How close are the Nets to legitimate championship contention?

With an improving, young core, the Nets are closer to title contention than expected
Beyond attracting players like Kawhi Leonard, the Nets will need Jarrett Allen and others to hit their peak to reach championship potential. (AP)

The 2018-19 Nets have surprised the basketball world. Some may have picked them to be a back-end playoff contender before the season, but few would have imagined they'd be sitting above .500 in January after an 8-18 start and Caris LeVert's injury.

Over the next 35 games, Brooklyn still needs to prove itself and earn one of the three playoff spots firmly up for grabs in the East. However, their early-season success begs the question: How close are the Nets?

Yes, how close are they to leaping past simple playoff contention and into championship contention?

Not long ago, this question would have sounded a little ridiculous. Last offseason, the team was still without their own draft pick and had few long-term pieces. Yet, over the last few years, Brooklyn has slowly cobbled together a combination of draft successes and unearthed gems from other franchises into a growing core, one that plants a firm foundation for future success.

In the draft, they've added LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs, among others. Before his injury, LeVert had the makings of an All-Star combo guard, and that is still on the table moving forward. Allen is the prototype for a modern, rim-protecting center and Kurucs .

From outside the organization, Sean Marks and his front office brought aboard Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris for nothing and have seen them flourish into at least rotation-level players for a championship-seeking team. Marks also brought in D'Angelo Russell via trade and, at 22, the point guard is narrowly on the outside looking in for an All-Star bid.

That's the current core and the salary-cap situation looks relatively good with that group. Dinwiddie, Allen and Kurucs are all years away from free agency while the team's largest contracts -- DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe -- expire over the next two years, respectively.

What could complicate things is Russell and LeVert's upcoming restricted free agency. Brooklyn needs to determine if one or both can be lead guards in their next contention window as they'll be expensive to keep and holding onto both, alongside Dinwiddie, locks the team into that core for the most part.

Still, the Nets can create cap space for a max-contract player over the next two seasons. Like 80 percent of the league, Brooklyn would vault into or near championship pole position if Kevin Durant came aboard in July. Adding an in-his-prime, once-in-a-generation talent on the wing -- a position of need for the Nets -- would transform Marks' fledgling program into a juggernaut.

But adding KD is a pipe dream for just about every franchise, even with the bright lights of New York. Ditto for Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson, the other top targets in the next free agent class. The Nets certainly will have a pitch ready for these players, but most analysts speculate they'll all either stay in place, head to Los Angeles or join the Knicks, with few whispers mentioning Brooklyn.

Beyond those top talents, next year's free agent class is deep, but not quite impactful enough to jumpstart the Nets' championship window. Khris Middleton and Kemba Walker are a tier below and can be the No. 2 or 3 player on a championship team, but not the No. 1, something the Nets need. JJ Redick's home in Brooklyn makes him a potential target, but the sharpshooter isn't a star.
The 2020 class likely won't elicit the same type of top-tier, unrestricted free agents and it's hard to forecast what free agents will be up for grabs in 2021 or even what Brooklyn's cap sheet will look like. Simply keeping its current roster could cap out the team.

Still, there are other places to turn for the stars necessary to win a title. The first would be the draft. If the Nets were tanking this season, they could dream on adding Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett, but instead they're firmly in the playoff picture, meaning they'll likely settle for a mid-round pick. They've cultivated talent in that part of the draft, but finding stars there is a tough proposition.

Brooklyn could already have that star in-house. Kenny Atkinson's emphasis on player development looms large in the team's rebuild and is a tremendous part of why their draft picks have panned out. The team already has a No. 2 overall pick (Russell), while LeVert and Allen are both young and still improving. In the three-point shooting and wing-driven NBA, it's more likely Russell or LeVert, if anyone, would be that player, but Allen has already put the NBA on notice with block after block.

Then there's the trade market. Anthony Davis is the next big star who could be available, but the Celtics, Lakers and Sixers seem a step ahead of the Nets with their potential packages and ability to contend right away. But fast forward a year or two and Brooklyn might be in the best spot to put together a package for a Davis-level star.

If its young players progress as expected, the franchise could have next-tier talent on premium deals while having all of its own picks, which has been a hinderance over the last half-decade. Furthermore, the Nets could acquire a less-heralded player and help turn them into a game-changer.

The current top of the Eastern Conference has some staying power with a combination of top-flight stars (Giannis, Leonard, Irving, Oladipo and the Big Three in Philly), budding talent (Toronto's entire bench, Jayson Tatum and Myles Turner) and potential stability.

Still, the pending free agencies of Leonard, Irving, Middleton and Eric Bledsoe could shake up a few teams.

Of the current top five in the East, the Pacers and Raptors provide potential maps to contention. The Pacers acquired Victor Oladipo before he turned into a star and have built a dependable cast of supporting talent around him. Toronto, meanwhile, made a similar deal for Kyle Lowry and then used both a developed second-tier star (DeMar DeRozan) and their treasure trove of young talent to deal for a top-10 player.

For both Indiana and Toronto, those plans took a while to come together and involved a star leaving and playoff failures. The Nets still need to become playoff-tested before they can dream of championships, and that's before you factor in further talent acquisition and development.

Upcoming free agents can see what Brooklyn has built both in terms of talent and infrastructure with a sterling practice facility and impressive front office. Those are enticing and the Nets have a built-in advantage with New York City. Still, attracting or producing the player that will put them over the top can be a difficult process.

The Nets have waded into that process and are acquitting themselves well. Beyond a star like Durant falling into their laps, they sit a few years of careful planning and breaks caught before the real championship window opens up.