The Nets flew under the radar this off-season with marginal moves — or to put it more frankly, nothing significant enough to provoke championship visions for even the optimists. Of course, that doesn’t make them incapable, it just means they’re back tempering expectations and building out from square one.
Round it all up and you’ve got a group of individuals with something to prove, an area they’ve thrived when the lights weren’t too bright.
“We have all put ourselves in a position to have an exciting few years here where we’ve got a much younger roster than we’ve had in the past and a lot of guys have chips on their shoulders which I think is pretty important,” GM Sean Marks told Jason Prime of New Zealand’s Weekend Sport on OMNY FM. “They’re pretty self-motivated. They don’t need to listen to me or anyone else for that matter for motivation. They’ve got something to prove.”
Fans can still be optimistic but they also have the right to be skeptical. Many diehards will tell you their fondest memory in the decade-long Brooklyn era includes the 42-40 team that lost in the first round in 2018-19. And yes, there are legitimate reasons to be optimistic about the present and future.
They just need to convince folks of that when the ball tips on October 25.
Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson both embody the hardworking Brooklyn culture that basketball fans appreciate. The core starts with them and Nic Claxton, a homegrown star due for a payday after this season. They had (and have added) solid two-way role players in guys like Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV. There’s quiet belief in the Nets front office that Ben Simmons can make it back too ... though we’ll keep it at that.
The bigger idea here is that Marks & co. created a young foundation while at the same time giving the team flexibility to make a move or two, thanks to what they got for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in terms of picks.
“It’s been an exciting summer for us,” Marks told Jason Prime. “The roster’s changed quite a bit. The expectations to go out there and compete have not, though. So the goal here is to always compete. We’re in the market… We are in New York and we want to put a competitive team out there.”
They plan to stick building around young talent, but even with that, it feels like they’re missing that one piece ... the type of star who can help turn a team from “competitive” to “contending,” a word Marks has pointedly avoided, as he did with Jason Prime this weekend. Similar to Jalen Brunson and the Knicks – who gave New York an advantage in a weakened Eastern Conference.
This said piece would have to meet the right criteria if Joe Tsai is going to spend more and/or force Marks to consider moving assets the way the GM did when they acquired James Harden in 2020. All said, nobody should be naive to the fact that anything can happen in the NBA at any time, any moment. In that same interview with Prime, Marks quite literally said, “things can change by the hour.” (He also said, “Never a dull moment.”)
Several superstars still have murky futures and it’s late August. Damian Lillard comes to mind immediately, but his age and contract specifically do not meet said criteria mentioned. His demeanor, work ethic, talent all do. Who knows ... maybe Simmons is a superstar in hiding.
But a big part of healing is also self reflection, which is something the Nets need to do — same way they did in 2018-19. They need to be competitive enough to become buyers come the trade deadline in February… with the team they have right now.
Judging by recent moves, they seem prepared to build out slow (and inexpensive) while rebuilding a team identity. Tsai has a record of paying the luxury tax when needed — $323 million since he bought in back in 2018, the most by any owner outside of the Bay Area — but he’s not going to throw money away, particularly with the dreaded repeater tax looming not just for this season, but 2024-25 as well.
That’s how it is… for now. This hour. But what happens if they fail? Marks has more weapons than he did when he first took over in 2016 — draft picks, flexibility, and a foundation. They have 11 first-round picks through 2030, eight they could trade today, including the NBA’s most valuable and tradeable first-round pick (via Phoenix, 2029.).
It won’t be easy. They have a tough schedule out of the gates with matchups against Cleveland, Dallas, Boston (2x), LAC, Miami (2x), and Milwaukee in the first month of the season. Then the schedule shifts to December when they’ll go on their longest road trip of the year at Sacramento, Phoenix, Denver, Golden State, and Utah.
So much of their success rides on Simmons. Bridges, Johnson, Claxton and the two 3-and-D’s, Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale, a very good core to support a star. They will need Simmons to at least be good enough to run point for the first unit while covering opposing guards. Not bigs. (Cam Johnson said last week that with Simmons and Claxton, the Nets have two players who can both guard 1-through 5.)
There will be issues fitting it all together. In the words of an exasperated head coach Jacque Vaughn last February in the days following the superstar trades.
“You put another big next to Ben, then you got to figure out what the spacing is around him. Then, if you put another playmaker next to him, then you got to figure out what Ben looks like without the basketball. Then, if you go small with Ben, then you have to figure out can you rebound enough with him?”
Last month though after talking with Simmons in Miami, Vaughn was more optimistic.
“I look forward to coaching a healthy Ben Simmons. That’s exciting for me,” he said during Summer League. “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.”
In the end, there’s a few scenarios that could play out.
- Best case, the Nets reestablish that blue collar culture identity and outwork teams during the regular season, resulting in wins and a newfound culture built on youth, athleticism and defense. From there, they can be selective buyers at the deadline ... if they want.
- Middle of the road, they play well enough and become a relevant destination. The market is hot enough to lure superstars in the off-season (like Marks said, it is New York) — but that doesn’t mean anything if the team stinks. Hover around .500 and they’ll be able to scour the market and decide whether it’s worth buying at that point.
- Worst case, the current team flops. They don’t have their own pick in 2024, thus it wouldn’t make sense to trade assets at the deadline, and free agents might be dissuaded if their main priority is a ring.
Right now, it feels like they’re somewhere in that middle range. They can be competitive the way Marks described. Fans will appreciate that in the short term, but what does any of it mean if the Larry O’Brien Trophy isn’t the end goal sometime in the near future? Mediocrity isn’t sustainable for business nor direction on the basketball court.
I once heard someone say history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. In Nets World, that means things aren’t exactly the same as they were, but it sounds awfully similar. That 2018-19 team was different, but they had a young team who were thrilled to be “competitive.” A team with something to prove after a couple years of turnover and turmoil. They surprised in a positive way and for us fans, there is nothing better than that.
Something good enough that superstars wanted to be a part of. Until they didn’t.
And that’s the game Marks and Tsai play this year. More stars are hinting at displeasure in their situations, most recently Giannis Antetokounmpo, who wouldn’t commit to Milwaukee beyond his current deal. That’s not to say Giannis is going to Brooklyn, more so the idea that a player of Giannis’ caliber — among others – are bound to emerge come February and beyond. And there’s always Donovan Mitchell.
As Marks told his fellow Kiwi, Prime, “This will be an exciting year to see how we can all come together as a group and how we can build this camaraderie, then where do we go for the next few years. We’ve got a lot of draft assets to continue to build with and add to this roster that we currently have.”
Indeed, the Nets are VERY confident they can still lure superstar talent to Brooklyn.
If Brooklyn is good enough to be buyers by the deadline, they’ll be able to control their adventure and choose which direction they want to go in. There aren’t many teams that have a bigger market AND better assets to offer, should it come to that. As Seerat Sohi of The Ringer wrote last week, Brooklyn has “the allure of a big market, an owner with a bottomless wallet, and the draft picks and cap flexibility to accommodate multiple stars.”
No pressure, though. If there’s one thing this team understands it’s rock bottom, and scraping to get out of such. There’s no reason that can’t be the case again, but it starts now with what they got.
Let’s see if it’s enough.