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SO FAR: The Brooklyn Nets’ start to 2023 NBA free agency, less boring than expected

The opening weekend of NBA free agency is always a wild one; Here’s how Brooklyn got things rolling this year

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Brooklyn Nets Cam Johnson and Philadelphia 76ers Tyrese Maxey Photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

The weeks leading up to the 2023 NBA offseason foreshadowed a tepid summer for the Brooklyn Nets. Once thought of as major players in the pursuit of Damian Lillard, Sean Marks & co. seemed less so by the time Dame made his long-awaited trade request on July 1. It seemed unlikely we would see further big-time splashes for a franchise that appeared to be both 1) far away from contention and 2) trying to get under the luxury tax for the first time since the 2018-19 season. Boring?

Of course, for fans, the opening weekend of NBA free agency is where screen-time skyrockets, morale fluctuates, and office productivity plummets. It’s the most chaotic juncture of the year, and it occurs right after they stop playing the games and right after team’s rosters are restocked with college and international players who every fan base believes will change their franchise’s direction.

So, even a relatively calm off-season is just that: relative. No, the Nets aren’t spending a quarter billion dollars across four non-stars like the Houston Rockets, or gearing up to trade for a superstar, like the Miami Heat. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy. Let’s take a look at what the Nets accomplished over free agency’s opening weekend and why.

Joe Harris departs

The move: Brooklyn trades Joe Harris, two second-rounders (2027 DAL, 2029 MIL) to the Detroit Pistons. Since Brooklyn did not take on any incoming salary, they received a TPE (Traded Player Exception) of $19.9 million, now the second-largest TPE in the NBA (Atlanta Hawks, for trading John Collins).

The reasoning: Pretty straightforward here. As mentioned previously, Joe Tsai is intent on getting under the luxury tax this season, which would reset the repeater tax while saving the owner some money in the short term on a team that, frankly isn’t worth the tax. Harris’ contract, expiring this season, was simply too easy to offload for Marks to pass up the opportunity.

The move also had the bonus effect of taking a potential Cam Johnson deal off the table in Detroit, where his old head coach now sits. The Pistons filled that potential cap space with Harris. It’s not hard to imagine part of this deal stemming from a mutually beneficial handshake agreement between Marks and Pistons GM Troy Weaver, who added two future draft choices and no long-term salary to a team that may be big spenders in a season or two.

(Read my farewell to Joe Harris here.)

Cam Johnson returns

The move: The Nets re-sign Cam Johnson to a four-year, $108 million contract; the restricted free agent never received an offer sheet from another team.

The reasoning: Well, duh. Marks was forced to trade the best player who had ever worn a Nets jersey this past February. In return, he did pretty well for himself and his employer, fetching an abundance of draft capital, the immediately-beloved Mikal Bridges, and his very close friend in Johnson who like Bridges saw an immediate increase in production after donning the black-and-white. The ex-Phoenix Sun was not going anywhere this off-season, regardless of the reported price tag creeping from $20 million annually to being confirmed at over $25 million annually. One bit of business here is that Michael Scotto of HoopsHype is reporting that the $108 million figure for Johnson includes incentives. The full contract details, including those potential incentives, haven’t been released yet.

This comes nearly one year after Johnson reportedly turned down a four-year, $72 million extension offer from the Suns. Incentives or no incentives, the ex-Tar Heel certainly won this gamble on himself.

A significant increase in the salary cap will come in the summer of 2025 when the NBA’s television deal with Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery expires and new, more lucrative one will be negotiated. It’s also the midway point of Johnson’s new deal and so, his roughly $27 million a year may not look so gaudy then. It’s also worth noting that $27 million is the exact figure Tyler Herro, currently being shopped by Miami in its pursuit of Lillard, will make this coming season. Nothing about Johnson’s contract seems to limit Brooklyn’s future flexibility, despite the actual figure catching some folks off guard.

A good reference point is fellow wing Kyle Kuzma, who re-signed with his Washington Wizards on a four-year, $102 million deal. Nets Twitter, with its breadth of expertise in head cases, seems to be near-unanimous in its opinion that Johnson is far more valuable of an asset than Kuzma at the same price.

In any case, Johnson’s re-signing was inevitable, and Brooklyn got it done without any uncertainty. A rare bit of uncomplicated, breezy business in the NBA world.

Patty Mills is dumped

The move: The Nets trade Patty Mills to the Houston Rockets, who then re-route him to the Oklahoma City Thunder. They receive, well, uh....

Source: Sporting News

The reasoning: Fortunately, the reasoning for Brooklyn’s participation in what turned into a five-team banjax. is much easier to understand than the deal itself: It’s a cost-cutting measure. Elsewhere, it was about getting Dillon Brooks an $80 million contract.

Whether a precursor to other moves or just to clear up the logjam at guard, Brooklyn dumps the $6.8 million Mills is scheduled to make this season onto another franchise. (If this was two decades prior, the Nets would be discarding a sharp-shooting two-guard for enough cash to buy a copier and repave the parking lot. Alas, the paperless world we live in. Maybe this time, Tsai will splurge on a 3=D printer with the menial cash Brooklyn will likely be receiving in the deal.)

