Earlier this summer, Nic Claxton was asked by a participant in his basketball camp if the Nets were in the “middle of a rebuild.”
Nicolas Claxton thoughts on if the Nets are in a rebuild…— NetsKingdom (@NetsKingdomAJ) August 10, 2023
| NetsWorld pic.twitter.com/5w7uLNlfwJ
Claxton laughed and said this, “I wouldn’t say we’re in the middle of a rebuild. We’ve got some really good dudes on the team and I think that we’re going to turn some heads this year. Yeah, I don’t think we’re in the middle of a rebuild.”
As everyone admits, the Nets are in the middle of something that begins with “re,” a rebuild, a retool, a re-establishment of Nets grit. Your choice. Call it what you will, but it’s definitely something new following the superstar era. Everyone also admits that winning while re-anything is difficult, some might say impossible. The goals are different, the timetable is different, the personnel is different. The Nets situation in 2016, when Sean Marks arrived, was a pure rebuild. No doubt about that. When he arrived, the Nets basically had three NBA players: an aging Joe Johnson, Thaddeus Young and of course Brook Lopez. Within a week, Johnson was bought out. With a month, Young was traded for the draft rights to Caris LeVert, With a year, Lopez and the rights to Kyle Kuzma were traded for D’Angelo Russell.
This time, of course, is different. Back then Sean Marks & co. had no picks, first or second round, going forward and this year they have a boatload, according to Sam Quinn of CBS Sports, including the best traded pick in the NBA, two of the three best and four of the six best. They also have Claxton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and maybe Ben Simmons, all between the ages of 24 and 27. (At the time of their departures, Johnson was 35, Lopez 29 and Young 28.)
If this had been a real rebuild, the Nets could have traded Bridges for four first round picks or alternately the rights to Scoot Henderson; or Dorian Finney-Smith for two firsts; or Royce O’Neale one and Spencer Dinwiddie something else, all of which were reportedly on the table. (Remember reports at the deadline that the Nets delayed closing the Mavs deal while they tried to find a way to get something for Dinwiddie and perhaps get under the threshold. They couldn’t.)
So, in the immortal words of Joe Johnson, should we say, “it’s not that bad here?” Are their “really good dudes” per Clax good enough to compete if not contend? There’s been some debate about whether the Nets five free agent acquisitions — Dennis Smith Jr., Lonnie Walker IV, Darius Bazley, Trendon Watford and two-way Armoni Brooks — are enough to make a difference. Combined, they’ll be paid a combined $9.7 million and that’s if both Bazley and Watford make it. The reality is that, barring something terribly untoward, only one or two of them will wind up a rotation players. It’s a numbers game.
The Nets returning players will fill out the rotation: Bridges, Johnson, Claxton, Dinwiddie, Simmons, Finney-Smith, O’Neale along with Cam Thomas and maybe Day’Ron Sharpe give Jacque Vaughn eight or nine players. That’s a rotation on most teams. As of now, it would appear that Smith Jr. and Walker IV (“the Suffixes”) have the only real shot at breaking into the rotation, with Smith Jr. looking like the best bet because of his sterling defense and hunger ... but that depends on how Simmons, Dinwiddie and Thomas fit in the backcourt. Considering that Bazley and Watford have identical non-guaranteed contracts and would fill the same slot, backup big, it is not unreasonable to assume they are fighting for the same job. As for the rookies, expect them to be getting a lot of minutes ... out on Long Island.
In other words, the Nets will probably live and die by what Marks called his returning “core” when he spoke to the media back in April. Things could of course change. MAYBE Walker breaks out. MAYBE Jalen Wilson stays the consistent force he was in Summer League. MAYBE 19-year-old Dariq Whitehead gets healthy and shows why he was seen as the top college prospect in the land two years ago. MAYBE there’s a late trade that adds a player or MAYBE someone in the rotation goes down giving someone else an opportunity. It is too early to tell, but things do seem pretty well set.
One thing fans don’t seem to be much interested in, internal development, is going to be important. Bridges and Johnson went from role players to reliable scorers after their trade to Brooklyn. Could they get even better after competing on the world stage? Jackson Frank of Daily Dime offers a terrific analysis of how Bridges could get better. The same with Claxton who took a big step last year and no doubt wants to take an even bigger one this year, his contract year. Thomas spoke of his third year being “pivotal” in an interview with Zach Schumaker. Then, more than anything else, can Simmons return to Philly form? They are all young enough, in their primes.
