The Brooklyn Nets, by any measure, are at an organizational crossroads. Just three weeks ago, a surprisingly small amount of time given what has transpired since, they were kicked to the curb by the Philadelphia 76ers. Over the past two seasons, they’ve won the same amount of playoff games as you and I, or even the Houston Rockets.
Now, with the NBA Draft Lottery over and done and Nets brass watching prospects at the NBA Draft Combine after season-end tropical vacations, the organization has had its second to breathe. The Clean Sweep Era is long gone, the dust has settled. It is time to pick a new direction.
Ever the pragmatist, Spencer Dinwiddie outlined the possibilities for that new direction in his exit interview the morning after Brooklyn was eliminated:
“In my opinion, obviously, you have two very distinct paths. I think you’re looking at a team that kind of mirrors a Milwaukee without Giannis. So if you think you can go get a Giannis then are you probably a very, very good team at that point? Likely. If you don’t, you do have a bevy of draft picks and probably several guys that could net you more draft picks...they can go either route.”
Then, he paused, and tried to pretend this wasn’t an afterthought:
“And you know, shoot, they could also stand pat and roll the dice. I mean, all three of them have their pros and cons.”
So let’s review, using Dinwiddie’s analysis, mostly accurate, as a template. The Nets can:
- Move heaven and Earth to acquire a grade-A superstar — not just a star -- while keeping their current roster intact.
- “Stand pat and roll the dice” with their current roster, which, despite having the excuse of being Frankenstein’s Midseason Monster, is still clearly too short on offensive creation, the premium skill of the modern NBA, to be a comfortably .500 team.
- Use “a bevy of draft picks and probably several guys that could net you more draft picks.”
It’s abundantly clear which of those options is the most feasible path to a true contender. This offseason could be Brooklyn’s second chance to exercise that third option: truly rebuilding and trying to form a contender full of players not currently on the roster. Michael Scotto reported at the trade deadline that the Memphis Grizzlies offered four first-round picks for Mikal Bridges. Brian Lewis reported that, somehow, two were on the table for Dorian Finney-Smith. (I’d have to assume those picks to be heavily protected.)
For those of you justifiably enamored of Mikal Bridges and the homegrown Nic Claxton, Brooklyn’s second most valuable trade chip: Don’t worry. The Nets are not heading in this direction, given everything from the social media team’s constant promotion of Bridges to Sean Marks’ end-of-year comments.
His full interview alongside Jacque Vaughn, which lasted about fifteen minutes, had too many telling quotes to choose from, but among them were:
- “So hopefully, we’ve put ourselves in a place to attract our own group to come back and attract free agents.”
- “It’s going to be important to see how these guys develop over the summer, what they do. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of our core group, yet. They’re young enough that they should still be developing and that, to me, is exciting.”
- “I don’t think we’re in any hurry. We’re not going to be pushed to make changes just for the sake of making changes. I think will do our due diligence and give this group at least some time to build and come together.”
- And, on having a lot of (far in the) future first-round picks, but largely from other teams: “Well, it does take away the ability to tank and have a bad season. Right? I don’t control those picks...we have a young group here that is wanting to compete. So we’re gonna be going after it every year, there’s no sense that we would not, not with this group.”
And so on and so forth.
Things may work out - this is the NBA after all, predicting long-term futures is mostly a pointless exercise. As it stands now though, this is an aggravating miscalculation from Sean Marks and company.
It’s true for a few reasons, the first of which being that this is not a young core. Cam Johnson has turned 27 already. Dinwiddie and Finney-Smith are each 30. Bridges is entering his age-27 season with a ton of miles literally on his body. He only feels younger than that because he just stepped into far more offensive responsibilities in Brooklyn.
He is an excellent shot-maker, unquestionably. The displays of scoring craft he showed over just two months in Brooklyn were downright astounding given his career up to that point. But he is a long way from being capable of driving efficient offense, even running secondary pick-and-rolls to the extent of what, say, Khris Middleton does.
Brooklyn does not have the offensive threats necessary to prevent defenses from doubling Bridges off pick-and-rolls or showing aggressive help with physical man-to-man coverage, forcing him to make advanced, live-dribble passing reads. Hell, Kevin Durant had Devin Booker next to him and vice versa; the Denver Nuggets employed similar tactics to great success.
Bridges, a tremendously likable and hard-working player, is, reductively, somewhere between a good second option and a great third option on a worthy contender. The good news for the Nets is that there should be many teams around the league that feel the same way, beyond Memphis.
All we’ve heard about the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, set to engage on July 1st, is that it will make it extremely difficult for teams to stockpile three stars on three max contracts. The league wants to spread their top-tier talent around to more markets. Bridges’ value jumps in this context, as he’ll be making just less than $25 million in each of the next three seasons. So will Terry Rozier. Four first-rounders and juicy add-ons is a believable price for his services, and may only be the start to a potential bidding war occurring at what should be the zenith of his trade value.
Brooklyn is simply too far away from contention, even with a potential trade for Damian Lillard (more on that later), to get more out of Bridges than they would with his return package. That’ll happen when one of your max contracts is current Ben Simmons, ever the forgotten man. Making $78.2 million over the next two seasons, he’ll need to show significant improvements to even get back to neutral value - you can forget about recouping picks for him.
