I Don’t Think About You at All: What Are the Brooklyn Nets Supposed to Do Now?
A couple weeks ago, the NBA smacked the Brooklyn Nets with a $100,000 fine for violating the league’s Player Participation Policy. The punishment was meted out after the team rested four rotational players in a game against Milwaukee without medically approved ailments. Others speculated that the real reason was because the Nets pulled star Mikal Bridges after the first quarter, preserving his meaningless ironman streak but obliterating the parlays of gambling degenerates.
In any case, the league’s slap on the wrist served as a public rebuke of a franchise that has taken pains to show that they operate the Right Way. Near last year’s trade deadline, Brooklyn executed an unprecedented dismantling of a contender—superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were jettisoned to the Western Conference in two separate trades—that was part humiliation ritual at the altar of the Boston Media Mafia and part a proclamation that sensible adults had reclaimed control after a tenure of player empowerment run amok.
“Our goal is, from ownership all the way down, to put something out on the floor that everybody can be proud of,” said Nets general manager Sean Marks, after setting ablaze a team that had won 18 of 20 games during a healthy stretch. Brooklyn was unremarkable in the second half of the season, snagged the 6th seed, and got swept in the first round by Philadelphia. Joe Tsai may have been gaslit into self-immolation, but at least the vibes seemed strong.
At roughly the halfway point of the 2024 season, the Nets are adrift like a bloated Genovese corpse in the Gowanus Bay. Brooklyn has won only 3 of its last 15 games—with two of those victories claimed in back-to-back matchups against Detroit, including a Stuffed Crazy Crust food fight at Little Caesars Arena. They are 16-22 overall, mediocre on offense, shabby on defense, and staggering around the ring with the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors in pursuit of the 10th seed in the East. And, in scientific terms, the team has no rizz.
It is hard to fathom that Brooklyn was a dangerous title contender less than one calendar year ago. Unable to handle the glare of being a megastar-driven property in a high profile market, the team slithered back under the sodden log of obscurity, clinging to a pyrrhic moral victory as a consolation prize. In a season where most franchises can be siloed into compelling categories—polished contender, young striver, grimy overachiever, dysfunctional former champion, erratic superteam, tanking shitshow—the Nets are one of the few franchises without a discernible identity. We know what Don Draper would say to them in the elevator.
After shipping out three of the greatest offensive players in modern history, the Nets now lack anyone qualified to be a “1A.” Last year, Bridges seemed ready to assume the mantle of a franchise cornerstone. He averaged an efficient 26.1 points per game despite shouldering heavier responsibilities than in Phoenix, and positioned himself as the Bucktown Beatminerz’ remix to mobile, high-scoring wings like Jayson Tatum and Pascal Siakam.
This season, Bridges looks more overextended than blossoming. He's scoring 21.3 points a game, which falls just outside the NBA's top 40 bucket-getters, and all his shooting percentages are at or near career lows. During Bridges' last two years in Phoenix, he sank 63% of his 2-pointers—this season, his accuracy has sagged to 50.5% on those shots. Not every elite 3-and-D wing is scalable into a primary scorer (and the reverse is also true), but, either way, life is tougher without the on-ball magnetism of Chris Paul and Devin Booker.
Ben Simmons, the last relic of the Nets’ Big Three empire, remains partially visible in Brooklyn, like the crumbled ruins of the Wall of Constantinople. He has played only 48 games in the last two and a half seasons, thanks to his gleaming hatred of former Sixers coach Doc Rivers and chronic injuries to his knee and back. After serving as a reliable smashed watermelon for Twitter comics, the Nets' lone credentialled All-Star now only goes viral in memes about quiet quitting.
Cam Thomas, maybe the NBA’s most unabashed chucker, went 0-18 in two combined early January games—a stretch of Minecraft brick-laying he relatably dismissed. “Shit, I’m human,” he said. It is true! By numbers from Cleaning the Glass, Brooklyn has a Net Rating of -7.5 when Thomas is on the floor and it plunges to -18.3 when he plays with the team’s four typical starters.
Thomas’ vectors of volume and inaccuracy are notable, if not historical. In the last decade, players put up 20 points per game with a sub-53% True Shooting Percentage only a dozen times. That list is a delightful collection of unapologetic gunners who acted as caretakers of early-2000s inefficiency in the face of today’s edgeless optimization: hobbled Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Terry Rozier, 2022 Knicks teammates Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.
