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NetsDaily Off-Season Report - No. 11

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.

New York Knicks v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It was not a jaw-dropping week for the Nets in free agency. More like a couple of eye raises, like the signings of Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV (call them the Suffixes) and word that. for some unexplained reason, the Nets and Edmond Sumner decided to postpone the deadline day on his team option for nine days.

Some things were finalized, the biggest being Cam Johnson’s new contract which led to the news that C.J.’s contract was not as big a deal as had been reported. There’s nothing new, other than speculation and rumor, re any Nets role in the Damian Lillard trade talks.

However, despite a lot of fan commentary that the Nets should sign this free agent big or that free agent big, Sean Marks & co. are continuing their methodical retool/rebuild/re-something. You may not like what the Nets are doing — and there’s reason to be skeptical — but you can’t ignore it.

After getting Smith Jr. and Walker IV to sign vets minimum deals, they were able to officially dump two of their biggest expiring contracts, those of Joe Harris and Patty Mills, to create $27 million in cap space. Because no players came back to the Nets, the trades also generated trade exceptions of $19.9 million and $6.8 million, good for a year.

They’re still above the cap but $6.5 million below the tax threshold. There are financial considerations, to be sure. The Nets have bled money for years and are in the repeater tax, However, if they can stay below the tax threshold this year, they can spend more freely in the summers of 2024 and 2025. Do they want to compete this year? Yes. Do they think they can contend? Sure doesn’t look like it. Might all that change at the deadline if the team is either doing better or worse than expected ... and what is expected? The Nets will be looking at things again then and insiders say they have no worries about Joe Tsai paying the bill when asked.

They do have all sorts of assets to play with and may go after more in the coming days. Royce O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith are still on the roster and everyone thought they’d be traded by now, probably for more picks. Still, as Kevin O’Connor wrote this week;

They also have so much flexibility, with the full midlevel, an open roster spot, tons of draft picks, two large trade exceptions, overlapping skill sets, and tradable midsize contracts.

O’Connor is right. The Nets have a lot of assets, But it doesn’t look like they will use many of them this summer. It seems doubtful at this point that they will use the MLE to sign someone. There just isn’t a lot of talent available now. The two big trade exceptions, the second and third biggest in the NBA at $19.9 million and $18.1 million are more likely to be used, if all, at the deadline in the case of the first, a year from now in the second.

Indeed, as free agency winds down, it feels like that the basic outline of what fans will see in October is in place. On Friday night, Jacque Vaughn went on NBA TV during the Nets-Cavs Summer League game. In speaking with Matt Winer and Channing Frye, the Nets head coach disclosed a number of things that previously had been vague.

As we reported, Vaughn provided an update on Ben Simmons, the first public comments by a Nets official on the controversial guard-forward in months. It was upbeat.

“It’s been great: the correspondence, being able to check-in with Ben. It’s been great as the other players are getting ready for the year, summertime, getting better” said Vaughn when asked about Simmons’ mental and physical state.

“I look forward to coaching a healthy Ben Simmons. That’s exciting for me. The team is excited to have him healthy, being part of our program and moving forward. He has an innate ability to impact the basketball game on both ends of the floor. So, we missed that in the Philly series and looking forward to it.”

Exciting indeed. Few Nets fans have counted on Simmons being a part of the team’s future with most focusing on how Brooklyn could ditch his contract, which still has $78.2 million and two years left.

Simmons of course hasn’t played since February 15, days after the deadline deals that sent Kevin Durant to Phoenix and Kyrie Irving to Dallas while bringing in Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Spender Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith. After undergoing back surgery on May 5, 2022, Simmons apparently returned to play too soon and wound up with both back and knee issues that plagued him the whole season till he was officially shut down on March 25.

Right up there with that disclosure was Vaughn’s description of the team’s “core.” Marks had said back in April, both in an interview with ESPN and in a press conference with beat writers, that he wanted to keep the team’s “core” together for another season, wanted to give them another chance. But the GM didn’t identify the “core.” The head coach did Friday night.

When Winer asked Vaughn about his young “core,” identifying Bridges, Johnson, Claxton and Simmons as fitting that description, Vaughn confirmed those names and added another before saying he wants the team to be “relentless.”

“Those four you mentioned, also Spencer Dinwiddie, he’s the elder statesman now at 30 and a 20-point scorer in the league, but Cam Johnson, Mikal Bridges, Ben Simmons, Nic Claxton, those are the 24- to 27-year-old range for us who are going to be able to grow together; define the culture — it’s a relentless culture is what we want, to be relentless teammates, be relentless competitors. So they’ll get a chance to define the culture going forward.”

