Despite loss, Nets can finally point toward a brighter future

BOSTON — For the past five years, any mention of the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets immediately brought up one thing: the blockbuster, draft-night trade in 2013 that altered the course of both franchises and inextricably linked them for years to come.

A move the Nets thought would elevate them to championship contention instead helped them win a single playoff series — and served as the firepower behind Boston’s execution of one of the most efficient rebuilds in NBA history, thanks to Brooklyn’s descent to the bottom of the standings.

As the Nets remained there, the trade — and its seemingly never-ending draft obligations — served as a constant reminder of how all of that losing would not translate into any of the one currency losing teams always can hang onto: hope.

That was the case, at least, everywhere outside of Brooklyn. Inside the team — and, specifically, the offices of general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson — there was simply too much work to be done to spend time worrying about the situation they inherited.

“I’ll give Sean a lot of credit: We just kind of put it in a box, and we never really talk about it,” Atkinson said before his Nets lost 116-95 to the Celtics on Monday at TD Garden. “But I do love the fact that it’s Brooklyn and Boston, and this is what the NBA’s all about. I hope we can improve enough where these games become more and more meaningful as we go down the line.”

While no one would mistake the Nets for being in the same class as the Celtics quite yet, the Nets do have something cooking in Brooklyn, despite the restrictions both Marks and Atkinson have spent the past two-plus seasons working under. Even after losing Monday night, the Nets have won 12 of their past 16 games, a stretch that has allowed them to surge into a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Given the dearth of quality teams in the East outside the top five, there’s no reason to think the Nets can’t stay there.

That the Nets are even in the conversation for a playoff spot is a credit to the plan Marks and Atkinson have put in place since they arrived with the organization in 2016. That plan required them to get creative to create assets when the franchise otherwise didn’t have any. The assets the organization should’ve had wound up in Boston, as first-round picks in 2014 (James Young), 2016 (Jaylen Brown) and 2017 (Jayson Tatum) gave the Celtics a pair of young wings to build around. The 2018 Nets pick that became Collin Sexton was the key piece of the trade that brought Kyrie Irving to Boston in the summer of 2017.

Without the benefit of turning losses into young, talented pieces to build around, Brooklyn had to find ways to manufacture additions. One tactic was relying on Atkinson, long considered one of the league’s pre-eminent player development coaches, to make players better. The other was counting on Marks to use every means of acquiring talent other than the draft to improve the Nets’ talent base. Both methods have produced a variety of success stories.

Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris were two players signed as free agents who had no value upon arriving, only to develop under Atkinson into players worthy of multi-year deals (in Dinwiddie’s case, a three-year, $34 million extension that kicks in this summer, and Harris inked a two-year, $16 million deal to remain in Brooklyn last year). The Nets used cap space to take in the contracts of Kenneth Faried, DeMarre Carroll and Jared Dudley, picking up two first-round picks and three second-rounders in three trades while rehabilitating the careers of Carroll and Dudley in the process.

Marks also turned two players he inherited — Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic — into future first-round picks that became Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, the two brightest prospects the rebuild has produced thus far. Another bright spot, rookie Rodions Kurucs, who led the Nets in scoring Monday night with 24 points, was acquired with a second-rounder obtained in the Carroll trade.

Not every move has worked. The Nets signed three restricted free agents (Tyler Johnson, Allen Crabbe and Otto Porter Jr.) to offer sheets, only for all three to be matched by their former teams (though one could argue the Nets got lucky in each instance). Giving up Kyle Kuzma in the D’Angelo Russell trade hurt. So, too, did not getting a first-round pick for saving the Portland Trail Blazers bundles of cash in trading for Crabbe a year after Portland matched.

Still, by any objective measure, the Nets have had far more hits than misses. That has helped Brooklyn build enough of a foundation that, even with LeVert missing most of the season with a dislocated foot, the Nets might once again be drafting outside the lottery — but this time for good reasons.

“It’s not just the beginning of training camp this year,” Atkinson said. “It’s starting three years ago and your habits and your principles and the culture we’re trying to establish. So we’d like to think that’s starting to kick in.”

The data backs that up. In Atkinson’s first season, the Nets went 20-62 and didn’t win that 20th game until the 80th game of the season. Last year, the Nets won 28 games and got win No. 20 in their 61st game.

This year? It happened Sunday, when the Nets beat the Chicago Bulls to improve to 20-21 at the season’s halfway mark.

“I just love the way they play,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They play hard, together. Everyone plays hard and knows what they have to do every night. They don’t get outside of it. Shooters shoot, drivers drive, guys who can do both do both. Rollers roll. They look like a team. They’ve done a good job of building that over time. Kenny’s done a great job, and they’ve got good players.

“When you look at things and how they stand right now, I’d be surprised if this team’s not in the playoffs. They’re awfully good.”

Brooklyn’s following through on Stevens’ prediction won’t be easy, even in the East. LeVert’s return is not imminent, and Brooklyn’s closing stretch to the season is among the most difficult in the league: a six-game, 13-day West Coast trip followed by six consecutive games against the top five teams in the East, all of whom will likely be jockeying for postseason positioning.

But simply being in the conversation is a start. And the Nets hope it can be the beginning of the end of conversations about the trade.

“I do think we have to come at it from a humble perspective,” Atkinson said. “We had 28 wins last year, [and] this league is unforgiving … I think where we are, I think those guys are humble. But I do think they can feel it a little bit. They can touch it that, maybe, we can do something a little more.”

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