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Hollinger: Nets face hard choice on coach but are ‘probably good as is’

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For Nets fans who’ve been around for a while, John Hollinger’s analyses of the team while with ESPN and before that the New York Sun (remember that) were often difficult to accept. He was notorious for being a tough grader and an iconoclast (he liked to break things).

Now, after eight years in the Grizzlies front office, Hollinger has returned to basketball media, recently joining The Athletic. And once again, he’s a worthwhile read. Alex Schiffer, who covers the Nets for The Athletic, spoke with him recently about all things Nets from who the Nets might want as a head coach (think Spurs tree), whether he thought the Nets need a third star (not really) and whether they should keep Jarrett Allen (they should). He and Schiffer get deep into the weeds, too, even discussing who he’d keep among the players at the end of the bench (Rodions Kurucs!)

Bottom line is that Nets are in pretty good shape and maybe, they should sit tight. But if they don’t, he thinks they should go for a young big, someone like John Collins of the Hawks or if you want to think big big, Rudy Gobert.

On the next Nets head coach, Hollinger and Schiffer don’t even mention Jacque Vaughn! Hollinger thinks the Nets are now in contention mode and an experienced winning coach is the likely successor to Kenny Atkinson.

In contrast to how the Nets have operated up to this point, I don’t think an up-and-comer is going to be the answer here. The Nets will be after “names.”

And he names names, but as he ticks off the most commonly mentioned candidates, he offers counter arguments. The Nets would be a good “landing spot” for the former Cavs coach, but there are differing opinions on how Kyrie Irving feels about his former coach. Tom Thibodeau has a track record, but “his reputation is that he overworks guys over the course of the season” and then there’s “his inability to play well in the sandbox with management.”

He notes other big names as well: “La Familia Van Gundy” plus Mike D’Antoni and Brett Brown who may be free agents. Then he adds “I’ll add another San Antonio guy with both a Kyrie connection and a Durant connection that nobody talks about: Mike Brown.”

Brown was Irving’s head coach in Cleveland, and has had gigs with Lakers as a head coach and as an assistant with Indiana as the Spurs. He’s currently “associate head coach” in Golden State where he worked with with KD. (He’s also head coach of the Nigerian national team and recruited Spencer Dinwiddie to play for the green-and-white.)

Beyond the “names,” Hollinger talks about the fruit of the San Antonio coaching tree (which did produce Vaughn) and suggests Darvin Ham, a long-time Gregg Popovich acolyte now with the Bucks. Ham even had a short preseason stint with the New Jersey Nets in 2006.

Perhaps Hollinger’s most intriguing take, though is his answer Schiffer about whether the Nets need that elusive and mythical “third star.” Nah.

If by a “third star” you mean another player who needs the ball in his hands to be successful, I would say there are some serious diminishing returns from that and the Nets are probably good as is.

What the Nets need from a “third star” is the ability to punish teams without the ball, and hopefully to be a defensive anchor, because Irving sure as hell won’t be and Durant might be a bit compromised as he returns from his Achilles injury.

That said, he mentions Rudy Gobert, whose immaturity during the early days of the coronavirus have reportedly hurt him with his Jazz teammates and front office. The Jazz are also among the most financially fragile NBA teams. “[M]an, he’d be a pretty amazing third pillar for this franchise,” Hollinger gushed. Also in passing, he talks about the possibility of adding Bradley Beal. (Who among us doesn’t?)

Then, Hollinger goes in high gear discussing the Nets’ current roster, falling into his Grizzlies role as a talent evaluator. He thinks there will be competition for Joe Harris. He is not a big fan of DeAndre Jordan, suggesting his best role would a “decent back-up” to Allen, if at a high price.

They can’t be so shortsighted as to think that Jordan is a more important part of their future than Allen. The Nets could probably lock up Allen on a pretty decent deal right now given the thin market for centers, say $15 million a year or so for the four years following his rookie deal. That’s a nice deal for a starting center in his prime.

And the reality is that, even if they somehow think Jordan should play more next year (note: he shouldn’t), once you get two or three years down the road it’s pretty obvious that Allen is going to be the main guy in the middle.

Then, he gets brutal when talking about Taurean Prince’s two-year, $25 million extension.

They gave him $12 million for next year thinking he could be a starting caliber combo forward, but he was coming off a bad year in Atlanta and it went just as badly in Brooklyn. One way for the Nets to save Tsai some money would be by moving off that deal, but it might cost them a draft pick to do it.

As for the kids at the end of the bench, Hollinger goes one-by-one and offers some interesting takes, like Kurucs over Dzanan Musa, Chris Chiozza over Theo Pinson. As Schiffer notes, and Hollinger agrees, the Nets rivals next year, teams like the Lakers and Bucks, have a wealth of vets to help get them to the Finals.

Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: Pinson will be in another country next year. Luwawu-Cabarrot might join him, but he’s on a non-guaranteed deal, so the Nets have the luxury of waiting to see what happens with the rest of the roster. He was a mildly useful stopgap..,

Take Musa, for instance. The Nets invested a first-round pick in him and probably would like to ride this out another year in ideal circumstances, but at some point they have to admit that he’s probably not going to make it. His body remains a major concern, he still takes crazy shots, and he doesn’t shoot them accurately...

Kurucs is the one guy I’d most expect to be here next year. He had a rough 2019-20 season, but his rookie year was promising and at his best he reminds you of Andre Kirilenko with his length and ranginess. He still has to improve his strength and skill level, but there could be a role for him as a backup forward on this team.

He doesn’t think much of Nicolas Claxton, saying “I don’t think he can shoot, and I’m not sure he can play the 4.” The Nets might disagree. The 21-year-old shot 66/56/76 on Long Island.

Who does he like as veteran replacements? He reels off a list of possibilities:

[D]efensive specialists like Wesley Iwundu, JaKarr Sampson and Torrey Craig, and shooters or quasi-shooters like Kyle Korver, Markieff Morris, Pat Connaughton, Marco Belinelli, Sterling Brown and Damyean Dotson. (Interestingly, the Nets acquired Sampson’s G League rights last year.)

Okay, how about spitballing a trade? Take it away, John!

Imagine a deal where the Nets send out Dinwiddie, Prince, Musa and the first-round pick they have coming from Philadelphia this year, and take back Collins and perhaps another small contract. Such a deal would give the Nets enough room to keep Temple, re-sign Harris and use the full mid-level exception, while staying below the hard cap line that would trigger from using the full MLE. They’d still be a tax team in 2021-22 once they paid Collins, but this move would open up their strategic options for 2020-21.

There’s a lot more there. Thousands of words! Enjoy.