Brooklyn Nets
Bruno Rouby, ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets believe they can contend for a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference, but someone must emerge to lead them there.

The Brooklyn Nets are in year three of head coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks’ tenure. Atkinson and Marks took the job knowing they had a huge hill to climb. The team was devoid of draft picks due to Danny Ainge of the Celtics slaughtering Billy King in a trade for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry. King, the general manager of the Nets from 2010 to 2016, pulled the trigger on the deal and set the franchise back years.

Atkinson and Marks came in to pick up the pieces. Any quick fixes would have led to further setbacks and a pattern of mediocrity in Brooklyn. But rather than trying to perform a miracle, the Nets leadership committed to the slow and steady approach. The Nets struggled to 20 wins in the regime’s first season. Last season, Atkinson and Marks’ second in command, saw the Nets improve their win total by eight games. This was the second largest leap in the NBA — trailing only the Philadelphia 76ers.

A similar jump in wins would put the Nets firmly in playoff contention. Another eight-win jump would put the Nets at 36-46 on the season. Hardly a banner year, but it would be another step in the right direction and the Eastern Conference is so weak this year, 36 wins may be enough to sneak in as the eight seed.

But if the Nets are going to take another step forward, a leader must emerge. The one thing that every great team has is a star to build around. That’s the most important piece on any team. The Nets have done an excellent job at acquiring role players and the types of players to fill out a rotation, but there’s a missing piece. It doesn’t appear that the Nets are going to trade for a star during the season unless the Jimmy Butler situation changes dramatically — and it’s impossible to rule anything out at this point.

D’Angelo Russell is the guy who must step up if Brooklyn wants to see another year of improvement and a playoff berth for the first time since 2015. The former second overall pick has all the physical tools and skills to develop into a star, but he hasn’t quite figured it out yet. To make room for Lonzo Ball, the Los Angeles Lakers dealt Russell to the Nets in 2017 in order to dump Timofey Mozgov’s salary. The hope was that the change of scenery would allow Russell to blossom into the superstar that many believed he could become.

That didn’t happen in year one, but Russell dealt with a string of injury problems and only suited up in 48 games. He never got into a rhythm and he never had the time to develop chemistry in his teammates. Luckily for the Nets, Spencer Dinwiddie emerged as a revelation and he picked up the slack in Russell’s absence.

But despite Dinwiddie’s breakout season, this team still belongs to Russell. The Nets have an opportunity to surprise people this season and if they do, D’Angelo Russell will be a big part of it. It’s imperative that the Nets showcase their potential this year with the intriguing crop of potential free agents in 2019.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.