In one of the more memorable moments in an otherwise forgettable Brooklyn Nets season, swingman Bojan Bogdanovic poured in a career-high 44 points in a 131-114 rout of the Philadelphia 76ers at Barclays Center. But those kinds of nights have been few and far between for Brooklyn, while such losses have been an all-too-common occurrence for Philadelphia.
“I wanna wish my wife a happy birthday. She finally got to see me win a game as a head coach,” interim Nets coach Tony Brown said with a smile to start the postgame press conference.
The game was a matchup of the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference. After making the playoffs in each of the last three years, the Nets are having their worst season in six years with a record of 19-48. The team is 9-21 under Brown, who took over after Lionel Hollins was fired and general manager Billy King stepped down on Jan. 10.
But the 76ers are in a class of their own when it comes to futility. With a league-worst 9-58 record, Philadelphia has won just 46 total games since the start of the 2013-2014 season. While the organization committed to a complete rebuild three years ago, there has been little gain from multiple high draft picks.
With the 76ers already getting blown out in the first quarter, chants of "Trust The Process" rang out among the vocal Philadelphia contingent. "The Process" is general manager Sam Hinkie’s long-term plan to make the 76ers a title contender again, and it's what gives a loyal fan base hope that nights like Tuesday will be the impetus for one day bringing a title back to the City of Brotherly Love.
An historic three-year run of ineptitude has allowed Philadelphia to draft highly regarded prospects like Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel. Hinkie could have up to four first-round picks in the 2016 NBA Draft and at the minimum one lottery pick. Philadelphia has avoided signing players to lucrative contracts, and only two teams will have more money to spend in the upcoming offseason. The 76ers are far from being a contender, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how far away it might be.
“We’re now at a stage where we have multiple ways to improve our team,” 76ers head coach Brett Brown said on Tuesday’s “The Lowe Post” podcast. “We can do it through the draft, we can do it through a trade, you can do it through free agency. You can do it through the retention of who we deem to be keepers. And so all those things are really now on the table.”
With 10 more wins than Philadelphia, Brooklyn does not have the same kind of hope for the future. Philly fans at Barclays Center taunted the Nets with chants of “We Have Draft Picks,” referencing how Brooklyn lacks a first-round pick in two of the next three years. The Boston Celtics also have the right to swap first-rounders with Brooklyn in 2017, all because of an ill-advised trade in 2013.
The Nets made a push for a title, trying to accomplish owner Mikhail Prokhorov's goal of bringing a championship to Brooklyn by 2015. But when the team mortgaged their future for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, they were only able to get as far as the second round of the playoffs.
Brooklyn finds itself in a precarious situation. The NBA rules are structured in such a way that enough losing should eventually make a team a winner, but finishing near the bottom of the league won't result in high draft picks for Brooklyn.
New general manager Sean Marks has his work cut out for him, though Brooklyn's future isn't as bleak as some might think. The Nets might not have the pieces to acquire a top-five pick anytime soon, but Brooklyn could get a significant return for either Brook Lopez or Thaddeus Young if they decide to completely start fresh like Philadelphia.
Lopez is one of the NBA's top centers, averaging a career-high 20.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. When the NBA salary cap jumps to a projected $92 million next season and well over $100 million in the year after that, his average salary of $21 million could be a bargain. The same goes for Young, who will be paid an average of $13.5 million through the 2019 season and is averaging 15.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest in his first full year with Brooklyn.
In order to eventually become a contender again, Brooklyn might have to follow Philadelphia’s model and accept more years of losing. The 76ers’ plan, however, is taking longer than expected, and the Nets could look to build around their top two players by being active in free agency.
The Nets will have a significant amount of money to spend in free agency over the next two years. They could be more than $38 million under the cap this summer, and Brooklyn is only committed to paying just $35.5 million in salaries for the 2017-2018 season. Signing an All-Star and another key player could get Brooklyn back to the playoffs in short order, though competing with the NBA’s top teams likely wouldn’t be realistic.
Until the Nets can make any additions in free agency, they’ll continue to rely on role players, hoping to get more breakout performances like the one Bogdanovic put together. Sean Kilpatrick had been in the D-League for most of the season, but he’s become one of the team’s top scorers, adding 19 points against Philadelphia.
There’s no guarantee that “The Process” will work out for Philadelphia, and the decision to hire four-time Executive of the Year Jerry Colangelo as an adviser might be evidence that patience is running thin. But despite Tuesday’s final result and the current standings, Brooklyn could soon be forced to follow in Philadelphia’s footsteps.