When you’re the first team to be eliminated from the playoffs two years straight, you’ve got to take a deep look at everything — well, almost everything — in hopes of breaking through next time around.
Right at the top of team priorities is bringing back Cam Johnson, the 6’8” wing who like his “twin,” Mikal Bridges, took off after the trade deadline. After averaging 13.9 points and shooting 47/46/82 in Cleveland, he topped that in his 25 regular season games as a Net (all starts) with a 16.6 average on 47/37/85. Then, in the four games vs. Philly, he did it again, averaging 18.5 on 51/43/86. He’s a restricted free agent meaning the Nets can match any other team’s offer.
“Cam knows how we feel. JV & I sat with him this morning. We hope he’s back,” Sean Marks told reporters at the Nets “baggie day,” Sunday, the end-of-season media day. He’s a tremendous person. On and off the court high character, his IQ is off the charts. That’s exciting to be around...Hopefully he’s here.
“He’s a big priority for us, there’s no question of that,”
It may be costly. Johnson turned down a four-year, $72 million extension from Phoenix last summer and the most recent punditry has the price tag now at four and $90 million, the same as Bridges. As Marc Stein wrote Sunday, the Nets “are said to be determined to match incoming offers for Johnson.” The Rockets, with $59 million in cap space, have been tapped as the Nets most serious competitor.
Johnson, while non-committal, said positive things about his short time in New York.
“I have to do some evaluation on that front, you know? I’ve been pretty locked into the season and not necessarily looking too far ahead because it is a big unknown,: said Johnson. “But I’ve talked to the people here a little bit, in terms of how the season went and what the future could look like.
“Like I said, the people in this organization, I believe are very, very high-quality people. Everything from front office to coaching staff to performance staff to equipment staff, to chefs. I think our chefs are freaking incredible. And that is not lost upon me. I take that into very serious consideration and, you know, I don’t assume that that’s the case everywhere. I think there’s a special group of people here and that’s really, probably, the main thing that I take away from this end-of-season push.”
Asked generally about the Nets future, Johnson was upbeat.
“I’m really excited. I think we have great pieces, I think we have great guys. I think we have competitive guys, winners. I think that means a lot in the league and I’m excited. I’m excited for the future, and I’m excited to see everybody’s individual and collective growth this summer.”
Both Johnson and Marks also had good things to say about Bridges, Johnson’s best friend on the Suns and Nets.
“I think Mikal’s a prime example of someone who’s ready to take advantage of that opportunity, and I’m super proud of him,” said Johnson.
“I think he’s proven to a lot of people that his role could get bigger and bigger...” Marks added.
While Marks didn’t shower the same amount of love on other Nets free agents, the GM surprisingly suggested that the Nets are not planning on a housecleaning and had good things to say about the current roster despite the sweep.
”I think it was the spirt, the collective spirit of the group,” said Marks when asked about what he liked about the group that finished the season. “it would be nice to see this group stick it out and be together as long as they can.”
Similarly, in an interview with Nick Friedell of ESPN last week, Marks said “We’ve never sort of had a group of young guys before that were under contract, proven, healthy and you can see a pathway of, ‘Hey, I can see what this may look like in two, three years from now.’ ... Not just Mikal, but all of them.”
That said, Marks admitted Brooklyn must get bigger and better.
“Without a doubt we need to make some changes in terms of adding some size. I think JV said it last night, add a little nastiness.” said Marks, echoing his head coach, Jacque Vaughn. “Without a doubt we need to make some changes. Add a little bit of the Brooklyn grit that we’ve talked about for sort of six years”
Marks also spoke positively about Ben Simmons (who was not made available to the media.) He said Simmons is improving, as Brian Lewis wrote last week.
“He is checking the boxes & meeting these different markers along the way. So at this point, he does not need surgery. That is the hope going forward, that he will not have to endure another surgery,” Marks said of Simmons. Lewis reported that the Nets and Simmons will make a final decision on surgery in early May.
As one would expect, Marks had nothing to say about rumors circulating around Damian Lillard who may be looking for a new address and Mike Scotto of Hoopshype wrote Sunday that NBA execs expect Brooklyn to pursue the 32-year-old if Portland makes him available, Marks did say that the Nets will take their time next time a superstar comes into view.
“Again we’ve always been prepared. I got to give my group a lot of credit they’ve always been prepared to debate and discuss everything so that when things do come across the table you’re not surprised by it,” Marks said of his front office. “I think in this day and age we’ve all seen players demand trades, players behind the scenes ask for this, teams change — whether it’s ownership groups or front offices and next thing you know they pivot.
“So we just have to be ready for whatever comes our way. And if we can make a change that we can compete, we’ll be strategic about it. Because I don’t think we want to put ourselves in a place where we’re costing the future for right now either.”
Marks also took pride in his draft capital. After the trade deadline, Brooklyn has 11 first rounders, all but one unprotected, a first round swap and seven seconds.
“There’s a lot of picks that are far enough out in the future that it just gives us the flexibility. We have a young group here that is wanting to compete. So we’re gonna be going after it every year,” said Marks.
“So how does the draft capital help us? Whether we draft them or whether these picks are used in trades down the line. Several of the picks are four, five, six years out, so there quite a ways out from now. The good news with that is that gives us flexibility with how we build.”
Indeed, Marks noted that the Nets draft cache is the fourth biggest in the NBA. The others with bigger caches are the Thunder, Jazz and the Rockets.
“There’s only three other teams in the league that have more first-round picks than us, from now until 2030. So, that’s part of the pathway, right? This group has shown an ability to to draft well, and the coaches have shown an ability to really develop players well. So for me, looking forward to that is exciting.”
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