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Off-Season Report - No. 1

Every weekend, we’ll be updating the Nets’ off-season with bits and pieces of information, gossip, etc. to help fans get ready for ... whatever.

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Another disappointing season is behind us. Of course, this one wasn’t just disappointing. It was downright disastrous. The team was abandoned by two of the biggest stars in the NBA, two future Hall of Famers. A head coach already in the Hall was canned, a possible replacement with baggage was eliminated from contention because the league office didn’t want the Nets to hire him. There were controversies that had nothing to do with basketball ... again. There were trade requests, then trade demands, injuries to key players.

Finally, at the deadline, it all went kaput. Everyone gave up on the team’s championship prospects and the franchise was damaged ... badly. Some of the young core gave it their best as did the head coach as the season wore down, but in the end, they couldn’t win a single playoff game and for the second straight year, your Brooklyn Nets were the only playoff team that didn’t give its fans a post-season moment to celebrate.

It’s hard to figure who was most to blame because the full scale and scope of what went down at HSS Training Center has never been fully revealed. The Nets franchise is insular, opaque — unabashedly so. State secrets must be protected. But there was one theme that was obvious: no one — and everyone — seemed in charge. Structure was wanting, as Harden said.

The rock may not be at the bottom of the hill, but Sisyphus sure has his hands full.

Yet, all is not completely lost. The Nets have a franchise player in Mikal Bridges, the anti-star star. They have supporting players, solid citizens all, as well as more draft capital than the franchise has possibly ever had. And whatever you think of Jacque Vaughn, the head coach position and coaching staff are stable ... as is the front office and ownership.

And based on this exchange Monday, Bridges and Cam Johnson, the Nets big restricted free agent, think they’ll be back in Brooklyn...

One thing we don’t yet know is just how much good will exists towards the Nets. How will free agents view Brooklyn in the coming months and years? KD and Kyrie who famously and surprisingly wanted the franchise in 2019 famously and less surprisingly wanted out less than four years later. James Harden didn’t even wait that long. The relationship between Ben Simmons and the franchise would appear strained and who knows if he will return to his former self. Meanwhile, Joe Tsai, has been accused of all manner of anti-social behavior up to and including being an accessory to genocide, all of stemming from his decisions regarding Irving. It’s gotten ridiculous.

So what’s next? In talking to ESPN and the media, Marks suggested strongly that he wants to give the core that finished 2022-23 another chance, indicating a rebuild or retool that might take longer than fans would like to see. Marks did say the Nets would be ready for anything that comes along but unlike perhaps every GM in sports history did not use the word, “aggressive,” in his post-season commentaries. He did use the words, “patience” and “poise.”. That should tell you something.

We probably won’t get much of a read on what the Nets are planning in the short term till June 22, the night of the NBA Draft. Marks and his team typically do a lot of heavy lifting on Draft Night. In the interim, we might see other indicators like the comings and goings of key personnel. Will they hire or fire assistant coaches, scouts, training staff, etc., etc.? Will other teams try to poach their best? They may have an assistant coach opening, having never filled Vaughn’s position after he was elevated to head coach. Sometimes, all that’s just the normal ebb and flow of a big organization and too much can be read into it. (The chefs’ jobs do seem secure, based on Cam Johnson’s five-star review.)

Nets fandom gets a lot of grief. There aren’t enough of them. They aren’t loyal enough or they don’t cheer loud enough and there’s always a section of Barclays Center occupied by the opposing team’s fans. Whatever. At this point, it would appear, fans are in a wait-and-see mode. Not a bad place to be considering.

Moving on...

Draft Sleeper of the Week

Could it be anyone other than Rayan Rupert, the 6’7” French wing who Sean Marks scouted earlier this year in Brisbane, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand. Assuming that it wasn’t a working holiday for the New Zealand native, it’s the farthest Marks has gone to scout a draft prospect. And he wasn’t alone: the Nets top talent evaluator, B.J. Johnson, was with him.

Rupert has been a member of the French national U16 and U18 team and played for the New Zealand Breakers, part of Australia’s National Basketball League, this season after playing for Paris INSEP which has produced a number of NBA players, most notably the Spurs Tony Parker. He is likely to be a member of the French Olympic team along with top draft prospect Victor Wembanyama in 2024. The Olympics will be played in Paris.

