The Atlanta Hawks needed to win Friday night in the Barclays Center. The Nets, on the other hand, did not have the same kind of incentive.
The Nets, playing without Deron Williams and Shaun Livingston, fell to the Hawks, 93-88. The loss snapped the Nets’ 15-game home winning streak, while the Hawks moved to within inches of a playoff berth.
Although the Hawks played hard, the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed exemplified the differences between the two franchises. The Nets rested players because they had earned the right to and care about their playoff performance.
To date, the Hawks have not shared that view. They have never made the playoffs a goal. What if they relinquish that final playoff seed?
“I don’t think it’d be that big of a deal,” forward DeMarre Carroll said on April 1.
And no, it was not a joke.
The Hawks are indicative of a troubling trend in the NBA: very few teams are actually trying to win ball games. They play for the draft, the future, and their wallets, throwing common sense out the window. The NBA has a competitive problem.
“Candidly, I don’t pay the amount of attention to the standings that you would expect,” Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry said in early April. “Our goal is not to be the eighth seed.”
The Hawks want to win some day, but for their paying fans, that day is not anytime soon. Fortunately for Nets’ fans, their team has an owner fully committed to winning. They should consider themselves lucky.
Owner Mikhail Prokhorov and his assembled team have thrown caution to the wind when putting together this high-priced roster. Heck, Prokhorov nearly spent $17 million on Jordan Hill, merely a rental player, at the trade deadline.
Fans eviscerated the Miami Heat for compiling the Big Three in the summer of 2010. Four years later, that kind of talk has dissipated. Rather than crucifying teams for trying to win in a winning business, fans and analysts alike should shower them with applause. Like teachers enhancing their students’ knowledge or a doctor successfully treating a patient, the Nets are accomplishing the goal.
Even in a loss, the Nets set attainable goals. Head coach Jason Kidd toyed with different lineups that he might need in the playoffs, and he continued integrating Kevin Garnett back into the lineup.
“We’re trying to get better each time (we) step on the floor,” Garnett said. “You’re not going to stop doing that. ... (Kidd’s) experimenting at this point, but at the same time we’re still trying to win games.”
The Nets took an East Rutherford trainwreck and morphed it into a billion-dollar behemoth. They acquired a young Marcus Thornton, a player who might save their bacon late in a playoff game, for two older and declining players all in the name of money. The Sacramento Kings wanted financial relief, nothing more and nothing less.
Prokhorov would make more money by spending less on the Nets. With a $102 million payroll, the NBA will hand him a bill for some $80 million in luxury taxes. He, along with the fans, management, and players, want to win.
The teams in this league doing everything in their power to win a championship can be counted on two hands. Even the Hawks, a team virtually assured of the eighth seed, have stated their intentions.
“We’re really just focused on building our habits. I know the standings,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “There’s not a lot of time and energy I put into it. Getting in or not getting in, I don’t think of it that way.”
Ownership and the fans might not think of it that way, though. Budenholzer is busy concerning himself with “playing the right way,” but by the time that happens, he will likely have been fired.
Even without incentive, the Nets battled until the final buzzer for the sellout crowd in Brooklyn. The fans deserved it, and the Nets have been giving them nothing less the entire season. The same cannot be said for a lot of the teams in this league.