Pierce, Garnett, & the thrill of going all-in
It’s frustrating to watch outside parties casually rip on your team through the boilerplate parlance of Internet snark, but more frustrating when you suspect they might be right. Around the time the Brooklyn Nets were putting up a laughably deficient front against the broken, battered Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, I read dozens of Tweets and articles slamming the Nets for their lack of heart, their corny presentation, the corporate sheen they’d been given through their big budget relocation which, for all its photo ops and well-choreographed stadium soundtrack selection, led to a seven-game bummer of an exit to a team missing half its starters.
There wasn’t much to say about it, either. A billion dollars and a borough away from New Jersey, the Nets were capped out, coachless, and staring at a few years of the middle pending some magical improvement from its double digit salaries on the wrong side of 30, the grasping of some collective purpose for a team haphazardly slapped together so that the Barclays Center wouldn’t be broken in with a startting lineup of Johan Petro + Jordan Farmar + Sadness. They’d make the playoffs, sure, because this team had won 49 games and even looked fearsome at times when Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson were simultaneously clicking—for the rare occasions it happened—but there was no way to say with a straight face that they’d be positioned to even sniff at a championship.
That’s what I’m thinking about the day after this blockbuster deal to bring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry over from Boston to Brooklyn, where the highest hope is that they’ll be able to provide the extra oomph that the Nets needed to be in that championship conversation, rather than inspiring a bunch of reactive smirks whenever Mikhail Prokhorov would talk about his gaudy expectations. Now, those expectations don’t seem entirely ridiculous. Pierce and Garnett are past the tail end of their prime, but they’re still borderline All-Stars whose per/36 stats in the 2012-13 season were identical to what they’ve shown over the last few years, when the Celtics were always a break away from adding another title to their cabinet. Even Terry, who declined sharply in his only year with the Celtics, showed some life during the postseason.
Jason Kidd, who learned a thing or two about the importance of not wearing out your veterans in his sole season with the Knicks, and has spent most of his career competing against these three, should have some insight on how to work the most out of their remaining ability in anticipation of the playoffs. Which is when they’ll be needed, and when their “veteran experience” will matter the most: the moment of the season when it becomes less about Xs and Os and more about getting the damn ball and putting it in the damn basket as those ineffable sportswriter cliches about “heart” and “toughness” begin to show themselves on the court. No two fans would ever disagree that Pierce, Garnett and Terry have shown that over their long careers, through which they’ve accumulated enough championships, All-Star berths, and iconic moments to put them in the Hall of Fame. (Or, in Terry’s case, The Hall of Warm Memories and Comparisons To Other Overly Confident Scorers.)
I never bought the repeated refrain of the Nets not wanting it enough, because I am not a psychologist and it’s more than insulting to suggest that a grown adult doesn’t try hard at his job. If there was something separating them from the Thibodeau-coached Bulls, it was cohesion. P.J. Carlesimo, for all his endearing grace, was a player’s coach in the sense that he let them do what they wanted; a great attitude to be around, but not so much when it comes to establishing an identity to hinge one’s title hopes on. The Nets ran more isolation plays than anyone else in the league; their defense was often sloppy as we saw far too many third quarter runs from opposing teams. It wasn’t wholly unexpected; as mentioned, this roster was basically tossed together through trade, and deprived of its starting coach just a few weeks into the season. The track record with that kind of construction isn’t so great, as Lakers fans can tell you.
But though we don’t have much of an idea how this team will play under Jason Kidd—literally, because the present roster hasn’t played together and he’s never coached a game before—we can look at what an optimistic scenario might bring. Kidd manages to grab the team’s respect like no coach before, and wrangle those double digit salaries to a place of understanding; Pierce and Garnett and Terry stay healthy and enter the playoffs ready to kill; Garnett rubs off on Brook Lopez and activates the defensive potential we’ve seen in flashes, while alleviating some of the pressure of defending the pick-and-roll (a role that Brook was woefully poor in last season); Deron plays like he did in the second half of the season and responds well to the brunt of leadership being shared with a pair of fearless leaders. The Nets get out of the first round and face Chicago or Indiana in the second; they grind it out against either and get to the Eastern Conference Finals to play Miami, where you’d better believe Garnett and Pierce would seizing up with the urge to get their revenge. You wouldn’t bet on them because Miami is Miami, but who knows? It’s not like they haven’t been challenged in the past by teams willing to do the dirty work.
The worse case scenario is that Kidd is over his head, Garnett and Pierce finally top out after all this time and the Nets remain a first round team, eventually bottoming out when those contracts expire and finding themselves deprived of the first round picks they’d need to rebuild in the second half of the decade. There are plenty of breakdowns slamming the front office for their lack of foresight, because these high-powered teams can take a moment to congeal (again, the Lakers), especially when they’re this old. New Yorkers would then get to watch a repeat of the last decade, when Isiah Thomas traded away the Knicks’ future to Chicago for a crummy return, watching as the Bulls built around Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas (for a moment, at least) while they were stuck with Eddy Curry’s weighty husk. Barclays Center would become a host to a series of sub-.500 teams waiting for 2019 and beyond, when they’d get their picks back and be ready to compete. Kind of bleak in the long run, no?
If you’ll pardon my nonchalance, I don’t know if I care. I shudder when I read such analytical, cynical lamentations of how a team is destined to suck; I prefer the hopeful naiveté of hoping that fun scenarios will work out. And this Nets team should be fun, both to watch and to cover. We’ll have fun the first time Garnett barks at Lopez and motivates him to go hard at his man rather than softly retreating; we’ll have fun the first time Pierce drills a clutch shot against the Knicks and runs around the court, trolling them with his mere existence; we’ll have fun watching Kidd, who’s making an unprecedented transition, tinker with these parts until they turn into something whole and new. Optimism isn’t the right take every time; certainly, there are bad trades, such as the one that stuck the Nets with a depleted Gerald Wallace and his unforgivable extension. But I’m just not seeing how anyone could think this doesn’t make the Nets an infinitely more interesting team as Garnett and Pierce soldier toward what should be their last NBA glory, which hopefully influencing the younger players in a way that outsiders aren’t equipped to immediately understand. You can’t say they’re not capable of contributing because we’re only a few months removed from watching them do that, and it’s not like the hefty luxury tax bill that comes with the roster is our money. (And if ticket prices spike as a result, welcome to capitalism.)
Another repeated critique about the Nets is that in their move to Brooklyn they’ve been more preoccupied with creating an Instagrammable Moment than a sensible team. That’s hasn’t been a wholly uncharitable reading, not when the front office is still figuring out how to get the fans to care. (The BrooklyKnight remains, um, a work-in-progress.) But I live in Brooklyn; I’ve seen the black and white hats and shirts dotted around the borough, displayed by fans both casual and serious who want to follow something interesting. Give us wild success or abject failure, but please, don’t make it boring. The Nets, in their pursuit of the Moment, have gone all-in to make sure boring isn’t a possibility. Can you honestly say you’re not excited to see what happens next?