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ANALYSIS: Defense should mean a ‘rebuild’ not a ‘tear down’ for Nets

In his day job, ProfessorB is an award-winning social scientist. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major media outlets. But he also dabbles in NetsWorld 

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Brooklyn’s superstar era has ended with a stomach-churning thud, and the future begins now. While some fans will be busy pointing fingers for years to come, most are ready to turn the page on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and consider what the team will look like for the rest of this season and after.

The Nets are obviously no longer contending for a title—if they ever were. But the rebuild is not a teardown. Sean Marks has assembled a gritty team that should bottom out with a brief spell of mediocrity, then grow organically with frequent infusions of young draft talent over the next several years.

Judging by real plus-minus ratings, the Nets should have a smothering defense. Their three most productive players—Nic Claxton, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Mikal Bridges—are all top-50 NBA defenders. The next tier in overall productivity—Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale, Ben Simmons, and Joe Harris—are also plus defenders. Of course, three of these seven guys are new to the team, and some gelling will probably be required.

The more pressing issues will be on the offensive end. Claxton, Dinwiddie, and Bridges have been merely average offensively this season, while Finney-Smith, O’Neale, Simmons, and Harris have been outright liabilities. How large a share of total minutes can these seven guys play? Even terrific defensive teams seldom pitch shutouts, and someone will have to score.

Where will the offense come from? One obvious answer is Cam Thomas, who has been on an historic scoring tear. In 319 minutes without KD and Kyrie this season, he has averaged 39points per 100 possessions on .635 true-shooting. But the last week aside, Thomas has still been giving up more on the defensive end than he adds on offense. A lot of the Nets’ short-term success will ride on how quickly he matures as an all-around NBA player.

The other most likely offensive mainstay is a new face, Cam Johnson. He has only played 17 games this season due to a torn meniscus. But as Nets fans saw in his first game back a few weeks ago, he seems to be fully recovered and ready to ball. In his limited minutes he has scored 26.9 points per 100 possessions on 19.8 field goal attempts (true-shooting .629). Those are all career highs. Johnson has also been a strong playoff performer, scoring 20.8 points per 100 possessions on .658 true-shooting in 34 playoff games with the Suns.

Dinwiddie and Edmond Sumner figure to supplement the Dual Cam offense (as longtime NetsDaily poster Netted has dubbed it). Both are scoring about 25 points per 100 possessions this season with .599 and .594 true-shooting efficiency, respectively. Equally important, they will cover the point guard duties when Simmons is not on the floor—Dinwiddie very effectively (he has posted 7.5 assists and just 2.5 turnovers per 100 possessions in two seasons alongside and behind Luka Doncic in Dallas) and Sumner somewhat less so.

The last four guys on the roster (one remaining open spot may be filled in the buy-out market) include a veteran locker room leader (Patty Mills), a big development project (Day’RonSharpe), a shooter whose trade value probably succumbed to injury (Seth Curry), and wild card fan favorite Yuta Watanabe. All are likely to see limited action, pending injuries.

Sean Marks has long been aiming for roster flexibility in the summer of 2024, and this week’s flurry of deals leaves that plan mostly intact. Assuming that Johnson is re-signed this summer, the Nets will have five young players under contract at the end of next season—Bridges, Simmons, and Johnson, all entering what should be their prime years, and Thomas and Sharpe, presumably still ascending. Even with Nic Claxton due for a big contract, they should be able to add significant talent. Depending on how things go, that could mean retaining some of their own veteran free agents, like Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, and Sumner. Or it could mean aiming for a younger star from what looks like a strong pool of free agents.

Perhaps the biggest question looming over the Nets’ future is whether and when Simmons will regain his all-star form. If he is mostly or fully recovered next season, re-signing Claxton and making an incremental addition or two could give the team an excellent young core and a promising cache of draft picks. But if Simmons does not improve, Marks (or his successor) will face a tough decision—whether to keep paying him or spend draft capital to clear the decks for additional moves.

One way or another, the next year and a half are likely to be a transitional era—a Brooklyn bridge from the ill-fated “clean sweep” to a very different future. Star-chasing fans may drift away; but for those who remain, it should be an interesting ride.