Even as the Brooklyn Nets hit rock bottom last season, it’s wasn’t all bad.
Yes, they finished with the worst record in the NBA (20-62). No, they didn’t even get to use the No. 1 draft slot the lottery would have given them had the franchise not shipped that pick to the Boston Celtics in 2013.
But a funny thing happened as the weather got warmer: The Nets weren’t all that bad. They went 11-13 in March and April to salvage what had been a brutal season under first-time head coach Kenny Atkinson.
With a little momentum and a new, young franchise player added this season, here are three reasons to keep tabs on the Nets as they begin their season on the road Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers.
Changing of the guard
After a franchise-record 10,444 points, Brook Lopez and the Nets have broken up. The new centerpiece on the court at Barclays Center is combo guard D’Angelo Russell, acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for the longtime Nets center.
Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, averaged 15.6 points, 4.8 assists and 1.4 steals on a bad L.A. team while playing 28.7 minutes. Now 21, don’t be surprised if most of those figures rise markedly with a greater role and a fresh start in Kings County.
As long as Russell buys in more to Atkinson’s desire for defense — and maybe increases his career 40.8 percent field goal percentage at least a point or two — he could blossom into an All-Star two-guard within 18 months.
Given the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers — after a summer trade with Boston — not even the perception of tanking exists for a team with little hope of reaching the playoffs this season.
Instead, this is a team that clearly bought in and found a groove late last season with motivated young players (Coney Island-native guard Isaiah Whitehead, swingman Caris LeVert) and veterans with chips on their shoulders (guard Jeremy Lin, forward Quincy Acy). Sean Kilpatrick, a 27-year-old guard and former undrafted D-League (now called the G League) product, averaged 13.1 points in 25.1 minutes as a part-time starter last season. All are back for 2017-18.
Other than Lin, the rest of the Nets’ expected starting lineup played elsewhere a year ago. He and Russell are joined by Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov. Although the latter three were salary dumps, all are capable players in their own right.
Of the three, former Portland Trail Blazers guard Crabbe is the youngest and most likely to be the No. 2 scoring option this season. Carroll, a veteran forward acquired from the Toronto Raptors, has had injury issues of late but is a willing defender with some touch from beyond the arc. Mozgov, a piece in the Russell trade, can be a force on the glass but may cede playing time to free-agent signee Tyler Zeller and rookie Jarrett Allen.