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An off-season filled with questions and tough (but good) decisions

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NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

It’s like picking between the chicken and the steak. It’s never an easy decision, but whichever you pick is likely to pan out, depending on the chef, of course. The Brooklyn Nets find themselves in a chicken-or-steak scenario. They have a menu of tough decisions to make this upcoming summer but they’re good decisions ... and the chef has five stars.

It’s no secret by now that the Nets are in the discussion when it comes to marquee free agents, including the biggest of the big names, ones like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving. However, in order for them to open up cap space for two max players, Brooklyn would have to dump Allen Crabbe in a salary dump, renounce D’Angelo Russell and potentially let some of their own free agents walk namely, Ed Davis, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Shabazz Napier, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Treveon Graham. What about Alan Williams and Theo Pinson?

Sean Marks has preached a culture characterized by development, hard-work, continuity and cohesiveness. This leads us to a few questions entering the off-season, as Marks and Co. will determine how they’re going to continue to build this culture without hurting the foundation.

D’Angelo Russell

Let’s start with Russell, the 23-year-old rising All-Star who led Brooklyn straight into the playoffs following a 28-win season. Since the trade with Los Angeles, Russell has done everything the Nets wanted him to do. He matured both on and off the court, became a leader and bought into a team-first mentality.

“Hell yeah. I definitely want to be here,” Russell said at exit interviews. “But I also know it’s a business, too. So, I’m not going to play that role like I don’t know what could possibly happen.”

The most likely scenario is that DLo comes back. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN recently reported that the Nets and Russell will likely reach a deal before July 1 hits – the day he’s eligible to become a restricted free agent. And as we know, Woj doesn’t speculate. He works.

That begs the question(s). With guys like Durant on the market, would they want to partner him with another max free agent? If so, the Nets might find themselves in a pickle considering the fact that they would have to let Russell walk if they’re able to pair two of these guys up.

What would that mean for their culture? You know, all that talk about the importance of continuity and loyalty to craft that’s helped Brooklyn make improbable strides. Other players who have grown with him certainly want him back.

“Absolutely [want Russell back]. We’ve obviously built a great chemistry together playing together the last couple of years, and I feel like it’s only going to get better growing in the future,” said Caris LeVert.

While it’s understood that this is a business, loyalty is something that’s valued from both the players and GM’s because it’s so hard to come by these days. If they let him walk and bring in other players, what type of message would Marks be sending the rest of the guys on the team?

It would go against everything they’ve preached. Nets fans have embraced the 23-year-old as their own pride-and-joy, the top lottery pick they missed so much these past five years. There’s no correct answer to these questions. Two max free agents can make the Nets championship contenders right away, but how would it look if they let their young All-Star walk after a breakout season? Perhaps a little like Kristaps Porzingis’ situation with the Knicks, maybe even worse. KP wanted out.

It’s more likely than not that Russell returns, but make no mistake: He’s going to get paid. Right now, it’s just a matter of where.

Marquee free agents

This is all hypothetical at this point. But let’s discuss how the arrival of a truly big free agent at HSS Training Center could affect Brooklyn’s management style.

We’ll start with Sean Marks and his brass. This is someone who’s had full control over the organization since he first took over. Contrary to what happened under the last regime, Marks is in charge. He’s made all the hires from head coach Kenny Atkinson down to Mitch Heckart – Brooklyn’s Senior Manager of Public Relations. When it comes to assembling a roster, Marks and his crew obviously discuss things with Atkinson but Marks calls the shots and (typically) finds the best player available, then lets the head coach sort it out from there. So far, it’s worked.

What happens, though, if a player like Durant walks through that door with his agent Rich Kleiman and wants (demands?) changes around the organization? Again, all hypothetical, but the first thing he may mention is who he wants to play with ... and who he doesn’t.

Would Marks suddenly lose some of the power he’s gained in the three years he’s been GM? When you have a player of Durant’s caliber on your team, a lot of GM’s will take a backseat and allow the player to dictate what goes on, especially if he’s unhappy (see: LeBron James’ career or Deron Williams, who once referred to himself as “the assistant GM”!).

Marks doesn’t appear to be the type to let somebody walk into something HE built and inject their own vision. However, we haven’t seen him with a superstar on his roster.

There are other questions, too. Russell was Brooklyn’s best player this season, but he only averaged 30.2 minutes per game and just 29.6 in the playoffs. The coaching staff and performance team take a very conservative, analytical approach to how they distribute minutes. They’ve gotten away with some things along these lines, like putting limits on Russell’s and LeVert’s playing time in the playoffs.)