Generally speaking, oddities abound. Due to injuries, the trio of Bridges, Simmons, and wing Cameron Johnson have played together for only nine minutes. Nic Claxton, an angular shot-blocker who posted the sixth-highest field goal percentage in NBA history last season, has equalled or surpassed his previous output in categories like rebounding, assists, and blocks. And yet the team is getting drubbed while he is on the floor—the Nets are -6.4 in those 800 minutes—and among the league’s bottom quartile in defensive rating.
At the same time, Brooklyn is manhandling opponents when Claxton's unheralded backup Day-Ron "The Downtown Don" Sharpe is playing to the tune of +6.8 per 100 possessions. There are a ton of moving parts here, but this motif plays out across the roster, with bench guys like Lonnie Walker IV, Trendon Watford, and Dennis Smith Jr. posting better plus-minuses than the starters.
Elsewhere, Diaspora Nets are thriving. In Phoenix, Durant is averaging 29 points a game while among league leaders in 3-point percentage. In Dallas, Irving has mostly stayed under the radar while partnering with Luka Doncic for the competitive Mavericks. And in Los Angeles, James Harden’s cerebral playmaking and career-high efficiency have helped cement the Clippers as contenders and winners of 17 out of their last 21 games. According to early All-Star voting results, all three are within the top five at their respective positional slots among fan balloting.
When the Nets moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn, they did it with a splash: Times Square billboards, an oligarch owner who loved calisthenics, a calamitous trade that gift-wrapped Tatum, Jaylen Brown and other draft treasures to a conference rival. During a refractory period, they thoughtfully rebuilt with young players and reclamation projects. Then came the superteam moment, which was one Durant toenail shy of probably winning a title. The franchise is again at a crossroads.
The Nets are not in bad shape. While lacking an offensive centerpiece, the roster is packed with exactly the kind of components that excellent teams require: two-way wings like Bridges, Johnson, and Dorian Finney-Smith; a rim-protecting lob-catcher in Claxton; with a heavy emphasis on in theory, a facilitator and defender in Simmons. Unlike Portland, Detroit, or Washington, the Nets are not a sloppy collection of parts chicken-wired into a basketball team—they simply do not have the type of offensive power source they have traded away three times.
If Brooklyn wanted to reload quickly, they could make a play for most players rumored to be available in the trade market. Dejounte Murray of the Hawks and Zach LaVine of the Bulls would both fit a position of need, regardless of whether their prickly attitudes jibe with the Nets’ wholesome approach. As Brooklyn is learning, this is how you survive when future Hall of Famers are not falling into your lap—you extortionately overpay for scraps, while fully aware that winning a title is impossible.
In any case, with a flock of players and picks from recent trades, the expiring contracts of Spencer Dinwiddie and Royce O’Neale, and perhaps Simmons, Brooklyn has the draft capital and matching salaries to outbid most suitors. Another short-term advantage is that the Nets' main competition for the final play-in spot in the East both appear to be deadline sellers.
The mind-numbingly obvious solution to the Nets' issues is acquiring Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell. Sources within the organization have suggested to Cookies Hoops that there is mural interest between the team and the All-Star guard, who is from Westchester and pals around with Bridges during the offseason. If Mitchell wants to be in the $13 Bacon, Eggs and Cheese District instead of the Loaded Fries Belt, Brooklyn makes more sense than trying to coexist in a fun-size backcourt with the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson. Put Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, and three first-round picks in a bubble mailer, address it to the Southern Tier Brewery, call it a day.
In a league where talent trumps all, the Nets’ goofy teardown was the most avoidable but predictable blunder—ownership believed that their reputation was more important than the product on the floor. The only saving grace is that Durant and Kyrie generously gifted the organization with their lordly presence in the first place, enabling Brooklyn to extract a valuable return from their exit. If the Nets are able to rebuild in a new, family-friendly incarnation around Mitchell and Bridges, it is worth remembering who made that possible.
If you enjoyed this essay and the artwork, you will surely be interested in The Joy of Basketball, by Ben Detrick and Andrew Kuo. Find it where you buy books.