Trade for Lillard, the only feasible path to semi-contention that’s been floated for Brooklyn, and that’s about it for a team that will run into middle-class versions of the problems they faced this year: one-and-a-half guys that can dribble the ball. The roster will largely be stuck. Include Simmons in the Lillard trade, and the price balloons - offloading one of the NBA’s worst contracts and acquiring a star would completely empty out a suddenly juicy pick cabinet, leaving few avenues for further improvement ... considering how many of their picks are owned by Houston. Or, make it work some other way, and rely, truly rely, on Simmons becoming a productive player once more. Then, forget about other free agents, how on Earth do you re-sign Nic Claxton next summer?
Point being, screw this. Don’t become the Chicago Bulls and pivot to fake-contention, only to quickly pay the piper once expectations aren’t met. Brooklyn won’t, but should call the Portland Trail Blazers up and pull an Uno Reverse Card, aiming for the third pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
Offer Bridges, who we know Dame loves, and snag that third pick and whatever else Portland is willing to part with to keep their star in the PNW. It could be a chance to snag one of the top five guard prospects of the best decade, conservatively, in Scoot Henderson. With NBA groupthink, bafflingly, starting to tout Brandon Miller as the #2 guy in this class, and with the Charlotte Hornets set to pick in that slot with a franchise guard already in tow, this could be Brooklyn’s chance for a truly promising reset.
(For a more complete breakdown of Henderson’s game, which extends far beyond unbelievable dunks, read here. And hey, it’s not like Miller or, preferably, Amen Thompson would be pitiful consolation prizes.)
Trade Nic Claxton for a haul at next year’s deadline, how often do we hear fans of playoff teams say “the last thing we need is a switchable big”? See if those picks are still on the table for Finney-Smith and perhaps Royce O’Neale this offseason or next deadline. Let Cam Thomas cook, which we know he can, and sell high. Something tells me he may not want to spend more time in Brooklyn than he has to. Ride out the final two seasons of Simmons’ contract less stressfully, watching him give the ball up and prove opportunities to players Brooklyn finds late in the draft or in the bargain bin, which we’ve this front office and development team excel at.
Sean Marks may view his draft pick situation as unfavorable to rebuilding, but there’s another side to that coin: There is no shame in winning without your own picks. For example, there is the freedom to acquire players like (but not specifically) Russell Westbrook, culture-setters who may keep you out of worst-team-in-the-league territory, but put butts in the seats.
Marks discussed his excitement over the fact that “there’s only three other teams in the league that have more first-round picks than us, from now until 2030,” in his exit interview. They have 11 such picks, including those that the Houston Rockets have the right to swap. Seven of those picks occur from 2027-2029.
The Oklahoma City Thunder were in a similar situation after unloading Paul George and Russell Westbrook, absolutely loaded up on draft capital through the mid 2020s. Yet, their window is about to begin shortly, led by a stunning guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and a mid-first round draft pick in Jalen Williams. The rest of their picks will undoubtedly be used to cash in for a final piece to contend, whoever and whenever that may be.
It’s not apples-to-apples, as OKC did use their own pick to draft Josh Giddey, but Brooklyn should aim to set themselves up in a similar situation. Cash out on Bridges and potentially Claxton, and potentially find a key piece to a rebuild while amassing the NBA’s fattest collection of picks. Don’t worry about losing, it doesn’t matter. Build a real culture, this time from the ground up, hit on the picks you do have, whether they be in the mid or late first round. In a couple of seasons, with Ben Simmons’ contract off the books and real cap freedom, it will be time to cash in.
Writing 2000 words on something that has no chance of happening isn’t exactly a tenet of sportswriting. But Brooklyn has a chance to sell high on a middling core to enter into an exciting, proper rebuild, something that this front office has already done. That they won’t consider it is maddening.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in being a decent team, and potentially a good one. Lillard is an all-time great, and the potential of watching him in the black and white is good reason for fans to salivate. Bridges and Claxton are awesome talents. Watching them play for Brooklyn would be fun, watching them leave would be sad.
But this current team is not very good, and their offense is unwatchable far too often. The Nets were swept out of the playoffs, and saw the Barclays Center taken over by Sixers fans in the series-clincher. Waiting around for a mediocre team that isn’t young to magically, significantly improve is going to get old as the shine of newness wears off.
Maybe the cure to that really is Lillard, and a couple seasons of fun, if not seriously contending basketball would captivate Nets fans. You could argue Brooklyn did not seriously contend in their last two seasons, and neither of those were much fun. Perhaps they hit a grand slam on their upcoming draft picks, #21 and #22, and it is immediately clear that those players, or whatever they fetch in a potential trade, change the outlook of this team.
Those hopes, however, are clearly not the best path forward for this Nets team. Currently, listening to Marks & Co. sell us on patience feels like watching a television character walk into a room that only the viewer knows is booby-trapped. Perhaps Joe Tsai is too proud to fully admit defeat after the Clean Sweep blight. Perhaps the organization is worried about building that true, homegrown fanbase should they briefly return to NBA irrelevance. Perhaps, less cynically, the team really does believe in Bridges and Johnson will grow into efficient, all-around playmakers, and that Lillard or another star will vault them into contention. NBA teams, after all, often know things we don’t.
I would love to be proven wrong, but the evidence is overwhelming. The Brooklyn Nets are making a huge mistake.
When it′s time to go, will I be a boy?
And react, my friend, like a fool once more.