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NetsDaily Off-Season Report - No. 7

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.

Damian Lillard has said what he said, hypothetically, about what teams he likes IF he and the Blazers need to have a “serious” conversation about his future following the NBA Draft on June 22. He likes the Heat and likes the Nets.

Since then, wild speculation has ensued about what a trade package might look like. It’s doubtful Joe Cronin, Portland’s GM, has even had discussions with anyone outside the organization about what a Lillard trade might look like, and truth be told, we are probably a ways away from anything that even resembles such talk.

Lillard first has to decide if, after 11 years, he wants to leave the Rose City. And that is by no means certain. Indeed, in his talk with Brian Custer of Showtime, Lillard said he believes that when the ball goes up on October 24, the presumed start date of the 2023-24 season, he will be likely to be still playing for the Blazers. Since then, two people he’s close to, Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports and TNT and former teammate C.J. McCallum, have added their analysis, but Lillard is under contract. He has four years and $216.1 million left on his deal and extension. It’s up to him.

So on Saturday, he took to the Instagram airwaves again, this time to “clear the air” in a face-to-camera talk that was accompanied by background music, long pauses and jump cuts. He more than suggested that nothing is settled, that he believes he’ll be back in Portland. He referred to speculation as “clickbait” — he isn’t wrong — and said regarding speculation about possible new homes, he was just answering Custer’s questions.

“I keep seeing my name everywhere. I know you all know that Chris Haynes is my boy. ” said Lillard. “We have regular conversations but it don’t be deep. I feel the way it plays out, I keep saying the same thing over and over.

“So about the podcast I did with Brian Custer, I keep seeing this clip about Miami and all these other teams. And if you watched the whole interview, you would have seen that he asked me about specific teams and I just answered the question. I think when people just answer questions, I feel when I just speak on stuff, you all just take it and run with it. I was just answering a question, bro. At the end of that same interview, he asked me, ‘do you think you’ll be in a Trail Blazer uniform in October and I said, ‘yes, I do.’ because I do think that and as I have been saying for over a decade, that’s what I want to do. The clickbait is crazy. You know what I’m saying?

Lillard also noted that he has seen people commenting unfavorable on his age and future.

“Dame is getting old. You people talking about me like I’m 37. I’m 32 and just had the best season of my career. I’m healthy. I’m strong and it ain’t gonna stop no time soon. I mean it’s crazy how they be speaking on it. It’s crazy how they be speaking on it as if I ain’t capable of what I’m capable of. I’m just trying, you know what I’m saying, make a run. So I felt like I had to say something like I’m trying in the background setting shit up, whatever.”

None of this of course goes to the question of what he wants Cronin and the Blazers to do, but there have been other indicators that he is still loyal to Portland, still trying to improve the product. He has been seen at Blazer draft workouts in recent weeks and a local sports broadcaster said on Thursday that Lillard’s been actively recruiting free agents...

Meanwhile, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported that the Blazers are indeed looking for veteran help and are shopping Anfernee Simons, their 23-year-old combo guard, as well as the No. 3 pick.

My league sources say that Portland’s interest in building around Lillard is genuine. The front office is exploring deals for the No. 3 pick, and it’s also open to moving Anfernee Simons. Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam, or Mikal Bridges would make sense as potential targets via trade, but it’s unclear what level of appetite the Blazers have for that kind of trade.

(And yes, going after Bridges is a pipe dream as Alex Schiffer and John Hollinger have reported more than once. )

So, aside from what the Nets might have to give up in a Lillard trade and whether the organization even wants to go the superstar route again, there is the bigger question: Does Lillard want to go anywhere? No, he doesn’t want to be part of a rebuild, but he is a throw back, a player who wants to be associated with one team his whole career, not chase rings.

Wouldn’t it have been nice instead of trading that No. 6 pick in 2012 for Gerald Wallace, the Nets had taken Lillard as they entered their Brooklyn era? But Billy King and Bobby Marks panicked after Dwight Howard turned them down. (And to be fair, the Nets already had Deron Williams and would soon have Joe Johnson, two of the best at their positions. But still...)

So for the moment, the word from the Lillard household in Oregon to everyone is cool your jets.

