Unlike recent years in which Brooklyn Nets fans packed the Barclays Center to watch a perennial playoff contending team, the best part of attending a game has become getting a Shack Burger and cheese fries across the street.
Much like that secret sauce on the Shake Shack burger, the Nets' rosters oozes with mysterious flavors of hidden talent. However, in an attempt to satisfy their hunger, the Nets traded away their realistic appetite by getting all the expensive items on the menu. They didn't realize they were just clogging their arteries for several years in the process.
As part of their “win-now” mode, the Nets went all out to beef up their roster. The first major move was acquiring All-Star point guard Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz in 2011. The Nets gave up point guard Devin Harris, forward Derrick Favors, and two first-round draft picks to land Williams.
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It was a steep price to pay but the Nets finally landed the elite-level player they wanted as their move from New Jersey to Brooklyn was near.
"I feel Deron Williams is the best point guard in the NBA,” then Nets GM Billy King said to ESPN. “And when you want to try to win you need a point guard and a center, and I think we have two of the best.”
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Williams helped guide a struggling Nets team with his veteran savvy and passing ability but failed to bring them to the postseason. He and budding star center Brook Lopez couldn't do it by themselves – especially with Williams constantly nursing nagging injuries.
With their new home in Brooklyn ready to be christened, the Nets acquired All-Star forward Joe Johnson in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks in 2012 – just two years after signed a then record-setting six-year, $123.7 million contract. They had to give up five useful players and a 2013 first round draft pick to do it but the deal was made.
At this point, the Nets had three All-Star caliber players on the team. With the right semblance of role players, they were a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.
It took a while but the Nets finally established a successful team chemistry, playing their way to a 49-33 regular season (4th in the Eastern Conference). The Nets put up a valiant fight against the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs. Nearly coming back from a 3-1 series deficit and an excruciating 142- 134 triple overtime loss in Game 4, the Nets eventually lost in seven thrilling games.
Just like that, the season was prematurely over, leaving Brooklynites starving for a championship. Then Nets head coach P.J. Carlesimo – whose future with the team was in doubt – told Yahoo! Sports that the loss made it hard to appreciate an otherwise successful season.
"At this point, it is just very hard to step back and have perspective, because it is such a gut wrench to lose this way.”
It was clear that if the Nets were going to compete, this was the time. They had several veterans in the latter stages of their prime, ready to “win now.”
Instead of planning for the future, the Nets went for the marquee acquisitions. It all started with former franchise cornerstone Jason Kidd – who was done as an active player – being brought in as the new head coach. A wizard with the ball on the court, Kidd was now a first-time head coach, looking to be a magician with the clipboard.
A month later, the team struck arguably the biggest deal in franchise history, acquiring Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce in exchange for Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Kris Joseph, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans and future first round draft picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018.
The move essentially depleted the Nets' future for years to come but owner Mikhail Prokhorov insisted that the “basketball gods smiled on the Nets.” The allure of bringing a championship to Brooklyn – something that hasn't been done since the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers – was too strong to pass up.
"We are championship driven... We made a lot of money in our careers. We have won a number of awards,” said Pierce at the introductory press conference alongside Garnett and Terry. “At this point right now, we are about winning a championship. Brooklyn gives us the best opportunity."
Fans had little regard for what the Nets gave up and instead focused on the prospect of having a lineup of five All-Stars (Williams, Johnson, Pierce, Garnett, Lopez). They were expected to rival the Miami Heat's big three of Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, and LeBron James.
The excitement was hard to ignore as you couldn't pass a New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) bus or train without seeing a billboard promoting the Nets' upcoming season. The billboards read “HELLO BROOKLYN. WE'RE IN,” signaling a franchise that was ready to kick down doors and break down walls in search of championship glory.
Unfortunately, once the season got underway, the Nets' age showed quickly. A poor start that lasted well into December was bad but Brook Lopez breaking his foot – ending his season – made the remainder of the season look bleak.
Led by their veterans, the Nets were able to go on a mammoth run and make up for the slow start, finishing the 2013-14 season with a 44-38 record (6th in the Eastern Conference). While the record was worse than the year prior, the Nets had veteran experience in the playoffs that paid dividends.
It helped them get past the Toronto Raptors in the first round but the series went seven games. When the Nets played the Miami Heat the following round, the eventual champions outplayed Brooklyn in every facet of the game, en route to a 4-1 series win.
Just like that, the Nets were done and the collateral damage of their transactions became apparent. Pierce left in free agency, signing a two-year deal with the Washington Wizards.Shortly thereafter, Pierce told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan that his stint with the Nets was “horrible.”
“It was just the guys' attitudes there. It wasn't like we were surrounded by a bunch of young guys. They were vets who didn't want to play and didn't want to practice. I was looking around saying, 'What's this?' Kevin [Garnett] and I had to pick them up every day in practice.”
Garnett, Williams, Johnson, and Lopez remained to start the 2014-15 season but that nucleus of talent was short lived. Garnett was traded back to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the trade deadline in exchange for Thaddeus Young.
At the end of the regular season, the Nets finished with a losing record of 38-44, but playing in a weak Eastern Conference, it was good enough to be the 8th seed. In the first round, Brooklyn lost to the Atlanta Hawks in six games.
The aforementioned nucleus of talent took another hit after the loss as Williams agreed to a buyout and signed with his hometown Dallas Mavericks in the offseason. In an interview with Yahoo! Sports last December, Williams – much like Pierce before him – was not full of joy about his stint in Brooklyn.
"It took a lot out of me, man, those three years. Some of the hardest in my life. Made me question if I even wanted to play basketball when I was done with that contract."
The blame for the Nets' shortcomings needed to be distributed somehow and the first casualties were head coach Lionel Hollins and GM Billy King. On January 10th, Hollins was relieved of head coaching duties after a 9-28 start and King was re-assigned within the organization.
“After careful consideration, I’ve concluded that it’s time for a fresh start and a new vision for the direction of the team,” said Prokhorov in a statement. “By making this decision now, it enables our organization to use the rest of the season to diligently evaluate candidates with proven track records.”
Lacking a clear direction, the Nets are trying to milk the positives. The player they acquired in exchange for Garnett, Thaddeus Young, has been one of few bright spots this season as he's averaging 15.1 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Entering action on Saturday, the Nets own a 19-49 record, the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference. With their season obviously a lost cause, Johnson agreed to a buyout with the Nets and signed with the Miami Heat days later.
Much like Pierce and Williams, Johnson is in search of a championship. Unlike Pierce and Williams, he didn't trash the organization on his way out.
"I had a chance to get out and get a chance to play with a playoff-contending team," Johnson said after the move. "Obviously, I looked into it, talked with my agent, my family, and we all came to an agreement that it was probably the best thing to do."
Then, there was one.
Lopez is the only remaining piece from that original ensemble of talent on the Nets. His name is constantly in trade rumors and it's likely just a matter of time until he's playing elsewhere. Partner that with the fact that the Nets do not own any draft picks until 2019, so rebuilding that way is not an option.
Additionally, outside of Lopez and Young, the Nets have little to offer in terms of a supporting cast. The team is comprised of fringe role players that barely offer a spark off the bench. And, talented players like Chris McCollough and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have nursed serious injuries all season.
In layman's terms, new GM Sean Marks has inherited a mess that will take a lot more than a two-year deal with Sean Kilpatrick to solve. The team's only hope is luring big name free agents to Brooklyn in hopes that the team can compete once again.
The Nets will have to rely upon the rich history of NYC, the media opportunities, and great places to eat if they want to attract free agents.
Good thing there's a Shake Shack across the street.