By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets received a rare bit of good news on Wednesday when Mirza Teletovic was able to fly home from Los Angeles following last week’s discovery of multiple blood clots in his lungs.
The 29-year-old forward’s 2014-15 season, unfortunately, has ended prematurely because of the risk of playing high-level basketball on blood thinners. Still, there were worse possible outcomes.
On the court, the Teletovic situation means that the Nets’ brass will be taking a hard look at rookie second-round draft pick Cory Jefferson in the hope he can effectively eat some of Teletovic’s minutes. The high-flying 24-year-old was taken with the last overall selection, for which he was tabbed with the dubious title of “Mr. Irrelevant.”
I find it fitting that he landed in Brooklyn, since there’s no more irrelevant team in the NBA — or among all of the New York area’s professional sports franchises — than the Nets.
For those who point at the tankers such as the 76ers, at least those organizations have a plan: Rebuild the roster with young players in the draft, hoping for some ping pong ball magic to deliver a transformational superstar, while eventually using their salary cap space to supplement the roster with veterans who can elevate the club into the league’s elite.
At this point, I wouldn’t mind if the Nets went that route. This third season in Brooklyn is headed for epic failure. Even the best-case scenario has the Nets sneaking their way into the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs where the Hawks, who toyed with them in a 113-102 win on Wednesday, will surely send them home for good.
Thanks to general manager Billy King, who surrendered draft picks for bags of beans, the Nets do not have their own first-round selection until 2019. Salary dumping of overpriced and brittle former stars Brook Lopez and Deron Williams has no benefits to a team not in position to tank.
The future is so dire that even owner Mikhail Prokhorov is allegedly looking to bail. A few weeks ago, Bloomberg reported that Prokhorov retained Evercore Partners to gauge prospective bids.
So much for NBA championship or bust (or marriage).
The reaction to the Nets’ plight among basketball fans in the area is either Knicks fans’ schadenfreude — as in, “That’s what you get when you try to take over our city by mocking the salary cap and luxury tax rules” — or, “Are the Nets still in the league?”
I’ve come to accept that the Nets will never in my lifetime match the city’s level of devotion for their cross-river rivals. The Nets have traversed the metropolitan area multiple times in their 48-year history, beginning play in the Teaneck Armory as the New Jersey Americans in the old ABA in search of a real home.
Long-term success has eluded the franchise on the court as well. The Nets haven’t had a really good team in over a decade. It’s made it difficult for them to compete for attention not only with the Knicks, but with popular hockey, football and baseball teams during the times their seasons overlap.
The Nets haven’t won a home game since Dec. 29, going 0-6, including losses to such juggernauts as Philadelphia and Boston, and will soon be at the mercy of a road-heavy February schedule.
But what’s most concerning is that the level of apathy towards this team matches that from their worst years in New Jersey.
Average attendance is down slightly (almost 2 percent) from last season, though who knows how many will show up during the stretch run should the team fall completely out of the playoff picture.
But there’s more to the story than just ticket sales.
Not even the overhyped move to supposedly ultra-hip Brooklyn has given the Nets any sense of a home-court advantage. Granted, Barclays Center is a nice place to watch a game. There’s a ton of very expensive food options. However, you need more to grow a fan base.
The crowds at Nets games are often overrun by fans of opposing teams — and not just when the Knicks cross into the borough. You’ll notice again Friday night when the Raptors bring a healthy contingent of their supporters to Barclays as they did in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
The dichotomy between the Toronto and Brooklyn fan bases couldn’t have been wider. Torontonians mobbed Maple Leaf Square hours before every home game and their crowd brought energy that rivaled any NBA arena.
Meanwhile, large swaths of seats at the Nets’ home games were empty at the opening tip.
I heard excuses, such as early start times or traffic, for Brooklyn’s lame-by-comparison effort. That never seemed to bother Knicks (or Rangers, or Islanders, or even Devils) fans, who routinely drowned out national anthems before playoff games with their own bellowings.
Now there’s a real possibility that the Nets will be postseason-free this year. The level of interest in the team will likely take a corresponding hit. There’ll be no Rihanna sightings or national TV exposure.
Unless King pulls a rabbit out of his hat and nets (no pun intended) someone worthwhile — NOT Lance Stephenson at the expense of Joe Johnson — at the trade deadline, there’s little reason for anyone other than diehards like myself to pay any attention to them. Not only for the rest of this seasons, but for multiple seasons to come.
They are irrelevant.
Brooklyn was supposed to be the last stop on the Nets’ journey towards relevancy, but it won’t be too long before Barclays Center is no longer the place to be.
Unless, of course, if the Islanders are playing.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1