Draft Sleeper of the Week

Emoni Bates has been criss-crossing the country doing workouts, trying to resurrect his career and get drafted. Three years ago, he was viewed as the likely No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, but for a lot of reasons, that didn’t work out and here he is, a skinny 6’9” small forward candidate hoping for a second round selection which is not even assured, according to more than one draftnik.

How it all went down isn’t as interesting as where he might wind up, but it is a cautionary tale. Bates was seen as the next Kevin Durant ... or better. He was famously profiled by Sports Illustrated as just a sophomore in high school alongside the words “Born For This.”

“Magic, Michael, LeBron... And the 15-Year-Old Who’s Next in Line,” the cover story declared as the Detroit Free Press recently noted. But even the most cursory look at Bates and Durant would suggest otherwise. KD is a couple of inches taller (6’11” to 6’9”), almost a half foot longer on his wingspan (7’5.5” to 6’9”) and a lot more heft. Durant came into the Draft in 2007 weighing a slight 215 pounds. Bates tipped the scales at 179.2 pounds at the Draft Combine last month.

Things started to go south for the Michigan native in November 2020 when he faced off against Chet Holmgren in a much-hyped AAU battle of the top high school prospects in the land. Bates outscored Holmgren, 36-31, but the verdict was one-sided. Holmgren was the more complete player.

Bates enrolled at Memphis under Penny Hardaway and there was a lot more hype on how Hardaway could develop Bates into the same type of player he had been: a tall, multi-talented wing who would be a top NBA scorer. It didn’ work out, as ESPN reported at the time of his transfer back home to Eastern Michigan.

His lone season under Penny Hardaway was uneven. He missed 15 of 33 games because of a back injury that required him to return home to see a specialist, and he struggled when on the floor. Bates had at least 15 points in each of his first three games of the season but failed to reach that mark again the rest of the season.

He wound up averaging 9.7 points and 3.3 rebounds with the Tigers, a big disappointment for a player so highly ranked No. 1. Then last September things went from bad to worse. He was arrested on carrying a concealed weapon and and “altering ID marks” on a firearm about two miles from the Eastern Michigan campus in Superior Township, Michigan.

Ultimately, he pleaded down the gun charges and had a productive if unspectacular year at EMU which had a miserable season despite him in the Mid-American Conference. Jonathan Givony of ESPN and Draft Express had a devastating appraisal of him in one mock draft.

Bates wasn’t able to get Eastern Michigan into the MAC tournament, as his team went 5-13 in conference play and 8-23 overall, meaning his season ended March 3. Bates had some moments, dropping a combined 66 points against South Carolina and Michigan, but was more or less a net negative in conference play He posted a paltry 49% true shooting percentage with far more turnovers than assists and while being a sieve defensively, often looking like he was barely trying while playing selfish basketball.

This probably wasn’t what NBA scouts or Bates envisioned when he elected to transfer from Memphis last spring, and he has work ahead of him now to be a sure-fire draft pick if he enters. Standing 6-9 and having just turned 19 years old in late January, Bates’ tough shot-making prowess and overall scoring instincts hold some appeal, but he plays such a losing brand of basketball on both ends of the floor, making him a relatively tough sell.

But Alex Schiffer and others have reported that the Nets are indeed interested in him if he’s still there at No. 51 (and the Nets haven’t moved the pick.) Any pick after No. 50 is more than a crap shoot. It’s more like a shrug and a hope. Sure, Manu Ginobili was taken at No. 58 and a number of great players went undrafted, but they were known for their intensity, something critics have not attached to Bates resume’.

Judge for yourself. Here’s some highlights...

What might the Nets do with him if they do draft him. Two years ago, the Nets had picks at Nos. 49 and 59, taking Marcus Zegarowski of Creighton and RaiQuan Gray of Florida State. Instead of signing them to NBA contracts, the Nets instead signed them directly to a G League deal, retained their NBA rights and had them develop in Long Island. Ultimately, they traded Zegarowski’s G League rights to Chicago and signed Gray to a two-way deal at the end of last season. That deal extends through this season.

“He’s a long-term, two-to-three-year project for a team who’s willing to wait on a kid that’s 6’9” with perimeter skills,” ESPN draft analyst Fran Fraschilla told Brian Lewis. “That’s going to be the key. And there’s so much background you’d have to do on him to make sure he’s the kind of kid you’re going to take in the first round and he’s going to work.”

