Are you looking for the next Lakers? It could be the Nets

Spacing the Floor | Part I: How Khris Middleton evolved into Giannis’ ideal running mate

NEW YORK — The Barclays Center was rocking for moments at a time Tuesday night, a mix of purple and gold scattered in the stands balanced against a growing fan base coming to embrace the team with the NBA’s longest winning streak.

If it weren’t D’Angelo Russell tormenting his former team with late-game triples and the “ice in my veins” celebration, it was surprising second-year center Jarrett Allen going where few men have gone before: stopping LeBron James at the summit with a blocked dunk attempt.

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There’s also Spencer Dinwiddie adding to his catalogue of 30-footers and smirks as he antagonizes the many who left him for dead following a couple of stops and starts to his career.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo illustration)

Slowly, although not surely, the Nets have pulled themselves up to the ranks of respectability and subsequently to the land of the living.

The once down-in-the-dump franchise best known for one-sided trades, coaching subterfuge and hilarious “hit me, hit me” moments are now fading, making way for youth, energy and identity — hence the Biggie “Coogi sweater now” stripes along the side of the Nets’ alternate jerseys.

The Los Angeles Lakers were in a similar spot this time last year, recovering from the muck and preparing for a star. Poor decisions from the previous regime left the Lakers with three No. 2 picks before the dream of James became real, but those selections have yet to yield a home run.

The Nets didn’t have the luxury of top five picks, or any draft picks of their own in recent years. Ownership desperation led to handing over multiple first-rounders to the Boston Celtics to acquire past-their-prime stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and that bill was passed over to the new front office.

In a way, though, not having lottery balls to rely on seemed to have liberated general manager Sean Marks. Whether it was taking on bad contracts to acquire draft picks or taking a chance on players who came at a low cost, such as Dinwiddie and Russell, Marks had the opportunity to be creative.

D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jared Dudley like how the Nets are rolling. (Getty)
D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jared Dudley like how the Nets are rolling. (Getty)

From analytics to the coaching staff to player evaluation and development, the Nets have been building in the quiet tranquility of New York.

Go figure.

“I can see what you’re saying. It probably liberates [this] regime,” Dinwiddie told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t think it liberated [former GM] Billy King, clearly.”

It’s led to this moment, where the Nets could have up to $40 million in cap space this offseason or, at the very least, $20 million, depending on how they handle Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

Russell’s long-term future is still in the air, as one has to wonder if he’s matured beyond the indiscretions of his past, but he’s at least been productive, averaging 18.1 point and 6.3 assists this season. Dinwiddie, who signed a three-year, $34 million extension recently, has been a revelation after Detroit and Chicago — two teams with point-guard issues — couldn’t see what they had in a big guard with an occasional big mouth and big game (17.2 points, five assists) to match.

And let’s not forget, Caris LeVert’s foot injury wasn’t as gruesome as it appeared last month, and he’s on track to return this season. Should he continue his trajectory — 18.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists — the Nets have the closest thing to a homegrown star they’ve had since making the move across the Hudson.

The current optimism is the reason why Dinwiddie feels the Nets are better off than the pre-LeBron Lakers.

“Well, I mean, they were pretty bad last year [finishing 35-47]. Our record [14-18] is decent,” Dinwiddie said. “It ain’t terrible now. I don’t think it’s a poor comparison. I also don’t think we’re getting LeBron. We’ll see what happens next, but we got a lot of young guys trying to prove themselves and do a lot of things. Any time you have a collective mindset of wanting to improve and wanting to be great, anything can happen.”

And they appear to be buyers in the trade market as opposed to solely relying on swimming in the treacherous waters of free agency. The Nets’ six-game winning streak has stabilized the quiet conversation surrounding head coach Kenny Atkinson’s job security, and qualifying for the playoffs can only enhance the franchise’s profile going into the summer.

But flexibility has been the name of the game for Brooklyn, so it appears more likely it’ll be prudent in the trade market rather than waiting for a Kevin Durant to show up on its doorstep.

Either way, the Nets are taking each small opportunity to show they’re more than competent, more than solvent, that they’re lurking and ready to make a splash in a conference that could use another contender.

Buzzer-beaters

1. Good on the Pacers for bringing in Kelly Krauskopf as the first female assistant general manager in NBA history. It’s been a stair-step process and this is another mark of progress.

2. I know traveling isn’t called much anymore, but seriously, James Harden? It almost obscures his mini-takeover as he tries to rescue the Rockets from disaster. Almost.

3. Not sure how any team can believe it’s getting Dillon Brooks instead of MarShon Brooks, but dream big, Phoenix!

4. The Miami Heat, once the standard bearer of franchise foresight, now has to explain what they’ve done post-LeBron. Nothing makes sense here, Riles.

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