Shame on me for having hope. The Brooklyn Nets, the NBA team I support, finally seemed set to make a splash this season. The last few years have been dismal for the team; after General Manager Billy King completed one of the worst trades in NBA history, in which he sent four first-round draft picks to the Celtics for, in effect, one good year of play from Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Nets quickly fell apart and haven’t yet resurfaced. Being a fan of one of the worst teams in the league, especially when they are powerless to improve thanks to a lack of draft picks, isn’t particularly fun. Therefore, there comes to be some serious excitement when that team starts looking like they’re about to turn it around.
In the offseason, the Nets made some smart trades to enhance their lineup, choosing to build around guard Jeremy Lin. The biggest acquisition, of course, was D’Angelo Russell from the Los Angeles Lakers. In this trade, the Nets also said goodbye to the last remnant of the Billy King era, long-time franchise cornerstone Brook Lopez. For the first time in quite a while, Brooklyn looked like an up-and-coming team that would no longer be a laughingstock.
Unfortunately, these notions all came crashing down with the injury to Jeremy Lin in the Nets’ season-opening loss to the Indiana Pacers. After an awkward landing after a tough drive to the basket, Lin suffered a ruptured patella in his knee, meaning that he will be out for the entire season. The Nets are now forced to play without their in-game centerpiece and emotional leader, a devastating situation for a team that was about to become competitive once again.
This injury will redefine the direction for the Nets this season. In particular, this will force D’Angelo Russell to take up a true leadership role. Although he is a newcomer to the team, he is easily their most talented player. While Russell has had some issues with teammate bonding in the past (see his relationship with Nick Young as an example), this is an opportunity for him to walk away from his controversies in Los Angeles and to begin anew with a group of young and inexperienced teammates.
It’s not just Russell who has to step up, thanks to Lin’s injury; these other young players must step up as well. The most important of these players will be Caris LeVert, in what is hopefully his first full season in the NBA. Despite his young age, his team’s management has always been impressed with LeVert’s overall mental maturity, which he demonstrated in the wake of Lin’s injury. In his recent interviews, he has looked the part of a potential leader, stating, “Last year is a different story than this year . . . it sucks losing a guy with that much talent, that much leadership, that much experience. But like I said, it’s next man up. We’ve got to figure out how to do it.” Young point guards Isaiah Whitehead and Spencer Dinwiddie will also need to elevate their game to help run the backcourt when Russell isn’t playing, and Allen Crabbe, traded from Portland in the offseason, can hopefully keep up his early shooting streak.
The Nets clearly have some bright spots on their team, but the reality is that the list of things that must go well in order to succeed has gotten much too long now that Jeremy Lin is no longer able to play. Instead of pushing for a playoff spot, as was the original goal of the season, Brooklyn’s management can now try to get a good sense of what works well and what doesn’t going forward. If question marks such as the potential of D’Angelo Russell and the ability of the team’s backups to play efficiently and with leadership can be answered, it can put the Nets in a better position for next season. Overall, it seems like the team’s front office, led by new General Manager Sean Marks is leading the team in the right direction, which is certainly an improvement from the tenure of his predecessor Billy King, if nothing else. But hey, maybe the Nets will be better than anyone expects; as of October 2017, they are 2-1, better than the defending champion Golden State Warriors! More seriously, this is the first time that they’ve been over .500 since November 2014. When your team has been this miserable for so long, sometimes you’ve just got to take the small victories.