He also suggested that the Nets may be looking down the road a bit, but believes the group is capable of being competitive.

“You have the group embrace where we are right now and embrace how you can grow together,” he added. “Don’t look two steps beyond, what could happen, what might happen two years from. I think you embrace where we are as a team, really dive into that and I think that’s where the growth happens.”

So, Vaughn mentioned five players: Bridges, Johnson, Claxton, Simmons and Dinwiddie. That certainly suggests the fivesome could be his starting unit in late October. It’s obviously too early for any coach to finalize starters in early July, particularly for a team in a rebuild/retool/re-something mode. (IF that is the starting lineup, where’s the rebounding coming from?)

“You appreciate where you are. you’ve gone through an atypical year in the NBA. I’ll say that,” said Vaughn when asked about where the Nets are headed, referring to the 2022-23 season. And like Marks back in April, he spoke about coaching the team — and Bridges — starting in training camp.

“I really am looking forward to having the group from the beginning of the year, going through training camp together, being able to break bread together, being able to understand each other as individuals and just spend time with each other from the beginning of the year.”

Of course, Vaughn could’ve been trying to distract everyone — fans, writers, other teams — from the Nets real plan, but what he said fits with everything that the Nets have said and done since the end of last season. And it isn’t just words, what Marks had said back in April. Since then, the Nets re-made the coaching staff, making it development-centric; drafted the two youngest players in team history; dumped $27 million in salary by trading Joe Harris and Patty Mills in return for three second rounders.

Vaughn didn’t say much about internal improvement, other than to say that he thought both Bridges and Johnson have a lot more potential.

He also spoke about how key Bridges is to the Nets future .. and how before the February 9 trade, the organization had looked into how the Suns small forward could fit in with the Nets if the opportunity arose.

“We did dive into some film and when Devin Booker was hurt for a stretch of the year, he took on some additional responsibility and really responded well. We thought if we could put the basketball in his hands, put some shooters around him, give him some more responsibility, we wanted to see if he could handle it and he really stepped up,” said Vaughn.

“I think he has even more room to grow and he’ll be with USA Basketball this summer which is great. He’s getting rewarded that way and represents us as a team, so really looking forward to coaching him from the beginning of the year.”

Yes, things can change. Yes, things can change. Yes, things can change. Marks also said back in April that the organization would be willing to look into opportunities should they arise. They haven’t yet.

So where do we stand? As of Sunday morning, the Nets have (or will have when they sign Lonnie Walker IV and the two first round picks) 14 players under contract, including Edmond Sumner.

USA Basketball business

Steve Kerr is the head coach of Team USA as well as the Warriors. And when the 12-man roster was announced, he cited two players he’ll rely on when the FIBA World Cup opens at the end of August, one on offense, the other on defense.

“I will definitely go into this with a vision of Jalen Brunson taking on a pretty big role, given the way he plays, his success at the FIBA level in past tournaments,” Kerr said of the Knicks guard.

And the other?

“There’s no question in my mind that Mikal Bridges is going to be a huge factor for us defensively,” Kerr noted. “As a coach, you go into these things and you say, ‘Well, who is gonna guard Luka (Doncic), or who’s gonna guard Giannis (Antetokounmpo)?’ One of the reasons we built the roster the way we did is we have multiple options for these sorts of things.”

Of course, Bridges, as this season proved, is not just a stopper. Expect him and Cam Johnson to play a big role on offense. With the Knicks Josh Hart also the roster, New York basketball will have a lot of interest in World Cup play. The team will gather in Las Vegas on August 3, with the first game, vs. New Zealand, on August 26 in Manila in the Philippines.

Before arriving in Manila, the USA Men’s National Team will hold training camp Aug. 3-6 in Las Vegas before playing a series of exhibition games as part of the USA Basketball Showcase, which tips off August 7 vs. Puerto Rico at Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena. The USA will also face Slovenia on August 12 and Spain on August 13 in Malaga, Spain, and Greece and Germany on August 18 and 20, respectively, in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

All the games will be televised or streamed in the U.S. Details TBA.

Trade details

Patty Mills was traded again Saturday, this time from the Thunder to the Hawks, his third trade in 10 days. He’s gone from Brooklyn to Houston to Oklahoma City to Atlanta. Not quite a record but close.