This would have to change if a superstar entered the picture. It would be awfully hard to sit one of the best players in the world just to meet an analytical model. That isn’t going to work.

These are all questions worth asking. Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson have never dealt with a superstar so it’s interesting to speculate. Things would have to change if a Kevin Durant caliber player showed up at Sunset Park.

So, how would they balance their systematic approach versus players’ egos/competitive nature? It’d be intriguing to see how everyone would adjust.

When to extend Caris LeVert?

The Nets will have another free agent decision come July 1, one that not a lot of fans are thinking about. Brooklyn can sign LeVert to an extension, one that would start in 2020-21. Do they extend him or let him become a restricted free agent on July 1, 2020? How much do they pay him? How will that effect their long-term strategy?

It’s going to be tricky. If, as rumored, KD wants to play with LeVert, you’d want to get an extension out of the way at the earliest possible moment, like 12:01 a.m. July 1. The price tag of course is the issue. LeVert has missed 78 games in his first three seasons with the Nets but when he’s been healthy, like the playoffs, he’s been awesome. How much does his history of injury —in Brooklyn and before that at Michigan— factor in negotiations? And about that KD-CLV connection. Does that give LeVert leverage? And finally how much are owners Mikhail Prokhorov and Joe Tsai willing to pay in luxury taxes, in 2021, in 2022, etc. A year from July, they’ll have to make a similar decision on Jarrett Allen. Like we said, good decisions, but tough ones.

Bring back the band?!

This is the most unlikely scenario, but it’s certainly worth discussing when continuity and cohesiveness are preached so much. For the first time since the team moved to Brooklyn, Nets fans became attached to an organically-built team. As they grinded their way through the season, winning tough games, dancing on the sidelines, coming back over and over again, everyone became a fan favorite.

They lost in the first round, but Barclays was packed out and loud after the All-Star break, as people began to see something forming ... and it was good.

A lot of that doesn’t happen without glue guys and veteran leaders such as Dudley, Davis, Carroll and even Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the only player who’s been with the organization longer than Marks and Atkinson. Seeing them go – at least a majority – would certainly hurt at least the image of culture.

“I think you guys were able to get to see it on the court, but I don’t think you’ve seen what goes on behind the scenes… They’re almost like an arm for Kenny where he can rely on his coaching staff and rely on the message being conveyed to the players through those guys,” Sean Marks said at exit interviews. “There’s a lot of free agents and players we’d like to keep on our own team here, so that’s a priority too.”

So, how would the Nets respond if they lose some of these guys? Does it stunt the development of the young guys, namely Jarrett Allen who reiterated his mantra that Dudley, Davis and Carroll were a huge part in his growth this past season.

How would losing these guys impact the idea of continuity? The Nets of the past are used to having a veteran presence year-after-year with Brook Lopez in the locker room, but the veterans that helped propel them both on and off the court are all on expiring deals. Dudley held a players-only film session after the Nets dropped to 8-18. They answered with a seven-game win streak and won 20 of the next 26, 34 of the last 56. Carroll counseled Russell. Davis mentored Allen.

These guys have all made it clear that they’d like to be back with Brooklyn, but there’s no commitment by any means. Davis is the most likely to return if he’ll accept a modest salary increase, to $11 million over two years. The Nets have his Non-Bird rights and can pay him up to that amount outside the cap.

Dudley said as recently as Monday that he thinks he can play another year or two, but what will he want in terms of salary ... and years. It’s hard to see a scenario in which the Nets bring Carroll back but you never know. The Nets do have both players’ Bird Rights so they too can be paid outside the cap. Would they bring back all three? Bet against that.

You wonder how much the Nets would lose when giving up glue guys like these. Like Marks and Atkinson said, it isn’t just the things we get to see on the court. It’s the things that happen behind the scenes.


Again, all of this is hypothetical, and as we’ve learned, never limit your horizons when looking at Marks’ next steps. There are the tangibles and intangibles that have grown into something that after three years are plainly visible, from courtside seats to an app viewed in the Philippines.

Still, when you take a step back, maybe two, and realize what type of decisions the Nets have to make now versus a couple years back or even last year – safe to say they’re in a good position. But now that they’ve put themselves in this good position, they ought to make the right decisions or else one mistake can stray them off the path.

And that’s the last thing Sean Marks wants.