It is no secret that the Brooklyn Nets made an ill-fated deal with the NBA devil years ago. Assembling a team that consisted of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett required the Nets of yesteryear sacrifice once-future assets. The then-distant future inevitably became the now-mortgaged present. Cap flexibility and draft picks were made tribute for a run of teams that couldn’t make it out of the Eastern Conference semis.

Last year was especially bitter for the Nets. The 2016-17 season will go down as the one that cost the franchise the most. Not only did they manage a meager 20-62 record, the eventual top pick in the deep and loaded 2017 NBA Draft would have gone to the Nets but it was long-forfeited to the Boston Celtics (who eventually dealt it to the Philadelphia 76ers).

The good news for the Brooklyn Nets is that the worst appears to be over. Though there’s still plenty of work to be done, the Nets have turned whatever pieces it had into younger players who were cast away elsewhere, but possess light years more upside. They’ve also hit paydirt on a couple of the few picks they’ve been afforded the past couple years. It’s been a franchise-wide effort to establish a new culture. From the top down.

All of which is to say: the Brooklyn Nets are the NBA’s island of misfit toys. And it’s one of the NBA’s more fascinating stories to see how the pieces function in their new setting and roles.

Smart Gambles

Brooklyn apparently has had a keen eye on Allen Crabbe for a while. When Crabbe was a restricted free agent, it was Brooklyn that gave him the four-year, $75 million deal that he signed. Except the Portland Trail Blazers matched.

Crabbe’s contract extension (and return to Portland) became official on July 10, 2016. By July 25, 2017, the Blazers had decided it was too rich for their blood. Especially since Portland was way over the cap, and at risk of having to pay the dreaded Repeater Tax. Smartly, the Nets let Crabbe prove his value for one more year in Portland, then swooped in and traded for him at the mere price of Andrew Nicholson.

Compared to other players who make somewhere near the $18.5 million salary mark – which Crabbe makes – there are probably better values. But for a Brooklyn team that was closer to crossing the NBA’s salary floor than cap, Crabbe’s overpriced contract doesn’t really matter, as long as he keeps producing and stays healthy.

Crabbe’s averaging a modest 11.6 points. But that’s a career high, and it should go up once his three-point percentage ticks up a few notches. (He’s currently at 37.3-percent this season, but his career mark is an intriguing 40.8.)

Closing One Window to Open a New One

The Brooklyn Nets also turned Brook Lopez (who outlived his use in a Brooklyn uniform by virtue of knocking on the door of turning 30) into 21-year-old point guard D’Angelo Russell. Dealing Lopez was a no-brainer. He was the lone holdover from a past the Nets would just as soon forget, anyway. When the Lakers soured on Russell after failing to find the proper role for him (some locker room shenanigans also contributed to Russell falling out of favor as well) in Los Angeles, the Nets were more than happy to give him a fresh start.

Russell is playing a free brand of basketball. His scoring is up nearly six points to 21.1. Like Crabbe, Russell hasn’t quite found his three-point shot yet, but if it normalizes to Russell’s career number of 34.8-percent, his scoring, too, will go up. Given Russell’s age, one would expect his efficiency number to get better year-over-year. Either way, the former number-two pick was a gamble worth betting on.

Making the Best of Late Picks

Losing lottery picks definitely hurts, but Brooklyn have turned a few lemon picks into lemonade.

Caris LeVert is a young, athletic wing that averages double-figure points. For a second-year taken with the 20th pick, his upside alone makes that a value pick.

Then there’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Drafted 23rd overall in 2015, the third-year lefty has taken a sizable leap forward every season. There’s a case to make that Hollis-Jefferson is one of the more underrated players in the entire league. He’s a starter now and, even with his minutes seeing an increase, his efficiency numbers are trending up nearly across the board. He’s not a shooter yet, but he’s the athlete every competitive team needs.

For the first time in years, there’s hope on the Brooklyn Nets’ horizon. It’s fun to root for a young team with tangible upside. Unexpected wins are often the most fulfilling. Ask Cleveland Cavs fans how much fun living or dying with every regular season game is. Sure, the Nets still owe some future picks, but Brooklyn now has a team clearly better suited to offer a more hopeful future. Though wins may still prove hard to come by, the Brooklyn Nets are free; no longer shackled to their mismanaged past.

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