Yeah, yeah, things can go south. As we’ve noted, it is unreasonable to think Bridges and Claxton will miss a combined one game to injury as they did last season. Simmons may be “100% healthy,” per his agent, but he still has to do his job in front of 18,000 fans every night. Thomas may not get the minutes he wants, etc. etc. Will what they’ve gained in youth and athleticism be enough to compensate for the loss of so much 3-point shooting in veterans Joe Harris, Seth Curry and Patty Mills? Not to mention that Jacque Vaughn will be tested like never before, not even in the days, weeks and months after the superstar trades. Is he up to the task? And what happens if by the trade deadline, they have disappointed like the Mets and Yankees? Will they move to a real rebuild? Skepticism, as we have also noted, is always wise.
Bridges has said he’s “excited.” Claxton thinks “we’re going to turn some heads this year.” Let’s hope so.
Nets taking world tour
Jacque Vaughn and Corey Vinson, the assistant coach who followed Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson from Phoenix to Brooklyn, were spotted on a Spanish beach Friday with the two players near where the Nets will play Slovenia and Spain this weekend.
Next stop after Malaga will be Abu Dhabi in the UAE where Team USA will face Greece (without Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Germany next Friday and Sunday. Training camp invite Patrick Gardner, who’s playing for the Egyptian national team, goes up against Lebanon on Thursday in another warm-up game.
We don’t know who else on the Nets coaching and front office staffs are following Bridges and Johnson on their round-the-world journey to the FIBA World Cup in Manila starting a week from Friday. Sean Marks has said he will be in the Philippine capital as will Nets player development director Adam Caporn, the assistant coach of Australia’s national team. Gardner will be there, too. His games are conveniently on Team USA’s off-nights. It dord seem like a big commitment. And Manila is only two hours by air from Huangzhou, China, where Joe Tsai works as chairman of Alibaba.
Meanwhile, following the “twins” standout performance in the first exhibition game last Monday, Grant Hill of USA Basketball had positive things about Bridges and Johnson and not just what they do on the court.
“They’re just culture guys and they’re good people, and they have leadership quality about them but they can play,” said a smiling Hill, managing director for Team USA. “I mean Cam is as good a shooter as there is in the league. Great size. Mikal has expanded his offensive game. I think the traded helped unleash a side he hasn’t shown thus far in the league. And they just want to win. You know, it’s not about them. It’s about winning.”
Of course, Saturday afternoon’s game vs. Slovenia and Luka Doncic should have been the first defensive test for Bridges, even if only in an exhibition game. But Doncic is a late injury scratch. Steve Kerr in an interview a month ago that one reason Bridges is on Team USA and starting is his defensive prowess.
“There’s no question in my mind that Mikal Bridges is going to be a huge factor for us defensively,” Kerr said at a July 6 press conference. “As a coach, you go into these things and you say, ‘Well, who is gonna guard Luka (Doncic)?’”
Boomers coach talks Ben Simmons Olympic future
On Friday, Giannis Antetokounmpo announced that he was dropping out of the FIBA World Cup to complete the rehab of his left knee following surgery the first week of July. No Giannis for the Greek national team. It’s good news for the Americans. Greece is in their group, presumably making it easier for them to move on after the first round of games.
Meanwhile, there was a bit of controversy about a previous decision by an NBA player to opt out of his team to focus on rehabilitation: Ben Simmons who expressed interest in joining the Australian national team, then in late June decided along with the Nets to keep working on his rehab. In an interview with ESPN Australia, national team coach Brian Goorjian said he would not “beg” Simmons to play for the Boomers next year in the Paris Olympics. Although some portrayed the interview as antagonistic, it was more of the same from Goorjian who has been gently prodding Simmons for months, always taking the long view.
“This is very important,” the Boomers’ head coach told ESPN.
“In my dealings with Ben, it’s always been: I’m not recruiting you. It’s important for the country [to know], we’re not going, ‘please, Ben, please, we don’t have anything if you don’t play’. We’re not like that at all.”
In some quarters, that was taken as a diss, but Goorjian, from the moment Simmons expressed an interest in playing for the Boomers, has emphasized that the 27-year-old’s top priority has to be a successful rehab. Also, as Olgun Uluc pointed out, there is an egalitarian aspect to Aussie sports, that no star is above the team culture.
“The optics of treating any one player as being bigger than the team doesn’t bode well with the country’s values, broadly speaking,” Uluc wrote.
But Goorjian, who took Australia to his first medal — the bronze — in men’s basketball at the Tokyo Olympics, also wants Simmons to know that a tour with the Boomers would be beneficial to him, that playing with his “mates” from Australia would be a good tonic.
“It’s like, you’re fantastic, and you’re a great player and the country loves you, and the country wants you in green and gold, and our team does,” Goorjian told ESPN.
“But, in turn, this is really good for you. Because you get to walk through these doors and drop everything behind and be you, and play with your mates in a great culture. I look at it that way, that this is gonna be a really good opportunity for him, and that I and the guys on the team, we care about him. We want him to have a great career.
