The Brooklyn Nets are the hottest team in the NBA in 2014, surging to a 7-1 record in their past eight games and capping off the run Monday with a 103-80 thrashing of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
But these Nets haven't salvaged their season in a totally expected way. Instead of relying on its high-dollar offseason investments, Brooklyn is riding high on the strength of key contributions from less-heralded (and much less expensive) sources.
In truth, there's almost no way to isolate a clear low point in the Nets' season. There have been so many ugly moments that it's hard to choose.
But when they fell to 10-21 after a rough loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 31, there weren't many signs of life.
Brook Lopez was done for the year, thanks to yet another break in his troublesome foot. None of the big names was producing at anything close to expected levels, and new head coach Jason Kidd's only notable moments in a brutal early season involved spilling soda and berating top assistant Lawrence Frank.
Maybe the Nets made a collective New Year's resolution to start over. Maybe they decided enough was enough. Or, perhaps Frank's daily reports came up with a recipe to fix a season that seemed irreparably damaged.
Whatever the case, Brooklyn has been on a tear since Jan. 1, beating quality teams and forcing its way into the playoff picture.
To be fair, both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have looked better lately than they did earlier this year. But neither has had much to do with the turnaround, at least in terms of statistical contributions.
KG has played in just six of the Nets' eight games since the calendar flipped, averaging 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in 24.4 minutes per contest. He's still a reluctant shooter, but he's been much more efficient in his scoring of late. Still, in logging so few minutes, it's difficult to peg him as the reason for the team's improvement.
Pierce has played more than Garnett, but he has only hit 40 percent of his shots in 2014. He's not the author of Brooklyn's new chapter, either.
Run down the list and you'll note that Andrei Kirilenko is contributing only 19 minutes per game, Jason Terry remains wholly useless and Deron Williams has suited up for just three of the Nets' eight 2014 contests. And, of course, Lopez isn't in the mix.
The only big-money player pulling his weight during this run has been Joe Johnson, who's averaging 19.8 points per game on 48 percent shooting. It's probably unwise to rely on his arsenal of isolation jumpers as a consistent source of offense, but it's been integral to the Nets' play this year.
All told, the team's highest-paid players haven't been earning their money. In some cases, that's because of poor overall performance. In others, it's because they're simply not playing enough to make major impacts.
Fortunately, others have been stepping up.
Andray Blatche, making just under $1.4 million this season, absolutely wore out the Knicks in the Martin Luther King Day matinee. He amassed 19 points and 12 rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting, clearly savoring the added treat of destroying Brooklyn's crosstown nemesis in garbage time.
Blatche has been darn good during the Nets' run, averaging 12.1 points and seven rebounds on 52 percent shooting. Incredibly, he's also embraced the concept of playing both ends—a surprising turn for a guy with a reputation as a me-first, offense-only player:
This might be the best two-way game of Blatche's Nets career. Offense aside, his defense has been really, really good too.— devin kharpertian (@uuords) January 20, 2014
Alan Anderson and Mirza Teletovic have been burying threes at high efficiency, so give them a little credit as well.
Then there's Shaun Livingston, whose return from basketball irrelevance has been truly remarkable. He's starting, leading the offense and generally inspiring everyone with occasional bursts of athleticism that call up memories of what he was before his catastrophic knee injury years ago.
In Brooklyn's eight-game run, he has averaged 32.7 minutes per game—a physical task nobody expected his body to withstand. But Livingston has endured—even excelled—as the Nets' starting point guard.
Of the four players just mentioned, each of whom is substantially responsible for the Nets' revival, none makes significant money. Combined, they collect about $1 million more than Terry will make this season.
All at once, Brooklyn has gotten much more and much less than it paid for.
Not so Fast
In point of fact, it's not fair to give all the credit to Brooklyn's cheaper role players. The leaders on this team are still the high-priced veterans like Garnett, Pierce and—scary as it sounds—Williams. They're responsible for the tone of the locker room and the emotional pitch of the team on the court. So while the backups have performed well, it's reasonable to surmise that the old vets have a part in their improvements.
Subs and second-tier players always take their lead from a team's older, more established stars—even when said stars aren't playing all that well.
For example, via Rod Boone of Newsday, Blatche offered up precisely the kind of prideful stuff that could only have been influenced by someone like Garnett:
Asked Dray Blatche what #Nets win meant: "It's simple payback. They came in our place and embarrassed us, so we wanted to return the favor."— Rod Boone (@rodboone) January 20, 2014
Note, too, that Williams, despite a fully earned reputation as a malcontent, is seemingly subjugating his ego for the good of the team.
Per Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game:
Not many max-contract players like coming off the bench, and fewer would suggest it themselves, but Williams is one exception. After a little over two weeks off to rest after a sprained left ankle, platelet-rich plasma treatment in both ankles, and cortisone shots in both ankles, Williams elected to come off the bench for the first time since February 2, 2006.
"We've been playing so well with that (starting) lineup, why shake things up?" Williams explained after the team's 103-80 victory over the Knicks. "It doesn't matter if I come off, start, whatever. The way Joe (Johnson)'s been playing in the first quarter, first half, I don't want to disrupt that."
Instead of being disruptive, this team's banged-up, underperforming veterans have opted to help out their teammates. It would have been easy for infighting, jealousy and malaise to develop in circumstances like these. They haven't, though, and praise goes to the vets for finding ways to have an impact without playing well.
It'd be easy to chalk up the Nets' run to the soft competition in the East. Wins are generally easy to come by in this historically inept conference.
But a closer look reveals Brooklyn's surge has included triumphs over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks (twice). So, it's not exactly like the Nets have been fattening up on disintegrating opponents like the Knicks.
The upcoming schedule is a mixed bag, featuring four playoff teams plus the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics. The next couple of weeks should provide a good opportunity for these Nets to prove their success is no mirage.
Brooklyn would still probably prefer to get production from its more expensive contributors, but help from unlikely cheaper sources has been a nice consolation prize. If those bigger investments eventually begin paying off, we could see this run push the Nets into one of the East's top four spots—which is pretty much where they hoped to be when the season began.
They may still get there, just not in the way anyone expected.