God help us, the Nets are New York’s only hope

The Nets sacrificed first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and gave the Celtics swap rights to better draft picks as they spent three years as one of the worst teams in basketball.

Twenty years ago to the date, the New York Yankees dynasty came to an end. It was Oct. 26, 2000, and the Yankees defeated the Mets in the World Series in a golden year for New York City sports: Patrick Ewing had led the Knicks to the NBA Finals, and Tiki Barber helped run the Giants to the Super Bowl, and the Jets, too, finished the season with a winning record.

There have only been three championship trophies in New York since then: Eli Manning’s two with the Giants over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in 2008 and 2012, and the Yankees’ 2009 World Series win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

It’s been a championship drought in the Big Apple ever since. The city that never sleeps has been dormant.

The NHL’s New York Islanders were the most successful team in the market this season, a No. 6 seed riding a 35-23 record all the way to the conference finals. They were eliminated by the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning. The Yankees were next in line, winning their play-in wild-card series against Cleveland before getting handled by the Tampa Bay Rays in the divisional round.

The Nets would be third, with half their roster left at home due to injury or COVID-19, went 5-3 in their eight seeding games, then made the playoffs as the seventh seed before losing all four first-round games to the Raptors.

That was without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. It was also without Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler, and it resulted in the third-most successful season in the city. As though that’s saying much these days.

Of course, we’ve seen this before from the Nets, and it didn’t end well. They first made a splash (read: capsized) in conjunction with the franchise’s relocation to Brooklyn in 2013, trading their future for Paul Pierce, then 35; Kevin Garnett, then 37; and Jason Terry, then 36. That team, also featuring a shell-of-himself All-Star in Deron Williams, and an elite isolation scorer in Joe Johnson, never amounted to much: one playoff victory against the Toronto Raptors. Both Garnett and Pierce left the following offseason.

The Nets sacrificed first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and gave the Celtics swap rights to better draft picks as they spent three years as one of the worst teams in basketball.

This year’s Brooklyn team is hardly that. With a single brush stroke, the Nets pulled off a clean sweep. They sowed for four years then reaped a title contender. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving each with three years remaining on their contracts, Brooklyn is officially in championship contention mode. 

And yes, both are coming off injuries — Irving’s season ending after just 20 games riddled with shoulder issues, and Durant’s ending before it started during the 2019 NBA Finals — but both are healthy, working out, scrimmaging and practicing together with Nets star Caris LeVert in Los Angeles.

The Nets are a glimmer of hope in New York sports when compared against other teams in the market.

Forget about the Knicks for a second: The winless Jets are a laughing stock, as evidenced by their four-yard second half of football in their most recent loss to the Buffalo Bills. Yes, if you were wondering, that’s a franchise-worst in the last 40 years. The Giants aren’t much better, with only one win on the season, having blown a chance at No. 22 after surrendering a 21-10 lead with just over six minutes to go against the Eagles on Sunday.

The Rangers finished sixth and the Islanders seventh in the NHL’s Metropolitan division, neither having won a championship this century. Don’t forget about the Knicks too long: They hired Tom Thibodeau and Leon Rose but still have their work cut out for them on the long road to organizational competency. 

New York City sports are in a bad, bad place: The world’s biggest, brightest city has 20 more professional sports championships than the next closest region (New England), yet no team has won since the Giants beat the Patriots in 2012. The Giants, if you remember, account for two of New York’s three championships since 2000, Eli Manning having beaten Tom Brady in the Super Bowl the first time in 2008, and the Yankees defeating the Phillies nearly 11 years ago today.

The Rangers haven’t won since 1994. The Islanders since ’84. The Knicks since 1973, though they knocked on the door in 1999. The Jets haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 1969. 

The Nets, meanwhile, are tied with the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat with the sixth-best, 14-to-1 odds to win a championship next season. Those odds may be low when you consider the following: Kevin Durant — a top-3 player in the NBA — progressed in his Achilles injury rehab to the point of playing five-on-five scrimmages back in March before the pandemic halted the season. Irving’s injury woes struck in his first year in Brooklyn, but he only appeared in 53 regular-season games before hitting the shot over Stephen Curry to win the 2016 NBA Finals.

A season must be played, and the NBA is moving heaven on Earth, ditching its idea of filling arenas with fans to start the 2020-21 season just before Christmas. There is no guarantee the Nets win a championship. With the injuries on the table, there’s barely a guarantee they make it out of the second round.

But for a moment — and maybe it’s just one, fleeting New York minute — there’s hope in the city that never sleeps. That hope has traditionally been for a Yankee title run.

The Yankees, though, haven’t been able to get the job done. Nor have the Mets, Jets, Knicks, Rangers or Islanders.

The Nets are now on the clock, and their time is now.