By their own admission, the Nets this year are a team still trying to find themselves, still searching for their spot in the big, bad NBA hierarchy, and still trying to be something other than a group of guys who play very, very hard for their highly esteemed coach, to very mediocre results.
So that’s why Tuesday's injury news struck as particularly cruel: DeMarre Carroll, one of the bright spots of last year’s 28-win season, underwent an arthroscopy on his balky right ankle at the Hospital for Special Surgery, with no timetable for his return. Allen Crabbe, who also has been nursing a bad ankle, is out for Wednesday night’s season opener, too. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who could play the four in place of Carroll, still is recovering from a groin strain he sustained two months ago. He will have to be evaluated in the morning, and even then, the Nets have said that they intend to be cautious with his comeback.
"I don't think it's a huge thing," coach Kenny Atkinson said of Carroll, who had been battling the injury and seemed to be improving before it took a turn during Monday's practice. "Just not great news for DeMarre or us but we’ve got to push forward."
"Forward" is hopping a plane to Detroit, where they’ll have to tango with Andre Drummond and the Pistons, a big, physical team that has caused them fits in the past.
It doesn’t quite seem fair, does it? Maybe. But if there’s anything Atkinson has learned in what is now Year 3 of an injury-ravaged rebuild, it’s how to keep going despite the litany of bad news.
“I think it’s part of the job, but I do think the fact that we have a deeper team this year — we have guys who can cover for other guys,” Atkinson said when asked how difficult it is to evaluate a team in triage. “That’s really what a team is about. That kind of group we threw out against the Knicks in the last preseason game did a heck of a job. So, I’m concerned with the group that’s going to go out there tomorrow night and we have a lot of good players that are going to play tomorrow night.”
But it still doesn’t make any of this any easier. When Atkinson came on in April 2016, he and general manager Sean Marks had a very specific plan — one that championed a shift in culture and a focus on team basketball, certainly a departure from the common NBA script of one superstar and the four other guys who orbit around him. What’s resulted is a team that champions professionalism, versatility and preparation, but still is very young and, because of injuries, in a state of flux. The bright side, though, is plenty of cap space and two first-round picks…next year.
“If there's stages one and two, I think we're in stage three,” Atkinson said. “Are we thrilled with stage three? No. I think there's a hunger. We don't want to plateau. We want to keep going up. I think this is an important year. We've got to get to stage four. I feel really good about where we're heading collectively as an organization. I think we're moving in the right direction. Obviously, the fans and everybody wants to see that translated into wins and we hope that comes with it. But I like what we've put in place. We're definitely not stagnant."
No one could accuse the Nets of stagnation, despite some of the challenges this constant movement may present.
“We really don’t have a certain identity other than playing hard,” Jarrett Allen said. “We’re going to improve in everything. We really didn’t have a super thing that stands out other than us really playing hard so now we’re going to try to get the definitive thing that could define our team. We’re a young team. We’re trying to find our place in the league.”
And that starts Wednesday night.
Jefferson joins Nets' broadcast team. The YES Network has hired Richard Jefferson as an analyst for select Nets games, returning him to the team he helped win consecutive Eastern Conference titles in the early 2000s. He will debut on Wednesday as a studio analyst for the season opener against the Pistons in Detroit and a week later will work his first game, alongside Ian Eagle, when the Nets visit the Cavaliers. Jefferson won an NBA championship with the Cavs in 2015-16. He retired from playing after spending last season with the Nuggets.
Nets Starting Lineup
D'Angelo Russell PG
Joe Harris SG
Caris LeVert SF
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Jared Dudley PF
Jarrett Allen C