NEW YORK — After 15 games, and at just 4-11, the NBA universe is collectively aghast over the pitiful performance of the Brooklyn Nets.
AP Photo/John Minchillo
Aghast is the sentiment mostly because, thus far, the Nets have not been who many thought they would be.
Struggle, not triumph, has been the most persistent theme: the struggle to stay healthy, the struggle to find consistency and the struggle to win games.
Despite erasing a 27-point first-half deficit in Wednesday night’s 99-94 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Nets walked away without a win for the sixth time in their past seven games.
It is a tumultuous beginning that has blindsided Joe Johnson.
“I never saw this coming,” Johnson told SNY.tv on Wednesday night. “It’s a little more difficult than I imagined,” he said when asked how the team’s results thus far compare with where the team saw themselves at this point prior to the beginning of the season.
Still, Johnson believes that the Nets are progressing and that somewhere behind the disjointed and dispirited efforts is a basketball team capable of winning games.
“I know teams go through highs and lows,” Johnson told SNY.tv. “I wouldn’t say we are at a low point, but this is definitely not what we expected at this time. It’s a long season, and when it does turn around for us, we’ll think about these tough moments.”
Inside of most NBA front offices, Thanksgiving is the first checkpoint for an NBA season. And as the Nets sputter along into the month of December, they simply have no idea of who they are as a basketball team.
The NBA season is more like the New York City Marathon than it is a 100-meter dash, but 15 games is typically enough time for a team with new rotation pieces to figure itself out, at least a bit.
However, that simple task becomes a gargantuan undertaking when a rookie head coach is asked to steer a ship loaded with six current or former All-Stars and it is nearly impossible when the team’s full complement has only been available for four games.
That is the total amount of times that Johnson has played in the same game as Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry.
As those six have combined to miss 30 games thus far, the Nets have had five different starting lineups featuring nine different players. Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Alan Anderson and Shaun Livingston have all been counted on immensely in the early going.
So after 15 games, there is a major concern for Brooklyn. It is not how many of their past 15 games they have lost, though, it is whether or not they will get healthier and more chemically sound over the remaining 67. Lost somewhere in the 11 losses are the discernible bright spots for this Nets team—Livingston’s continued thriving, Anderson’s emergence as a dependable two-way wingman and Mason Plumlee’s overall impressive play.
But make no mistake about it, in order for this team to accomplish its lofty expectations, Father Time and health must both be kind. Much kinder than they have been over the first portion of this 2013-14 season.
Out of necessity, the bottom of this roster has been asked to pull as much weight as it possibly can, and it has. It is the top that needs begin using some of its collective muscle. Amazingly, after 15 games, the Nets are still in search of an identity, but the snail’s pace at which this team has developed is nothing more than a natural byproduct of its attrition.
Yet, despite it all, the Nets wake up on Thanksgiving just 2.5 games behind the Toronto Raptors for the Atlantic Division lead and the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. It is that long view and the fact that both Pierce and Garnett echo when asked about the Nets’ early floundering.
“I know eventually, it’s gonna turn around,” Pierce said Wednesday night. “I’ve been in this situation before. I remember a couple years ago, a similar situation. I was on a Boston team that was under .500 going into the All-Star break, we weren’t playing well, you look up at playoff time, we’re one quarter away from being in the Finals.”
It was the lockout-truncated 2011-12 season and the aging Boston Celtics lost seven of their final eight games heading into All-Star Weekend. They were 15-17 when the All-Stars convened in Orlando.
At that point, the obituary was being written on the end of an era in Boston, and the team responded by winning its first five games after the All-Star break en route to going 24-10 over the season’s final 34 games. The Celtics ended up winning the Atlantic Division with a 39-27 record, earning the conference's fourth seed in the process.
The club then dispatched the Atlanta Hawks and outlasted the Philadelphia 76ers in the first two rounds of the playoffs before beating the Miami HEAT three times in a row in the Eastern Conference Finals. Up 3-2, the Celtics lost Game 6 to the HEAT before playing them to a 73-all tie after the first three quarters of their Game 7 matchup.
In the end, obviously, the HEAT would prevail. But nobody remembers that those Celtics were just 6-9 after their first 15 games, or even that they arrived at the All-Star break at 15-17. Truth is, nobody remembers their division title, either.
No, all that is remembered is that Pierce's Celtics came within 12 minutes of reaching a third NBA Finals. Despite the passed time, Pierce remembers it well, and yes, his memory serves him correctly. Together, he and Garnett point to their prior experiences and will continue to lead this team to the best of their abilities while they wait—hopefully, desperately—for some good fortune in the realm of health.
“I’ve been in this situation before,” Pierce said, recalling that season. “So I believe that I’ll turn it around and our team will turn this around.”
As for the how? Garnett has that covered.
“The work ethic,” he said on Wednesday night.
“I’ve been on teams when we’ve struggled a little bit but we’ve worked our way through it,” Garnett said, recalling his Celtics experience, just like Pierce. “Obviously, we are a team on paper that’s assumed to be successful and we have the personnel to live up to that,” he said.
“It’s about work ethic and working through things.”
And for now, for these Nets, working through their injuries and early season woes. Together, even after 15 games, working through an identity crisis—the catalyst for which has been attrition and inconsistency.
So as we sit down to pay homage and give thanks, what Johnson, Pierce and Garnett should be most thankful for is clear.
There is a lot of basketball to be played between now and April. And the first 15 games of the 2013-14 season could—if things begin to go well—become just a footnote in the grand scheme of things.
Give thanks, indeed.