The Brooklyn Nets are in an interesting position heading into year three of the rebuild.
The pendulum swings one way: They need to show consistent improvement under Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson, both entering the third year of their four-year contracts. And the worst case scenario is they finally have both their own draft pick and more cap space, the first time you can say that since they moved to Brooklyn.
They’ve put themselves in position to play hard and hopefully be competitive with a group of young guys who’ve been there. Of course, the Nets were a competitive team last year. They played 49 games in which they were ahead or within five points with five minutes left. Problem is they often fell apart in those last five minutes. They needed a boost to close out some of those games.
Injuries didn’t help, but it was more than that. They need guys that will buy in defensively as well as hit the big shot, particularly on the road.
There’s a lot to improve upon and a lot of steps needed to get there. It will not happen overnight. That said, they’ll still need to address certain things and make smart decisions for the future ... and this upcoming season. They have a ton of money entering next season, so whatever they do shouldn’t affect what they have going into next year. In short, they have to prove they’re worthy of two max players ... if they wind up with enough to pay them.
That’s how this offseason and ultimately next season will be judged: Did they improve enough to lure in a few marquee names next year?
The bar isn’t set too high, but it’s time for respectability.
The Nets need a lot of things, but for starters they’ll need to get a serviceable big that can share time with Jarrett Allen.
The market for bigs that can shoot the ball is at an all-time high. The Nets can really use one, but shouldn’t overspend just to get one. They need an athletic big that is OK with taking a backseat to Allen’s development. To me, a veteran big to mentor him would be ideal.
It’s important the Nets have as many shooters on the floor as possible. Still, they showed why they don’t need all five on the floor to be perimeter guys. Allen showed us what the Nets are looking for in a big man. He’s a good rim runner with a ridiculous 7’6” wingspan.
He’s far from perfect but he’s molding into the modern big that teams need when playing the pace and space style. What we’ve learned about Kenny Atkinson’s system is that the big isn’t the focal point. He needs to be ready to do the little things that maximize their options when playing a high-paced, offensive savvy game (i.e. lobs and blocks).
We saw a mid-range game from Allen in college, but hardly saw it in the NBA. The Nets don’t want to take those kinds of shots. They’d rather take a three while that big is planted down low for the rebound and that is precisely what he’s working on when he’s not in the weight room.
Aside from the importance of the big in the rotation, the Nets learned why they can’t go completely small in games. They entered the off-season with two players taller than 6’10.” One was Allen, one was Jahlil Okafor who’s unlikely to be back and the other was Timofey Mozgov, who’s gone already.
This leaves Quincy Acy (6’7”), Dante Cunningham (6’8”), DeMarre Carroll (6’8”) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6’8”) as the biggest players on the floor for the Nets other than the two rookies who are 6’9” but perimeter players. The plan is clear: Shoot a lot of threes and force teams out to the perimeter.
Problem was the plan often ended in a career night for the opposing team’s big and a loss.
Joe Harris (Unrestricted FA): Harris shot the three ball at 41 percent and ranked second in the NBA for finishes at the rim, behind only LeBron James. He is very well respected by his teammates and coaches. It’s hard to see Harris commanding more than $6-to-$8 million per year, around what the Nets are likely to offer. He’s said he wants to be back and the Nets have made it clear they’d like him back.
Jahlil Okafor (Unrestricted FA): Unless the Nets really want to make Okafor an experiment, it’s hard to see him coming back. He showed exactly why he’s not a fit for today’s NBA. Their limited interest in Okafor was apparent last season as he averaged 12.6 minutes in 26 games with the team.
He’s slow and doesn’t rebound nor defend. Yes, he can do work in the post and he’s only 22-years-old. But the Nets don’t utilize the post-game much and his skillset simply doesn’t match what they’re trying to do. Maybe they bring him back for cheap… if he even wants to come back. Moreover, he’s one of the very few Nets not working out at HSS. He’s been in Miami, on his own.
Quincy Acy (Unrestricted FA): Acy wasn’t a bad role player for the Nets this season. He was slammed by the fan base, but it just seemed like he was a victim of circumstance with the Nets trying to go small and spread the floor. Moreover, he was hit with nagging injuries a lot of the season.
For the most part he did his job, hitting 35 percent of his 3-pointers in 19 minutes per game. He was a liability on the defensive end where he had to defend much bigger and stronger players. He’s a good culture guy who is also very respected by his teammates. He’ll land somewhere if it isn’t with the Nets.
Dante Cunningham (Unrestricted FA): Cunningham served his purpose in a small sample size of 22 games this season. He, like Acy, was brought in to bring his defender out to the 3-point line where he shots 38 percent. Aside from that, the Nets see him as somebody who might be able to play the veteran leader role. They don’t have a lot of options with him in terms of Bird Rights. He gave those up when he joined Brooklyn. He’ll have to be paid out of cap space. And it’s hard to see both come back if the Nets find a solid big man.
Isaiah Whitehead (Team option): Two years in the league and a whole lot of uncertainty for Isaiah Whitehead. He spent most of his rookie season starting the point for a 20-win Nets team. Then, he lost his role to Spencer Dinwiddie, and spent most of his time with the Long Island Nets. He played much better at the 2 and even the 3 in the G League and the Nets believe those are the positions he’s going to play. Will it be with the Nets? Hard to tell, but his option is cheap. They’d only save $700,000 by not exercising it.
They already have a logjam at the guard position and he’s the last man in line behind D’Angelo Russell, Jeremy Lin and Dinwiddie. He also won’t be playing summer league due to a wrist injury. Perhaps the best thing for Whitehead would be a fresh start elsewhere, out of Brooklyn.
Nik Stauskas (Qualifying offer): The best thing we got out of Stauskas was his incredible nickname ‘Sauce Castillo’. In all seriousness, Stauskas wasn’t necessarily bad with the Nets, shooting 40 percent from three on a total of 99 attempts and the Nets love his work ethic and team-first mentality. The question is where he fits. He’s not a point guard but he’s a big undersized to play the wing position. Still, he can be like Joe Harris if he gets more of a chance and if he does, then he’ll need to prove that he can do more than just shoot. And if Harris goes elsewhere. The Nets have to decided the $5+ million qualifying offer Friday.
There should be a space here for potential trades, but there isn’t much out there other than speculation. It’s worth noting that with the logjam, it’s possible Brooklyn tries to part ways with Jeremy Lin before opening night. He might have some value and giving time to the kids is currently in their best interest. Three times in the last week, Zach Lowe of ESPN has suggested the Nets should offer Lin to Phoenix, asking for Dragan Bender and pieces in return.
That should sum everything up for the moment as we enter the first days of free agency . The Nets want to play the kids and see how they develop and compete. They want to preserve cap space. Obviously, they need to see improvement, especially with Russell, Hollis-Jefferson and D’Angelo Russell entering the final season of their rookie contracts. Then there are the kids, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs, both long-term projects (although that’s what we thought about Allen last year at this time.)
They won 28 games last season and it’s year three for this regime. Progress is important and they’re banking on this young core to become something worth talking about. If not, as we keep saying, they’ll have their own first round pick, a lot of money … and a much different roster next summer.
All that cap space, whether it’s $50 million or $70 million, may not mean much if they don’t show they can win this year. Another 20+ win season and a trip to the lottery isn’t going to encourage free agents. The Nets do have a lot going for them: the market, the facilities, the professionalism of the staff, their increasing rep for developing players. Still as Luis Scola said a year ago, “Once they win, they will get everyone they want, but all those other things don’t matter until you have a good team.”