Lonnie Walker IV, Dennis Smith Jr. join the squad

The moves: On the third and final day of the holy NBA weekend, the Brooklyn Nets added a pair of athletic guards, each for one-year, veteran minimum contracts in Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Smith Jr.

The reasoning: Brooklyn’s guard rotation in 2023-24 will not be the guard rotations of the past. Walker and Smith, who will each be 25 years old for the majority of the upcoming season, bring some funky athleticism to the borough.

These moves represent the new direction of Sean Marks’ front office in the new, post-star era of Brooklyn basketball. With a considerable payroll but without first-round draft choices of their own, it is time to take chances on players who have shown sparks, if not consistent production, as they enter their mid-20s. While it’s unlikely that mega-leaps are coming for Walker and Smith, real improvement with more consistent playing time is far from out of the question.

Many fans will remember Lonnie Walker’s fourth-quarter explosion against the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the Western Conference Semis this past May, when he scored 15 points to lead his Los Angeles Lakers to a crucial victory. That fourth quarter marked the high point of Walker’s career, despite showing decent flashes over his first five seasons in the league, four of which came in San Antonio. After a playoff showing like that, though, how could Walker be available for a minimum?

Well, at 6’4”, he is the size of a combo guard without the skills to play the point, averaging under two assists in his career and frequently subject to some tunnel vision. Add in a career 3-point percentage of 34.9, and you understand why he wasn’t the hottest commodity on the market this summer. And despite obvious athletic traits, Walker hasn’t been able to consistently parlay them into plus-defensive impact thus far.

However, there is upside. Walker had the best shooting season of his career, when factoring in volume and success rate, in L.A., knocking down 36.5% of his 4.4 triples a game and over 46% of his two-pointers taken outside ten feet (per Basketball Reference.) And while the steal and block rates weren’t what you’d hope for from his archetype, he demonstrated serious ability to be a disruptive defender in that Game 4 performance against the Dubs:

With Smith, defense is the name of the game. He finished second across the entire NBA in defensive EPM (estimated plus-minus, considered the most reliable all-in-one metric) last season with the Charlotte Hornets, picking up a monstrous 2.6% steal rate to go with it. He may be a 25-year-old journeyman at this point, a one-time lottery pick going on his sixth team in seven seasons, but Brooklyn absolutely knows what they’re getting from Smith, defensively: absolute hell at the point-of-attack:

The 6’2” guard should quickly become a fan favorite at the Barclays Center with the way he gets after it.

It’s the other end where Smith runs into some problems. He really can’t shoot, converting on less than 22% of his 2.1 threes a game last season. After some not-awful seasons of long-range bombing earlier in his career, he’s completely fallen off a cliff as a shooter, whether from the mid-range or from deep, although he will take the open, catch-and-shoot ones.

That doesn’t mean his offense is a lost cause, however. He posted a career-best 3.2 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, and on his new Nets squad desperate for some paint penetration and offensive creation, Smith should see an opportunity to capitalize on his recent improvements. While the shooting hampers some of his half-court effectiveness, he is an absolute blur in transition, just as he was as a highly-touted draft choice, mixing strength and speed to get to the cup. Last season, he made 64% of his shots at the rim, by far a career-high (Cleaning the Glass.)

Yes, the shooting is a major issue that throws a wet blanket on his offensive game — Smith finished with a -3.4 offensive EPM last season. And while Smith and Walker both bring intriguing skillsets to the Nets on minimum deals, Smith is much less of a mystery box. He’s going to hound every ball-handler in sight, and push the pace in transition. Walker, meanwhile, is much more of a wildcard, but if the outside shooting sustains, these two could form a bench tandem that should be a joy to watch, hellacious on defense and frightening in transition.

The one question I have for these signings: What does this mean for fellow backup guard Edmond Sumner, who has overlapping skills with each of these players? The Nets must make a decision on Sumner by Wednesday. The have a team option on Sumner worth $2.2 million.

Seth Curry, Yuta Watanabe say goodbye

The black-and-white will not be retaining Seth Curry, who signed a two-year deal to become a Dallas Maverick for a third separate occasion, or Yuta Watanabe, who took the minimum to link back up with Kevin Durant in Phoenix.

While neither of these non-moves were unexpected, they leave the Nets without a single player above the age of 30 on the roster heading into next year. Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale each celebrated the big 3-0 earlier this season and both DFS and O’Neale have been frequently identified as further potential salary dumps for Brooklyn to make.

No, the Nets haven’t been the lead newsmakers in 2023 NBA free agency, a nice change of pace for once. No trade requests, no stalled contract talks, no regrets either. But they've been active, getting younger, more athletic, and a bit more affordable as they prepare to enter a new era in earnest. Their draft picks were cut from the same cloth. But if there’s one lesson history can teach never know what’s coming. Stay tuned.