Now in Dallas working out in preparation for the June 22 Draft, Rupert specifically mentioned the Nets and his “favorite player,” Mikal Bridges, in an interview with Jonathan Givony, ESPN’s draft guru.

“I’m watching a lot of Nets games. My favorite player is Mikal Bridges,” he said earlier this month. “He plays with great energy and can do everything on the court. He used to be a ‘3-and-D player’ like me, but now he is a franchise player. I love everything about him.”

Is he lobbying to be picked by Brooklyn??

Rupert would be a long-term development project if the Nets were able to move up and pick him or he drops. He doesn’t turn 19 till May 31. Currently, he’s mocked at around No. 15 and the Nets two picks are at Nos. 21 and 22. Obviously, the Nets have a number of wings, but when you’re rebuilding, you take the best player available. Rupert’s big calling card is defense...

“I can bring now a lot of things to an NBA team,” said Rupert. “I can change the game with my defense.”

While in Dallas, Rupert is working out with Tim Martin, who has worked with Wembanyama and Nic Claxton previously.

Would the Nets try to move up to get Rupert? We don’t know if their level of interest is that high, but getting from 21 and 22 without other emoluments like a player, another pick and cash would not be easy. Moreover, it doesn’t happen that often that high in the Draft.

Roster status

As we’ve noted, Sean Marks has had good things to say about his core.

”I think it was the spirt, the collective spirit of the group,” said Marks when asked last Sunday 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 the week before, 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.”

He also noted there are needs that have to be addressed

“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 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.”

Of course, as more than one pundit has noted, Marks and the Nets do a lot of talking about the need for rebounding but the Nets have never finished higher than 24th in defensive rebounding over the past six years despite numerous roster reconstructions.

So who do we think will be back? Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton and Cam Johnson, as long as they re-sign him, all are givens for next season’s roster, despite what fans in Portland, Houston, Memphis and other venues may think. Day’Ron Sharpe seems a keeper as well, a good long-term investment.

At the other end of scale, Seth Curry has reportedly erased the Brooklyn Nets from his social media, Joe Harris has admitted he’s not the same player he once was as he approaches his 32nd birthday. He’ll earn just short of $20 million next season. Would the Nets move him? Could they? Edmond Sumner who has a $2.2 million player option on July 5 seems unlikely to get that second year. Overall, there are eight expiring deals, but that includes Johnson, David Duke Jr. and one of the the two-ways, Dru Smith.

It’s the in-between where the Nets might make some moves. There are too many wings and not enough bigs as every Nets fan knows. Royce O’Neale’s contract is only guaranteed $2.5 million on a $9.5 million expiring contract while Dorian Finney-Smith has $43 million and three years left (the final year at $15.4 million is a player option.) Brian Lewis reported that the Nets got an offer of two first round picks for DFS shortly after the Kyrie Irving trade but said no. Similarly, Mike Scotto said the Nets had an offer of one first for O’Neale. Yuta Watanabe played well in spurts but also suffered from a back injury.

Then, there are the intriguing guard corps. The Nets could get something in return for Spencer Dinwiddie’s $20.4 million expiring deal but right now, with Ben Simmons status still undetermined. he’s their only experienced PG. More than one pundit has suggested Din would be an ideal sixth man IF the Nets could find a point guard or if Simmons is ready to go next season. And what about Patty Mills? He will turn 35 before next season and will earn $6.8 million. He played sparingly last season. What do the Nets want to do with him? Keep him, trade him, buy him out?

Finally, there’s Cam Thomas, the center of fan debate since he arrived. The general consensus among fans is that the Nets could if they wanted get a first rounder for him. Reportedly, they were offered a first at the deadline back in February, but details are sketchy. Who was the team that offered the first? Would it have been protected? When would it have be available? In any event, the Nets said no. Alex Schiffer in his mail bag this week isn’t so sure about Thomas’s trade value, that other teams might want him to improve in the same areas the Nets do.

“[I]f the Nets can’t get Thomas to try and impact the game in ways outside of scoring, why would another team think they could unless they want him to just go out there and chuck it?” Schiffer wrote.

Of course, it only takes one GM to fall in love.

