For the past two seasons, the Brooklyn Nets have lingered in basketball purgatory. The disastrous aftermath of the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade from 2013 left general manager Sean Marks without a first round pick through 2018 as he embarked on the challenging process of reconstructing the roster.
One of the building blocks for the Nets was supposed to be point guard Jeremy Lin, who signed a three-year, $36 million deal in 2016, returning to the city where he captured the imagination of basketball fans worldwide in his Linsanity run with the New York Knicks.
After leaving the Knicks, Lin shuffled from Houston to Los Angeles before spending the 2015-16 season with the Charlotte Hornets, where he finished seventh in Sixth Man of the Year voting. In Brooklyn, Lin had a chance to re-establish himself as a starting point guard in the NBA, but his first season in Brooklyn was riddled with injuries. He appeared in just 36 games, averaging 14.5 points and 5.1 assists. With a lost first year, expectations were higher. The Nets spent the offseason upgrading their roster, acquiring D'Angelo Russell in a trade with the Lakers, and adding Allen Crabbe in a later deal with Portland.
But everything came crashing down during Brooklyn's opening night against the Pacers, as Lin landed awkwardly in a drive to the basket, suffering a ruptured patellar tendon on his right knee that required surgery and will keep him out for the rest of the 2017-18 season.
Damon Stoudamire suffered the same injury in 2006 with the Grizzlies and returned to play two more seasons toward the end of his career, but wasn't the same player after averaging double digits in scoring for his first 11 seasons before the injury. Alonzo Mourning, Joel Przybilla and Caron Butler also had the same setback during their careers.
Lin will be 30 at the start of next season, heading into the final year of his contract, recovering from a major injury. Much of his offensive game is predicated on his ability to attack at the basket. Any loss of explosiveness in his return will hamper the skills he brings as a scoring point guard.
At the same time, the Nets will shift their focus for the rest of this season to developing the tandem of Russell and Caris LeVert. "It's a blow to our team but I think we've got a lot of guys who can step up in his position," Atkinson said after Lin's injury. "So, we're trying to look at that, see what guys can step up and turn a negative into a positive. Like I said we've got a lot of guards, so we're going to fill that void in any way we can."
While the organization has been supportive of Lin even as the injuries have piled up during his tenure with the Nets, it's a legitimate question as to whether the team will look to shift Lin into a bench role when he returns. There were always questions as to whether Lin and Russell would fit together in the backcourt. The Nets were committed to finding out, starting both on opening night. Russell, like Lin, is a ball-dominant player, but there was a belief that the two could operate as combo guards in tandem on offense, playing off each other and sharing ball-handling responsibilities. Now, we might never find out.
The sixth man role suited Lin well in Charlotte, but for his career, he is a 43.3 percent shooter from the field and a 35.0 percent shooter from beyond the arc. It's possible when he returns from injury, Lin will face the same questions that has hampered him since his time with the Knicks: he's a player who needs the ball in his hands to contribute on offense but isn't efficient enough to be the primary ball handler and scorer on a contending team.
As a team, the Nets were in a position to hand the keys to Lin for a few seasons, as a stop-gap and for the point guard to prove that he could run the show with a roster that was nowhere close to contending. With his season-ending injury, the window might have closed for Lin to re-establish himself as a starting point guard in the league.