As part of the process, the details of the original trade were disclosed. The Nets sent the 2028 Bucks second rounder they acquired as part of the Kevin Durant mega-trade to the Rockets. In return for Mills and the pick, the Nets received the Rockets 2024 second, but it’s protected top-55 meaning the only way the Nets would get the pick is if the Rockets are a top five team at the end of next season. That seems highly unlikely meaning the pick is what’s often called a paper transaction.

The Nets have now used the two Bucks picks they received in the KD trade to complete salary dumps. Besides sending out the 2028 Bucks pick in the Mills trade, they sent the 2029 Bucks second along with the 2027 Mavs second, part of the return for Kyrie Irving, to Detroit in the Harris trade. The two Bucks picks were the final piece in the Durant deal. Milwaukee sent them to Brooklyn for Jae Crowder.

Dwightmare Redux

Dwight Howard in an interview with claimed this week he wanted to play for the Nets at various times of his career, but the Nets weren’t interested.

“I wanted to come to Brooklyn so many times, man. So many times I wanted to. There’s a lot of issues,” he told Complex.

Baloney. As any Nets fan of a certain age knows, Howard reneged on a handshake deal with Billy King at the trade deadline in March 2011. Howard had a player option and he had told Magic officials that he wouldn’t exercise it. That left Orlando no choice but to deal him or get nothing in return. The deal was in place, centered on Brook Lopez and MarShon Brooks plus picks, and ready to be completed the day of the trade deadline

Then, at the last minute, in the middle of the night on the day before the deadline, he reneged and exercised the option to stay in Orlando ... without telling the Nets. Of course, at that point, the deal was off. How sure were the Nets that the deal would be completed? King had asked Dr. Riley J. Williams to come in early that morning to get Howard’s physical done so he could play right away! The Nets then panicked and traded their 2011 first round pick to Portland for Gerald Wallace. The pick turned into Damian Lillard.

Yes, there were other attempts to bring Howard to Brooklyn, and finally in 2018, it happened but by then, Howard was seen as a locker room cancer and his powers were greatly diminished. The Nets quickly bought him out and he moved on to the Wizards. The coaching staff in particular wasn’t excited about dealing with him. At that point, we compiled a history of the Dwightmares up through 2018, including the details of what happened back in 2011. Read it and wonder if anyone at Complex has a Google account so they could have called him on his commentary or added it to their story.

Howard also claimed that in sometime in the last two years, he lobbied the Nets to bring him on in recent years without luck.

“I know a couple times they said they wanted a big that could shoot and I’m like, ‘Man, y’all already had a big that could shoot in LaMarcus Aldridge. Why won’t y’all try another route?’” he claimed. “They had Claxton and I like Claxton. I think he’s been killing it. You know what I’m saying? But it’s just a level of experience that I’ve had and I still feel like I’m one of the best. Even at this age, I still feel like I’m one of the best.”

Whatever. For the record, Howard is now 37 and played last season in Taiwan.

Dennis Smith Jr. working out

We don’t normally post individual highlights just for the heck of it. You’ll see them in film studies or in stories when a new player has been acquired. But this one earlier in the week from Dennis Smith Jr. is an exception. It was posted this week on Instagram.

Smith was at HSS Training Center on Saturday to sign his new contract, a one-year vets minimum deal.

It was announced in a press release posted at 9:00 p.m. ET Saturday, which to say the least is odd. No word on when Lonnie Walker IV, the other Suffix, will affix his signature to a Nets contract. Same with the two first round picks, Noah Clowney and Dariq Whitehead. Both are in Las Vegas, Clowney on the court and Whitehead on the bench in a walking boot. Teams near the cap or tax threshold will often sequence signings to take advantage of the CBA rules.

Final Note

Out in Las Vegas, the Nets will play the Knicks in the Summer League at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBA TV. Like all the Nets first three Summer League opponents, the Knicks will be fielding a team without a first rounder in the June Draft. The Nets have Noah Clowney who was taken at No. 21. He had a miserable first night, hitting 1-of-9 shots. The Alabama product shrugged it all off. Will he keep shooting? Yes, he told reporters. “I work too hard not to be confident in my own game.

A fun fact about the Nets. They have eight, count ‘em eight assistant coaches, in Las Vegas working with Trevor Hendry the Nets assistant who’s the head coach of the Summer League team. Virtually all of them are video assistants with either Brooklyn or Long Island. It’s a great opportunity for them and the Nets have used the Summer League as a company retreat, bringing most if not all of the basketball operations staff to Nevada.