Should we expect a housecleaning? Probably not. Might we see about half the roster turn over? Probably, but that’s not based on much other than what Marks said last weekend and the number of expiring deals. As for adding bigs, we heard other reports in the middle of the season that they might have interest in Naz Reid, the 6’9” New Jersey product who is an unrestricted free agent. He might be a target. So might other free agents like 6’10” Thomas Bryant, 7’1” Jakob Poetl. At the higher end, there’s Nikola Vucevic, Jerami Grant, etc. The question is how to get them, how much to give up? Again, Draft Night and the week after is likely to be busy.

We would have liked to put all this in the context of the new CBA which goes into effect July 1, but the pundits and draftniks are still trying to get their heads around things. Expect to see more details on the consequences in the next week. One thing is certain: it will be a lot more expensive and a lot more difficult to spend on the level the Nets have in the Prokhorov and Tsai eras. There are additional sanctions for big spenders and it’s not just about money any more. Big spending teams face things. As Tim Bontemps of ESPN wrote last week in a general discussion of the CBA:

Some of those limitations include the inability to sign any free agents for more than a minimum contract, being unable to use cash in trades and being unable to sign players on the buyout market after the trade deadline.

But if you’re not the Warriors and Clippers — and the old Nets — there are benefits to the new CBA.

The lower bands of the luxury tax were reduced to make it less painful to spend into it, trade restrictions were loosened to make deals more possible — including the midlevel exception now allowed to be used as a trade exception — and increasing the size of both the midlevel and biannual exceptions.

Also, the CBA permits the signing of an additional two-way contract. RaiQuan Gray, the 6’8” forward who is under contract already for next year, acquitted himself well in the season finale. In the past, the Nets have used the two-way contract to bolster their bench. With the additional spot, might they go deeper into development mode?

If you’re looking for a good analysis of the details, Bontemps, Bobby Marks and Kevin Pelton gave it their best shot earlier this week.

One thing to watch at the end of June and beginning of July — other than draft picks and trades, etc. — is how the Nets sequence their moves. Certain players have to sign at certain times so teams can use all the cap rules to their advantage. To stay under the luxury tax threshold or the apron, expect them to sign players to the exceptions first, hold off on getting autographs from Johnson and whatever Draft picks they keep. Trades may also have to wait.

Awards, records, etc.

There are still a number of awards left to be handed out, like MVP and the All-Defense and All-NBA teams. No Nets are in line for the first two but Nic Claxton has a good shot, we’d think, at All-Defense and Mikal Bridges a long shot at All-NBA third team. (and yes, at least one player in NBA history missed out on an All-Star nod but made All-NBA third team: Drazen Petrovic in 1993.)

So far, Claxton has finished 10th in the Defensive Player of the Week and fifth in Most Improved. Bridges finished fourth in the MIP balloting. At the season ticket holder event last month, Claxton told fans that if he doesn’t get a berth on the All-Defensive team, everyone involved should be fired. Fans cheered.

Claxton also finished first in field goal percentage with a 70.5% mark as well as effective field goal percentage (70.5%) and two-point percentage (70.8%) while Bridges led the league in games (83), minutes (2,963) and miles traveled (224). It’s the second straight year Bridges led the league in all those categories. We don’t think that’s ever been done before.

All those numbers were also Nets records.

Dorian Finney-Smith’s surgery

On Wednesday, the Nets issued a medical update on Dorian Finney-Smith:

Dorian Finney-Smith underwent surgery today to correct a contracture of the right fifth finger. The procedure was performed by Dr. Michelle Carlson at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Finney-Smith is expected to be fully cleared for offseason workouts in approximately six weeks.

So what is a “contracture of the right fifth finger,” aka the pinky on DFS shooting hand? We asked and it’s a bent finger and the procedure was simply to straighten it out. The timing indicates that it wasn’t something crucial. He and the Nets waited till after the season ended. Will it help his shooting? Can’t hurt. DFS shooting dropped precipitously after he was traded from Dallas to Brooklyn. After he put up shooting splits of 42/36/75 in 40 games with the Mavericks, Finney-Smith could only manage 35/31/79 in 26 with the Nets

Final Note

Next game at Barclays Center: Liberty vs. Fever, May 21, at 2:00 p.m. Be there.