The Brooklyn Nets should be broke right now. Between the exorbitant payroll, the costly soda spill and those vicious attacks from the injury bug, this should be a team running low on funds, talent and, most importantly, hope.
From court jester to Eastern Conference kings in the span of five months, the Nets have taken more turns than a $190 million outfit should take, but the desired end result still sits within reach. Somehow.
"I think a lot of teams with bad character, bad leadership in the locker room would've laid down a long time ago. Probably by Christmas would've been making summer plans," Paul Pierce said, via Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press. "But not this group."
Not even as the rest of the hoops world was itching to see this manufactured contender crumble.
Injuries were conveniently overlooked.
This team had spent enough to buy whatever depth was needed, we thought, even as coach Jason Kidd was assembling patchwork starting lineups on a near nightly basis. The Nets have started 13 different players this season—the Indiana Pacers have started seven.
Yet this hasn't been a season of survival for the Nets. Not even after following a 10-21 start with a 29-12 spurt since the beginning of the calendar year.
Rather, it's been one of evolution. The type of growth that shouldn't be possible given the age of this team and the lack of experience for its wide-eyed, first-year coach on the sideline.
"The biggest thing (to the turnaround) I think is with Jason. Now we have a system of how we’re going to play, an identity,” Nets general manager Billy King said, via Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “... That’s something we’ve been searching for a while, is getting an identity."
In so many ways, Kidd didn't find a solution so much as he stumbled into one. With Brook Lopez (foot) out for the season and veterans Andrei Kirilenko (an assortment of maladies) and Kevin Garnett (back) shuffling in and out of the rotation, the coach took an outside-the-box view of his lineup.
Kidd's coaching call was to employ (maybe unleash is the more appropriate word here) a small-ball lineup that has paced Brooklyn's recovery and frustrated the league's other 29 teams in the process.
By turning to small forward-by-trade Paul Pierce as his starting 4, Kidd found a formula that seems to only get better with time. It seems like something the NBA, which is still in the process of downsizing, would have figured out by now—until you see that Brooklyn had the NBA's fourth-best net rating (tops in the Eastern Conference) during the month of March: plus-7.7 points per 100 possessions.
That's what makes this resurrection as potentially dangerous as it is. Contrary to popular belief (assuming Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love speaks for the masses), the Nets' turnaround has had nothing to do with a break in the schedule:
Since the start of February, the Nets have knocked off the San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Bobcats (twice), Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks—all teams that would be dancing if the playoffs started today.
Scarier still is the fact that Brooklyn has not been feasting on the watered-down East. The Nets actually have a higher percentage against the Western Conference (.586) than they do against their intraconference foes (.512).
Love should probably know this, considering his Wolves ate a 15-point loss during their lone trip to the Barclays Center this season.
This isn't meant to pile on Love, of course. The Nets were so atrocious earlier this season (their first 14 losses were decided by an average of 14 points per game) that it still boggles the mind that they can be this good, even after seeing them notch a franchise-record-tying 13 consecutive wins on their home floor.
Let's just say Love's wasn't the only signature on this team's death certificate.
"It was like our backs were against the wall early. Nobody thought we could do it. Nobody thought we could get out of this hole,” reserve Alan Anderson said, via Bondy. “Each game now, each day, each practice (we can feel it building).”
That's how the most expensive team in NBA history, offseason contenders with as much on-paper talent as anyone, finds itself in the unlikeliest of places: under the radar.
The Nets have too much name power, too many zeroes on their financial books to be in this position. With a slew of generational stars on the roster, this group shouldn't have a chip on its shoulder unless billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov purchased one for it.
Yet the Nets are carrying that chip wherever they go.
They can still feel those early-season kicks planted at a time this team was at its darkest. They know their one-year championship window was bolted shut long ago in the court of public opinion.
But they know enough not to panic. They know that what they've discovered in themselves is something that, if it can't produce a passing grade on the championship-or-bust scale, at least makes the ride far more enjoyable.
"It sure beats us getting booed earlier in the year," Pierce said, via BrooklynNets.com's Lenn Robbins.
Then again, who's to say this ride can't continue come playoff time?
The Nets are surging down the final stretch, the ideal scenario for the marathon grind that is an 82-game season. They're also catching fire at a time when conference giants like the Miami Heat (8-8 over their last 16 games) and Indiana Pacers (6-10 in theirs) are flashing uncharacteristic vulnerability.
With a six-point swing in their performance since the All-Star break (102.2 points for and 98.5 points allowed since; 97.2 and 99.5, respectively, before), the Nets look like the on-paper bullies we initially envisioned.
With veteran defenders Garnett and Kirilenko reportedly on the mend, there's still another gear for this team to hit. The Nets are peaking at the right time and still have room to grow—that's the perfect recipe for a potential postseason power.
As unbelievably long and grueling as the ride to this point has been, the path from here could be equally as sweet.
Adversity does in fact built character. And, apparently, championship contenders as well.
Statistics used courtesy of NBA.com, unless otherwise specified, and accurate as of March 31.
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