Sean Marks has a good record with low risk/ high reward picks. Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Nic Claxton and Cam Thomas come to mind. So it wouldn’t be a surprise if they tried the same thing with Bates. We shall see.

Another reason for chartering WNBA teams emerges

We live in an era where anyone with an animus and an iPhone can get attention. Witness what happened Saturday night in Dallas when Alex Stein, a right-wing provocateur, confronted Brittney Griner at the DFW Airport as the Phoenix Mercury were changing planes...

One of Griner’s teammates described what happened next...

Griner, of course, is just back from the trauma of being wrongly detained in a Russian jail for nearly a year on marijuana charges, a way for Russian authorities to arrange a prisoner transfer of one of the world’s top arms dealers, Viktor Bout.

Of course, what Stein did was both unhinged and cowardly. If his issue is with the Biden Administration, maybe he should have tried to get through a phalanx of Secret Service agents to confront the President and see how that worked out.

The issue for the WNBA is, once again, its failure to provide charter flights and security for its players. Griner and the Mercury were supposed to fly charters this season to avoid such shenanigans, but for some reason that didn’t happen. Charters will also be permitted under some circumstances this season.

Reaction around the W was swift, led by Liberty superstar Breanna Stewart...

Ironically, Stewart is in New York in part because Joe and Clara Wu Tsai decided during last season to quietly — some might say clandestinely — arrange charters for the Liberty. As Howard Megdal wrote in his seminal Sports Illustrated piece on the WNBA, the Tsais were fined $500,000 and almost lost control of the franchise because they wanted to provide their players with the best experience. Some of the old-line (read: cheap) WNBA owners saw that as a a competitive advantage. Stewart and a lot of other WNBA players noticed and that $500,000 turned into quite the investment. The WNBA’s best player said what the Tsais did deeply impressed her. (Word to the wise: Mr. and Mrs. Tsai often get the last word.)

The WNBA has promised an investigation while the Players Union put out a statement about how they are not pleased with the league’s continuing resistance to charters

The women’s league is growing in interest ... and value. Last week, new investors bought into the Chicago Sky, establishing its valuation at around $85 million. Last year, other investors bought into Stewie’s old team, the Seattle Storm, giving it a valuation of $151 million. Surely, the Liberty, which the Tsais bought for an assumption of team debt and a cut of future profits, is worth $200 million ... at least. It’s time for the owners to start spending some of their newfound gains on things like charters, like security so that the next time Stein or his ilk try a stunt like this, players can feel secure ... and valued.

Alternately, the NBA should take things into its own hands. The men’s league is about to get two huge financial windfalls in the next three years or so: the new TV/streaming rights deal in 2024-25, then expansion shortly thereafter. Maybe some of that money can be earmarked for the women’s league.

One other thing about the WNBA this week. Cathy Engelbert, the commissioner, said she was open to having the W play exhibitions games in Saudi Arabia!!! The WNBA is filled with openly gay players and Saudi Arabia punishes homosexual acts by death, decapitation being the preferred method. Engelbert’s commentary was, to be oh so kind, tone-deaf. It’s not the first time.

Coaching calculus

As we reported this week, the Nets have hired Corey Vinson as a player development coach. Vinson comes to Brooklyn from Phoenix where he worked in a similar capacity. He did a lot of work with Mikal Bridges as well as Cam Johnson.

Bridges had this to say about Vinson’s help when he was tasked with filling the gap left by Devin Booker’s in-season injury. Here’s what Bridges told The Pivot podcast last month.

“I struggled for a while,” Bridges told The Pivot. “But I had coaches that talked to me. Corey Vinson, he was one guy that I watched film with all the time. He would just sit there and we would just watch all the clips. I would play bad and we would lose and he’s literally just like, ‘It’s ok. This is part of the process, you’re gonna have to go through this.’

“As time went on, I became more efficient and started to understand the game more and be in that position of handling the ball more, making reads, and doing all the little things. It just became natural.”

Bridges wound up averaging 19.3 points a game in January just before he traded to the Nets in the Kevin Durant trade. He also shouted out Vinson in his talk with J.J. Redick on his Old Man and the Three podcast.

Vinson’s hire, as we noted, adds to the development-heavy roster. The four new hires — Vinson, Overtime Elite and former UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, Long Island Nets head coach Ronnie Burrell, and Hornets assistant Jay Hernandez all have development chops as do the three holdovers: Adam Caporn, Ryan Forehan-Kelly and Trevor Hendry.

