrick and Joe Harris took in Sunday’s contest courtside, and why Russell was working out past midnight with LeVert just days after he was acquired.
It’s one thing to get players to compete for a rebuilding, pick-less franchise like the Nets, but it’s another thing altogether for them to uniformly buy into it.
“I think when you’re trying to build a culture, reestablish yourself in the league and start really from the ground up, you kinda have to do stuff like this because chemistry is so important,” Dinwiddie said. “When you look at the Warriors, it’s not just their collection of talent but the way they play together and that’s what we’re trying to foster.”
The Nets’ situation is well-documented at this point – although it got a little better following their pending trade for the aforementioned Carroll and the Toronto Raptors’ first- and second-round selections in 2018 – but this small core competing this summer represents a very real, tangible ideal for the struggling fanbase: hope.
Heading into to another season without control of their own draft pick for a final time and a playoff berth still unlikely, finding any type of advantage is key. That’s why they’re all in Las Vegas grinding away, even Atkinson. While these wins won’t translate to any automatic successes in the fall, it’s the idea of family and togetherness that’s dragging Brooklyn through the last stage of their grueling rebuild.
Of course, the results of these glorified scrimmages mean very little. But for a franchise well on it’s way to changing their status league-wide, stacking their roster and sending the head coach for a tune-up doesn’t signify desperation, it displays readiness.
“I’m going to fight Sean to do it again next year, he probably won’t let me,” Atkinson admitted on Sunday. ”[But] it’s like a dress rehearsal for the regular season, I love it.”
As Dinwiddie put it, the sky’s the limit for the Nets, particularly so as they look to build on a difficult 20-62 season. Although they may need to wait a few more years before real – ahem, postseason – results arrive, it appears as if Atkinson, Goodwin, Dinwiddie and the rest of the franchise’s key contributors will enjoy the ride every tiny step of the way.
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