Nets’ rebuild was nice, but serious contention much better

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This was the visiting locker room at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center late in the afternoon of April 13, 2019. Nets players were still high on what they had just done, which was to pick Game 1 of their first-round playoff series clear out of the 76ers’ pockets, 111-102. It seemed improbable. It seemed implausible.

“Maybe what we accomplish surprises everybody else, and that’s OK,” said Joe Harris, who’d done what he always did — what he still does — in splashing three out of four 3-pointers. “It doesn’t surprise any of us.”

A few lockers away, Caris LeVert’s smile stretched like the Ben Franklin Bridge.

“Maybe,” he said, “we have a couple of more surprises up our sleeves.”

They didn’t, but that was hardly the point. The Sixers roared back and won the next four in a row, and the Nets’ neat little 42-40 regular-season ride ended in a 1-4 slide in the playoffs, but there were no complaints.

Complaints? You couldn’t talk to anyone in the NBA at that time who didn’t trip over themselves praising general manager Sean Marks, exulting coach Ken Atkinson, lauding players who had somehow managed to lift the Nets from 20-62 to 28-54 to 42-40 in three short years. The Nets were a model franchise, committed to building a strong foundation first, disciplined, loyal to their codes. It wasn’t easy.

Caris LeVert and Kevin Durant
Caris LeVert and Kevin Durant
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“Losing sucks,” Atkinson had said not long before that playoffs began. “And losing a lot really sucks. But when you believe in what you’re doing, you have to have faith it all works out for the best.”

It was good, building from the ashes, rising from the dust, finding an assortment of hungry players like Harris and LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen, coaxing the very best out of a fallen star like D’Angelo Russell. The press clippings were stellar. The report cards were glowing. The adjectives were effusive. It was all quite nice. It was all quite enjoyable.

You know what was better?

You know what was more enjoyable?

That arrived exactly 68 days later, late on the evening of June 30, when it became clear, for the first time, that the Nets hadn’t just bagged an elephant named Kevin Durant, but also a rhinoceros named Kyrie Irving (and, for kicks, a good-sized hippopotamus named DeAndre Jordan). In one day the Nets went from feisty upstart to contenders-in-waiting.

Feisty is fine and dandy.

Contending is better.

“Everyone in the NBA, in every sport really, talks up rebuilding as if it’s some kind of sacrament, and it usually is a smart way to go,” a long-time NBA employee told me the other day. “But it’s still building something on spec. Sure things beat spec, don’t they?”

It is impossible to argue. And it’s funny: Across the years, specifically in basketball, we have seen so many instances in which the locals have scoffed at rebuilding, opting instead to roll the dice on instant gratification, and almost always winding up with snake eyes for their trouble.

The Knicks have done this going back to the days of Bob McAdoo and Spencer Haywood. They once traded for a wrong-side-of-the-hill Gerald Henderson, parting with a draft pick that became a nice little player named Scottie Pippen. It has been an endless loop of that the past 20 years. And the Nets nearly dead-ended the franchise by making one of the most short-sighted decisions ever in their infamous deal with Boston.

Marks came in and said: enough. He hired Atkinson. He committed to restoring dignity first, then dependability. Winning followed. The Nets were a nice little team to keep your eye on, so much so that even the Knicks, at last, seemed to embrace the concept after their uber-disaster of 2019, when they won 17 games, parted ways with Kristaps Porzingis, coveted Zion Williamson, hoarded picks and cap space, and lost their stomach to fight for Durant when he injured his Achilles (which cost him the 2019-20 season).

And, you know, rebuilding has worked out nicely for the Knicks. They wound up with the right coach. They seem to have assembled players who are coachable, some of whom will even be useful when the time comes to pull a megadeal trigger. It’s been enjoyable watching them be fierce and feisty.

The Nets are 10 games from a championship. They look to make quick work of the Bucks when their series resumes Thursday in Milwaukee for Game 3. They look, at this moment at least, unstoppable and unbeatable.

Fierce and feisty is fine and dandy.

It’s hard, however, to beat unstoppable and unbeatable.

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