So who’s the lead assistant? The guy who sits next to Jacque Vaughn and fills in for him if he’s thrown out of a game. Is it Ollie, who was seen as a coach-in-waiting during his 13-year, 11 team career and won more than 60% of his college games at UConn, including the NCAA Division 1 title in 2014? Or are we waiting on someone?

Mike Scott of Hoopshype reported that the Nets were interested in bringing back Will Weaver who was Kenny Atkinson’s assistant and then G League Coach of the Year in 2019 before taking on the head coaching duties at the Sydney Kings in Australia’s NBL and Paris Basket in France’s Serie A. In between, he was an assistant for the Rockets. He interviewed with the Bucks for the head coaching gig but didn’t get it.

Kevin Durant scolds Nets Twitter

We try not to get too much into former players’ exploits once they leave unless it relates to their time in New York. But with Bruce Brown doing so well in the Finals and him telling Dan LeBatard and his co-host Mike Ryan that it wasn’t the front office who didn’t want to bring him back, we will make an exception.

A little more than three weeks ago, Ryan asked the question that’s been on many of our minds for nearly a year now: “Can you believe that the Nets were like - after watching you in that [2022] postseason - were like, ‘Nah, we’re good.’?”

Well, according to Brown, that framing doesn’t tell the whole story. After an impressive four games against the Celtics in the 2022 playoffs when he played 35 minutes a night, averaging 14/5/3 on outstanding shooting splits of 57/43/80, it wasn’t the Nets as a whole that passed up on retaining him, said Brown. Just some of them.

“Honestly…I don’t think it was the Nets’ front office organization who made that decision. Because - what I’ve heard - they wanted me back,” said Brown.

LeBatard and Ryan then pressured him to admit that it was one of Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant, or both, that axed his career in Brooklyn, to which the ex-Net simply replied, “I can’t say too much about that,” and “I don’t know who made the decision, but I just know the front office wanted me back. I can’t say too much about that.”

He did add, “Front office-wise, they’re great, they’re amazing,” Brown said. “I love Sean Marks, (Assistant GM) Jeff Peterson. But I think, locker-room-wise, it was cool, but we didn’t do much together off the court. But when James (Harden) was there, obviously it was more fun.”

Unsurprisingly, Nets fans were quick to point out on Twitter that he could have been referencing owner Joe Tsai and a possible reluctance to spend the extra cash on the then-25-year-old’s services. That seems unlikely since Tsai was spending big bucks at the time. So suspicion fell on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving who were known to at least have input into a wide variety of decisions. KD didn’t take kindly to the accusation it was him.

In a tweet since deleted (as promised,) Durant scolded Nets fans for suggesting he was the villain of the piece. “At some point, Nets Twitter has to stop making s**t up… I know, I know, I’m soft for this tweet. I’ll delete soon,”

He also derided the suggestion that he had such power. One thing to note that in the divide between James Harden and Kyrie Irving, Brown was a big Harden fan, telling LeBatard how much he loved playing with The Beard without mentioning Irving, leaving some, including the New York Post to suggest it was Irving and the vaccine mandate controversy that was an issue.

Brown was a vocal vaccine proponent, doing promos for Pfizer that even ran during games. Kyrie Irving missed two-thirds of 2021-22 for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and the Nets lost in the first round of the playoffs. This season, they traded Durant and Irving in February.

Indeed, Brown was very, very upfront in his support of the COVID vaccine (without mentioning the NYC mandate) in the commercials. “I can’t afford to miss games,” said Brown while Irving was sitting.

It does seem a bit odd that Irving would have been able to wield such power at a time when he, Marks and Tsai were not exactly in sync, Will we ever know? Seems unlikely. Brown has moved on and may very well be wearing goggles and spraying champagne Monday night in Denver. Why he left the Nets will not be a high priority for anyone.

Final Note

Speaking of champagne, we at NetsDaily may be hoisting a glass Monday night for one of our own should the Nuggets finish off the Heat in the Finals. Matt Brooks who wowed us all (including Kevin Durant, we might note) with his knowledge of the game in film studies and press conferences, is a full-time writer for the Nuggets organization, eligible for a ring. The Big Three didn’t win one with the Nets. Nor did Matt, but at least he may get one with Denver. You go, Brooks.