BROOKLYN — A lot has changed since Brooklyn last wore its home whites on Feb. 6. The Nets have played better basketball in their fight for an Eastern Conference playoff spot with the help of smaller, younger lineups, going a very respectable 3-5 on a vicious eight-game Western Conference road trip that ended with a big win in Dallas on Saturday night.
“I’m excited to be home, but I’m also excited that we’ve played better, been more competitive,” said Nets head coach Lionel Hollins. That competitive ball continued on Monday night when Brooklyn upset the road-weary Golden State Warriors 110-108 on a Jarrett Jack jumper with 1.1 seconds left.
Small forward Thaddeus Young, acquired at the Feb. 19 trade deadline for Kevin Garnett, is a partial representation of what seems like Brooklyn’s new focus toward younger players. His replacing Garnett allowed a change to a smaller, more versatile, faster-paced lineup that Hollins has employed of late.
“We’ve changed the tempo and [we’re] trying to play more in the flow early, versus trying to set up and run plays,” Hollins said. “We don’t have the dominant post players to slow it down. So we’ve taken one out, we only have one big in the game at any moment.”
Three important changes to the starting lineup have allowed the Nets to be more competitive, which Hollins stressed throughout the night as being crucial to the team’s recent higher level of play.
“We have four smaller guys and they can all space the court, put the ball on the floor and shoot,” Hollins said, “and we’ve been shooting it well.”
Taking out that second big means playing Joe Johnson at power forward, with Young at small forward and rookie Markel Brown unexpectedly taking the reigns at shooting guard.
One of the season’s most pleasant surprises for the Nets has been Brown’s defensive abilities improving with more playing time. Brown held a tired Klay Thompson to seven points on 3-of-17 shooting Monday, including 1-of-9 from three. Brown’s defensive rating was an elite 97 in February in 17.7 minutes per game. He’s going to get more playing time as he develops defensively.
“He’s been huge,” Johnson said. “Markel has done a great job defending some of the best scorers in this league.”
Young’s length, versatility and energy at the three has been important to the Nets as well. He’s been switching a lot with Johnson on defense, which has allowed Brooklyn to play with more confidence on that end.
Johnson is still adjusting to playing the majority of his minutes at power forward.
“In pick-and-rolls, I’m doing more big man things like showing, getting back to my man and then having to box out and get the rebound,” Johnson said. But it’s paid dividends and has allowed Brooklyn to look formidable in a very crowded race for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Seventh-seeded Miami and 12th place Detroit are separated by just three games with 24 games remaining for most teams. While Brooklyn is 25-33 and in the 8th spot as of today, it can make its first-half swoon an afterthought with a strong finish.
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“I was definitely shocked to hear that they were struggling a little bit,” Young said upon coming to the Nets. “But at the end of the day, some teams struggle and in the second half of the season they come on.”
In trading Garnett to Minnesota to obtain Young, the 26-year-old forward is now —symbolically, but not completely— the last piece remaining from the heralded 2013 draft night trade that brought Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets in exchange for five players and three first-round picks, in addition to the rights to swap firsts in 2017.
“Minnesota looked to find somewhere that was perfect because they were going through a youth movement,” Young said. “I came right here, played and fit right in with the team.”
More importantly, Young has already provided Brooklyn with a huge on-court upgrade over Garnett.
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Aside from rebounding, Young has been much better across the board — he even shot 60 percent from three after shooting under 30 percent this season with Minnesota— which is ironic considering one of the reasons why Brooklyn acquired KG was not for his ability on the court.
Acquiring Garnett and Pierce were really the centerpieces of owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s plan to build the franchise’s brand after moving the team from New Jersey. Speaking to the media exactly four months ago before the team’s home opener against Oklahoma City, Prokhorov said as much.
“For me it was important to invest some money to make the team better and to invest some money in the Brooklyn Nets brand,” he said.
Prokhorov maintained at the time that he would not sell majority control of the team, but things have changed. The declining ruble and plunging oil prices have contributed in taking a toll on Prokhorov’s net worth, to the point where he’s lost over $8 billion since 2010, according to a Forbes estimate.
A New York Post report from Monday says that the Nets are “gearing up” their sale of the franchise, with numerous international moguls showing reported interest despite a price tag that may reach $2 billion.
During that November press conference, Prokhorov said he wanted more of a mix between veterans and youth, and the team has gotten younger and cheaper since then. Whether that happened because Prokhorov wants to sell the team is certainly speculative, but a pattern definitely emerged.
“The young guys have all stepped up and proved that they have deserved to play, and that just pushes everybody,” Hollins said. “When the bottom pushes up, the top has to go up.”
After fielding the 8th oldest roster in the NBA last season, Brooklyn is now the 8th youngest team in the league with an average age of just 27. Mason Plumlee and rookies Bojan Bogdanovic and Brown have played important rotation minutes, which has allowed Deron Williams and Brook Lopez to remain more fresh and healthy later on in this season.
Hollins said that the team is rebounding the ball a lot better and has been more quick and aggressive overall, perhaps due in part to younger players having larger roles on the team.
“Earlier in the year, we weren’t getting any of those types of 50-50 balls consistently and we weren’t rebounding consistently earlier in the year,” Hollins said.
“This is a team on the verge of making the playoffs, fighting for our lives in the playoffs right now,” Young said. “It was pretty big for me to come here.”
In obtaining Young and using Brown in the starting lineup, Brooklyn’s youthful approach is paying dividends at a cheaper price. Perhaps this is a sign for things to come for the franchise that appears to be in transition, in more than one sense, both on the floor and in the owner’s box.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.