Quick: what’s the biggest joke of the decade in the NBA? If you answered, “the New York Knicks,” fine, I’ll give you that. But most people would answer, “that damn Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics trade,” and most people would be correct.
When Celtics general manager Danny Ainge fleeced his Brooklyn counterpart, poor Billy King, back in 2013, it didn’t just set the Celtics up to be a rebuilding team also capable of winning 50 games a season, it also set the Brooklyn Nets back at least half a decade, turning New York City’s second team into a scrap heap comprised of bad players and worse contracts.
Well, the scrap heap has looked more like a mighty Voltron this month, with D’Angelo Russell at its head:
Russell will always be known to a certain subset of NBA fans as the guy who snitched on Nick Young, but his reputation as another Lakers early draft pick bust should be all but forgotten now (hey, wouldn’t the Lakers love to have Russell as a trade chip right about now!). Coming out of Ohio State, everyone knew Russell could score, but he’s broadened his game by improving his three-point shot; he’s shooting almost 38 percent this season, compared to a woeful 32 percent last year.
Over the last month, Russell has found a new level to his scoring game: in January, he’s averaging 23.7 points per game, and he’s hitting nearly four three-pointers each time out. Perhaps more impressively, he’s doing all that with a 60.3 true-shooting percentage, a truly elite number for a guard; over a full season, that would put him just short of the top 20 in the entire league.
His playmaking skills have also improved as he’s been given full rein over Nets coach Kenny Atkinson’s system; he’s dishing 6.4 assists per game, compared to 5.2 last season. The assists themselves have gotten prettier, including this neat little flip to Joe Harris midway through the fourth against Chicago last night:
Russell’s not perfect. For a point guard in today’s NBA, he draws far too few fouls: per Basketball Reference, his free-throw rate has gone off a cliff this season to .113; for comparison, James Harden’s free throw rate is .490. And his defense is still somewhere south of mediocre; when Russell is on the floor, Brooklyn is a below-average defensive team.
But the Nets have turned a former laughingstock into not just a starting-quality point guard, but a near All-Star who can take over games even against top opposition; his best performance of the season was in a January 14 win over the Celtics, where he put up 34 points—with seven three-pointers—and seven assists to kick off a stretch of six straight wins for the Nets.
About that winning stretch: since the start of 2019, the Nets are a whopping 11-3, with their only losses coming on the road to those same Celtics (twice) and the Raptors. There’s no shame in losing road games to some of the East’s best teams, and the Nets have been competitive in those losses, a far cry from their parades of misery.
As for the 11 wins, though, Brooklyn has done what good teams need to do: beat up on teams worse than them. The current stretch has featured wins over bottom-dwellers like Atlanta, Orlando, Sacramento, Orlando again, and the Knicks. The Nets have also beaten the Bulls twice, including Tuesday night’s victory. It’s not just Russell doing it alone, though he has been the headliner; on Tuesday, Shabazz Napier of all people dropped 24 points on five three-pointers to help keep a feisty Chicago team down. He also had a nice driving layup to push the lead to seven with 19 seconds left:
When Russell, the clear first option, gets double-teamed by the Bulls, Napier smartly notices that the basket is wide open and cuts behind the Chicago defense to seal up the win. Joe Harris, who inbounded the ball on the above play, has also turned into a key player for Brooklyn, averaging 13 points per game to go alone with floor-stretching 39.4 percent shooting from deep, on 5.1 attempts per game. Other teams’ discards have become contributors, with Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, and Allen Crabbe helping the Nets shoot up to sixth in the east, right behind (who else) the same Boston team that fleeced them so many years ago.
A lot of this has to do with Atkinson, who sprouted off of Gregg Popovich’s hearty coaching tree. In turning the Nets into Spurs East, Atkinson has prioritized pace and efficiency, particularly in January: since the calendar flipped, the Nets are playing at the sixth-fastest pace in the NBA, just behind the speed-demon Bucks and the LeBron-less Lakers. And though the offense is still about middle of the pack in efficiency, the team has buckled down on the other end of the floor: the Nets had the fourth-best defensive rating in the league in January.
Atkinson should be the Coach of the Year. Nick Nurse is doing a great job in Toronto, but he was handed a motivated (and mostly healthy) Kawhi Leonard to work with. When Atkinson joined the Nets in 2016, Brooklyn was coming off of a 21-61 season, with no direction and few assets. Even though the team actually lost one more game in Atkinson’s debut season, you could see a philosophy taking shape, and with the help of general manager Sean Marks, the team started bringing in under-valued players that could shine in Atkinson’s system. Two years later, that potential has started to be realized, and Brooklyn is knocking on the door of its first playoff appearance since 2015.
There is a black cloud hanging over the team, though, and it’s what could keep Brookyln from making too much noise in the playoffs: Spencer Dinwiddie, the team’s second-best scorer and great Twitter user, underwent surgery on his injured right thumb this week, and there’s no currently no timetable for his return. Dinwiddie eases some of the scoring pressure on Russell, while taking over games in his own right; his 33-point performance in one of the best games of the year (Brooklyn’s 145-142 overtime win over the James Harden Rockets) was breathtaking:
If Dinwiddie does return as his usual self before the postseason, Brooklyn is well positioned to make one of the big boys of the Eastern Conference sweat. If the season ended today, they would face the Indiana Pacers, a very good team that also just lost its best player and the best possible Russell defender, Victor Oladipo, to a gruesome, season-ending injury.
For a team like Brooklyn, which is playing with house money as it figures out who should and shouldn’t be part of its future, reaching the second round of the playoffs a year after winning only 28 games—the Nets became the first team in the NBA to match last season’s winning total on Tuesday—should be seen as a huge accomplishment. There are no caveats to this: after years of being mired in the swamps of the post-Billy King era, the Brooklyn Nets are good as hell now.