No one deserves to make the playoffs. No matter how much a team overachieves, or how hard they push themselves, ultimately they end up lottery-bound if they don’t finish high enough in the standings. But how they get there—the story leading up to that postseason berth and the kind of effort a team put into the regular season—can definitely be imbued with moral significance. We respect well-coached teams with distinct styles of play, fine-tuned chemistry, and a roster that’s been thoughtfully assembled; we resent teams that can’t, and may not even want, to get it together.
From this standpoint, the Brooklyn Nets are the story of the playoffs. After going 28-54 in 2017-18, the Nets posted a 42-40 record and finished 6th in the much-improved East. Outside of D’Angelo Russell, whose maturation into an All-Star is a redemption narrative for the ages, Brooklyn’s squad is underwhelming, a collection of youngsters who are equal parts competent, intriguing, still under development, and of limited potential, with a few also-ran veterans thrown in for good measure. Not only have the Nets blown expectations out of the water—they’ve achieved a measure of legitimacy that was unthinkable even a year ago.
It’s a testament to Kenny Atkinson’s coaching chops and the sheer gumption of the roster that the Nets have established themselves as anything but a fluke or a flash in the pan. They have taken a leap that marks a clear progression for the franchise. But the Nets aren’t the quintessential overachievers. They aren’t scrappy underdogs. They play rigorous, entertaining basketball that makes optimal use of what the roster has to offer. The Nets don’t gut out every possession or rely on players outdoing themselves. Instead, they’re comfortable in their own skin, adept at a brand of basketball that’s both easy to buy into and well-matched with the talent at hand.
The Nets emerged from the regular season with a clear-cut identity and while they certainly haven’t hit their ceiling—Russell, Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, and Spencer Dinwiddie are all going to get even better—they are headed in a very definite direction. That’s because this, all of this, has been the plan since Sean Marks took over as general manager in 2016. At the time, the Nets were in a bad place. The disastrous trade for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce had mortgaged away their future lottery picks and left the Nets asset-poor. The roster was almost entirely void of talent. And the idea of a quality free agent coming to Brooklyn was a pipe dream. It was, even as rebuilds go, a daunting scenario. Marks, though, came in with a cohesive vision. He wanted the Nets to play a certain way so he hand-picked Atkinson for these reasons and started targeting players whose skill-set fit the bill—and who also had a level of character consistent with the notion of a “winning” organizational culture that Marks brought over from the Spurs.
Given what Marks was working with, there was almost no room for error and every opportunity to make a move had to be maximized. Any general manager in his position would have had to have been hyper-deliberate. Having a very particular template meant that Marks had something to build against; it made being hyper-deliberate seem like a choice, which in turn has made the Nets feel more like the realization of an idea than a run-of-the-mill reboot. Given that Marks did it without lottery picks and instead relied heavily on sleepers and cast-offs, the Nets rebuild was nothing short of ingenious and should be recognized as the most impressive in recent memory. In the immortal words of Larry Brown, Marks did it The Right Way.
But the major rebuild of the past few years—and so far, the more successful one—is what the Sixers managed to pull off under the sometimes zany, sometimes nefarious premise of The Process. Marks was forced by circumstances to rely solely on his own acumen and capacity for imagination. His predecessor Billy King had been foolish enough to opt out of the system set up to (in theory) facilitate a rebuild. Sam Hinkie not only had this system at his full disposal: He identified a way to augment it by losing as much as possible for years on end, a strategy that got an inadvertent boost from Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons’s injury woes (karma looked like a bitch until it didn’t and Hinkie, once again, had the last laugh). Debating the ethics of tanking is downright tedious and condemning The Process is bad content, especially when it’s panned out so marvelously, at least on paper. But it’s hard to watch the Nets and Sixers and, if not think that the Sixers did anything wrong, that Brooklyn deserves a special commendation for doing something right.
The Process has become the dominant rebuilding narrative of our time and the Nets have been relegated to a well-meaning afterthought. Maybe it’s because the Sixers are further along in their trajectory, not to mention a more formidable team (their Game 1 loss at home notwithstanding). The results are simply more compelling. Who knows, maybe as the Nets continue to progress, Marks will get more recognition for what he’s accomplished. But as commendable as the Nets may be, we are more drawn to The Process. In part, it’s the fact that any team could go that route, while the Nets’ Right Way requires actual skill. One is auto-pilot; the other is the opposite of it.
But it’s also undeniable that The Process is just plain more seductive. In that case, we’re actually attracted by what’s “wrong” in basketball. The Process, or at least what it’s come to represent, is a potent symbol. It has tabloid-esque shock value; overtones of Romanticism, idealism, faith, and desperation; riveting boom-or-bust potential; potentially terrifying implications for the sport; and a “Faust with a happy ending” twist that leaves you wondering if Hinkie is one of the great anti-heroes of our time or just a cynical executive enamored with the concept of “disruption.”
We may admire the Nets more than the Sixers on the court because the Nets are on top of things while the Sixers are still trying to proverbially put it all together. When it comes to how they got there, we can’t help but be transfixed by the epic saga of The Process. Both teams have gotten it right. But we know that the Sixers may have gotten there by doing something transgressive and risky—by flirting with what’s wrong— which makes them downright seductive. Sports are so often held up as morally instructive. But their consumption is really one long, never-ending fantasy, a projection that tells us more about ourselves than it does the teams and athletes. If we find The Right Way dull, preachy, and exacting, maybe it’s because we need to see it that way to explain our own aversion to, or avoidance of it. The Process offers up the possibility that not only can things be made easy. It makes it seem like it’s possible to proverbially get away with it. It’s a comforting thought and one that, at least in passing, we would really like to believe.