“You need this.
“And, in turn, if you’re Ben Simmons, and if you play like Ben Simmons on this team, with that culture, you’re gonna take us to somewhere the team’s never been. That’s my goal in all of this.”
Indeed, at the time of Simmons first interest earlier this year Goorjian had said that even if Simmons couldn’t play in the World Cup, he was hopeful he’d be ready for Paris next summer. Indeed, that now has become Simmons goal, per insiders.
“The underlying side is, you always kind of have this thing in your pocket,” Goorjian said in this week’s interview. “You have a game plan, and it’s like plan B. You’ve got this sitting in here, and you just go, I’d love to pull this out of my pocket; bring this out for a World Cup, or bring this out for an Olympics.”
It’s that time of year when players, their trainers and local pro-am leagues post videos of players doing things that they don’t normally do, but that fans love to see ... or that things they normally do but in an unfettered, summertime, setting. Here’s a few from this week.
Day’Ron Sharpe shooting threes...
Dennis Smith Jr. leading the break in the Miami pro-am league...
Royce O’Neale with an athletic putback in that same South Beach setting...
Lonnie Walker IV working on his moves around the basket...
Lonnie Walker putting in work in runs pic.twitter.com/uuMnOO8cUv— Brooklyn Netcast (@BrooklynNetcast) August 14, 2023
Or Nic Claxton simply taking and making free throws...
Or Spencer Dinwiddie feeding Claxton for threes...
There’s been a lot of Clax, in fact...
Good on Clax for working on those free throws. He made a lot of progress last season. In February, he hit 67.6% of his shots from the stripe, in March, 60.0%, and April, 87.5% (four games). In first round of the playoffs, he also made 60.0%. Before that, he was hitting barely 40.0%. He’s out there trying.
New York marketplace
Josh Hart signed a new contract this week with the Knicks. Four years and $81 million, with the final year a team option at $22.5 million. Hart was a sparkplug for New York last season, becoming the team’s Swiss army knife in the final 25 games of the season, capable of scoring in bursts and playing sold defense. He’s 28 and fairly durable.
Why is that important? As of last Monday, the Nets can sign Spencer Dinwiddie to an extension of up to four years and $128 million. That’s the max. As Brian Lewis reports Saturday, Dinwiddie is currently on the final year of a three-year deal he signed when the Nets traded him to the Wizards in 2021. It will pay him $18.8 million plus $1.5 million in likely incentives and another $1 million in unlikely ones. As Ian Begley reported at the beginning of free agency back in June, there’s “support within the Nets to add years onto Dinwiddie’s deal via an extension,” although that max seems a bit out of reach for the 30-year-old tech guy with a jumper.
Still, Hart’s deal could encourage Dinwiddie to seek better job security. If Hart, who’s never averaged better than 15 points a game and only started one game with the Knicks post-deadline, can get an average of $20 million, the market has to be pretty good for Din. After all, he has proven capable of averaging 20 a game, as he did in 2019-20 filling in for Kyrie Irving and is often among the NBA leaders in minutes — eighth last season. He also has a nice assist-to-turnover ratio for a point guard. In his 25 games with the Nets last year, he averaged 9.1 assists and 2.1 turnovers. He also averaged 1.1 steals. As Lewis notes, Dinwiddie was second in the league in both assists (236) and points assisted (610) between the trade deadline and end of the regular season.
Is that enough to get the Nets to commit a significant amount of their cap space going forward? Stay tuned.
Hart’s deal also makes Cam Johnson’s four-year, $94.5 million (plus incentives) seem even more reasonable.
Is ‘Crossover’ the new Nets slogan?
In the past, the Nets have signaled their slogan for an upcoming season by applying for trademarks for fans gear, terms like, “Nets Level” and “The Brooklyn Way” and “Brooklyn Grit.”
Well, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Nets quietly applied for a trademark on “CrossOver” late last month for all manner of gear from t-shirts to novelty headwear.
So is that the team’s new slogan for 2023-24? It’s not in the trademark application but it sure fits, as the team crosses over from the superstar era to one focused on youth and athleticism.
Fresh off their 38-point blowout of their west coach rivals, the Liberty will be facing the Las Vegas Aces Tuesday in the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (is there nothing not in Las Vegas this summer?) The game will be telecast at 9:00 p.m. ET Tuesday Prime if you have it. Nets fans will have a comfort level in watching the Cup. That’s because the game will be called by Michael Grady, Sarah Kustok and Zora Stephenson, all YES Network mainstays, as well as Baron Davis.
The Liberty are worth your time. They play a great up-tempo and unselfish style and could easily become the first New York-based pro basketball team to win a ring since the New York Nets took the ABA crown in 1976. Winning the cup in August would be a big step to a parade down Flatbush in October.