Their colors are black and white, but the worry is that they catch a glimpse of gray. A gray area, that is.
The Nets have options, but their projected 32.5 wins by Vegas oddsmakers brings forth a very interesting conversation – and a potential nightmare scenario in Brooklyn.
They finally have their own pick, so losing doesn’t sting as much since the infamous Boston trade in 2013. They are also projected to have enough cap space for two max players but only if they prove worthy of garnering meetings with top free agents.
And this is where they hit the crossroads.
The Nets were a competitive club last season, but still finished with the eighth worst record in the NBA. They didn’t lose many key pieces in the offseason, but they also didn’t gain any that move the needle.
Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier, Kenneth Faried, Jared Dudley and Treveon Graham are solid second (maybe third) unit players, but again, none move the needle. Moreover, the roster they’ve constructed over the years is very young. It’s only been two seasons, but they haven’t done anything to fully convince people that they’re ready for the big jump.
If their plan is to go after free agents, they need the big jump.
The Brooklyn market is great and their top-class amenities are like few others around the league. Their reputation is growing as is their likability. Other than developing players, they haven’t accomplished anything yet, and we cannot pretend like they have just because they’ll have cap space and possibilities.
They took a big leap from 20 wins to 28 wins. So sure, improvement is crucial in building the culture and the only way guys start to buy in is if they see the results.
For them, the worst case scenario is falling into NBA limbo. Another eight-game improvement would be very impressive, but would a Kawhi Leonard and/or Kyrie Irving, for example, want to join a 36-46 team?
And what about the current Nets? A 36-win season is great for development, but that’s probably not going to get you into the playoffs and it’s not likely to get you a top-10 pick either.
It only gets more complicated from there. D’Angelo Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will each be up for extensions, while Jarrett both Allen and Caris LeVert have team options.
If they’re in the midst of another disappointing season in say January, they could be forced into a series of tough decisions. Do they trade for a big player, dumping their assets at the deadline? Play the kids in hopes of getting a lottery pick?
Then come next July, more decisions if they haven’t found success on the court. Do they overpay for above-average players just to maybe compete for an eighth seed in 2020? They learned that the hard way with Allen Crabbe that doesn’t always work. Do they hang on to the cap space for another year? How patient will ownership —and the fans— be?
Of course, there’s the optimistic outlook — that these same Nets can be the “surprise team” of the NBA and make a giant leap in a weaker Eastern Conference. They need a lot of things to go right. Guys will need to take on bigger roles and succeed in them. A player like D’Angelo Russell needs to have a breakout season similar to Victor Oladipo for example.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t make a push for the playoffs. Isn’t that the objective here?” Sean Marks said earlier this summer.
They played 49 games where they led or trailed by five with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. Only 18 of those turned out to be victories. We bring up the stat all the time, because it says a lot about how close yet so far they really were.
Most would say the safe route is tanking, but they refuse to (publicly) say anything about tanking, whether you believe it or not.
“This is not a year we’re just going to sit there because we control our own pick and say let’s just hope that pick is as good as it possibly can be,” said Marks.
“You never want to have a losing culture here,” he said.
Their identity is their work ethic and they’ve built an intriguing young core who have something to prove… and now will want to get paid. Furthermore, Marks and Atkinson are entering the third year of their four-year contracts this upcoming season.
Like the players, they need something to show for as they enter the final years of their contracts. There’s little doubt that both have done a very good job in turning this thing around since they were hired. Perhaps they’ve done such a good job of changing perspective that we’re spoiled in how fast this is actually happening, believing in our heart of hearts that progress is inexorable.
And that’s the point in all of this. Falling in limbo is the worst case scenario of this upcoming season. Watching both the playoffs and Draft Lottery hasn’t been fun the past three years and it wouldn’t be any more fun for a fourth time.
The Nets have all that cap space, all those picks going forward and a boatload of clips that talk about progress. All well and good, but at this point, without wins, it’s all secondary.