Let’s assume the Nets are done for the off-season, other than a couple of Exhibit 9/10 signings. Let’s also assume they don’t play a role in facilitating any superstar trade, whether Damian Lillard or James Harden or that someone else, like a Giannis Antetokounmpo or Donovan Mitchell, doesn’t shock the world with their own trade request. Finally, let’s assume that no one on the current roster stubs his toe on a child’s toy or gets into a fender-bender on the BQE. Everything stays as it is on the third week of September.
Compared to the last two off-seasons, this one has been, shall we say, boring. No trade requests from unhappy superstars, no superstar pressing to be traded to Brooklyn either. Where do we stand? Constrained by a desire to avoid the repeater tax, how’d they do?
The big personnel issues facing the Nets at the beginning of the summer appear to be resolved or are on the way to resolution. Cam Johnson signed his extension, four years and $94.5 million that could balloon to $108 million if he makes all his bonus levels, which is very unlikely. He even agreed to frontload his contract to give the Nets more flexibility in the out years. Ben Simmons is by all accounts in the best physical and mental health anyone’s seen since he was traded to the Nets in February 2022. Yes, yes, he still has to do it in front of 18,000 fans two or three times a week, but that was always going to the final step.
Sean Marks said back in April that he wanted to give the Nets core another shot, that he liked what saw in the last third of the season following the superstar trades at the deadline.
“I’d be nice to see this group continue to stick it out and be together for as long as they can,” Marks said during his end-of-the-season presser. “And hopefully, as Jacque [Vaughn] said, over the summer they take advantage of being around one another, and I think you have that in these individuals. They really feel like they’re close family.”
He didn’t identify the core at the time but since then, we found out who they are, who they aren’t. Joe Harris and Patty Mills were dumped in trades that cost the Nets three second round picks, all of them acquired in the superstar deals, and saved them $25 million. Free agents Seth Curry and Yuta Watanabe left of their own volition, Curry signing with Dallas, Watanabe with Phoenix. Mills and Harris were the only Nets over 30 at the end of last season. David Duke Jr. didn’t get a qualifying offer from Brooklyn and so will try to make the 76ers in training camp. Edmond Sumner’s team option didn’t get picked up. He’s still a free agent.
So, based on all that, it seems that the Marks’ core was comprised of Johnson, Simmons, Mikal Bridges, Nic Claxton, Spencer Dinwiddie, Royce O’Neale, Dorian Finney-Smith, Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe. Nine players. If you’re grading (and just to let you know we are), that core is probably at best, with a healthy Simmons, no better than a B to B- minus range. If Simmons isn’t healthy, you’re in the C to C- range. And if Bridges or Claxton who missed one game — combined — to injury last year get hurt, well, never mind.
The big positives other than continuity and chemistry are that 1) Claxton and Dinwiddie who coincidentally worked out together in L.A. are on the expiring deals; 2) Thomas and Sharpe understand — and Thomas has said — the third year is critical for young players; and 3) Simmons has something to prove and is publicly not shrinking from that aspect of his personal rebuild. So lots of incentive to do well.
Now for the additions. In the Draft, the Nets used all three of their picks, taking 6’11” Noah Clowney and 6’7” Dariq Whitehead at Nos. 21 and 22 and 6’8” Jalen Wilson at No. 51. You haven’t heard any reports of wild draft room celebrations after the first round picks. Don’t get us wrong. The Nets were happy with Clowney and Whitehead, the two youngest picks in their history, but they were known to be enamored of 7-footer Derrick Lively II, but he bolted up the boards to the Mavs at No. 12, and Brandin Podziemski, who was taken at No. 19 by the Warriors. They really liked him. If Cam Whitmore hadn’t been taken by the Rockets at No. 20, there might have been some serious conversations in the Nets draft room during that five-minute window between picks 20 and 21.
There were celebrations at No. 51 when they learned the 22-year-old Wilson was available. They liked what he brought: maturity and a winning attitude. There had been doubts about his shooting and consistency but those were pretty much allayed in the Summer League when he led the Nets to a Final Four finish. So, let’s be generous and give the front office a B on the picks. Most pundits did ... and if Whitehead ankle/foot issues are no longer a thing, we could be convinced a B+ is in order.
The first free agent acquisition of the off-season took place in the days after the Summer League ended. The Nets signed 25-year-old Armoni Brooks, signing the 6’4” sharpshooter with 74 NBA games NBA experience to a two-way. Let’s give them somewhere between a B and a C. And let’s be real. It’s simply not a big deal. It’s a two-way deal and Brooks isn’t likely to be close to the rotation. It’s a Meh. (Sorry Armoni, our sincere best wishes.)
Then, the Nets went out and signed two veteran but still young backcourt players to vets minimum deals, both fully guaranteed. The first of the Suffixes — 6’2” Dennis Smith Jr. and 6’4” Lonnie Walker IV — both played decently last season. Smith Jr. got his mojo back with the Hornets and Walker IV played well for the Lakers, averaging 14 a game till he got hurt and lost his job to Austin Reaves. Both are healthy now and are also young, inside the Nets’ timeline at 25 and 24. Smith Jr. has said he had other offers that could have paid him more and Walker IV was paid $6.5 million last year. So the market seems like it was higher than what the Nets paid them. They too are motivated with one-year deals. Let’s give their acquisition a collective B based on talent vs. cost.
From that point till now, Marks & co. went shopping at the NBA bargain bin, Costo or Big Lots, if you must. They signed three bigs — 6’9” Darius Bazley, 6’9” Trendon Watford and 6’11” Harry Giles III (the final Suffix.) The first two agreed to non-guaranteed deals while Giles III got an Exhibit 9 deal which cannot be directly converted to a two-way. Seems odd.
You can grade those three signings in one of two ways, risk/reward or sheer potential. All three fit the definition of fallen angel. Watford is 22, Bazley just turned 23, Watford and Giles III is still only 25. They are athletic and Bazley and Watford have played well in stretches during their short NBA careers. Bazley also has a defensive rep.
Over a two-year period with OKC between 2020 and 2022 — when Bazley was only 20 and 21 — he averaged 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds in in 29.3 minutes over 124 games, including 108 starts. That’s not a small sample. He also shot 29.3% from deep. The Ohio product has improved his 3-point shooting since then, hitting 37.7% last season with the Thunder and Suns but that sample size was small, only 20-of-53. Watford similarly had a good couple of seasons in Portland. In two years with the Trail Blazers, 110 games, 22 starts, Watford averaged 7.5 points and 4.0 rebounds in 19.6 minutes per game. Last season, he shot 39.1% from deep. Like Bazley, we’re talking small sample (25-of-64.)
Giles III is a wildly different story. An Exhibit 9 doesn’t offer the protections that even a non-guaranteed contract does (although it should be noted that Yuta Watanabe made good on his Exhibit 9 contract last year.). More than that, Giles III hasn’t played in two seasons and even when he did play, he never met his potential, his body repeatedly betraying his career. He’ll have a lot of people rooting for him, including Smith Jr. and their long-time friend, Jayson Tatum.
All three, like Smith Jr. and Walker IV, are feel-good stories and on the risk-to-reward scale, you’d have to get the Nets a B+ grade. BUT at this point, are any of them going to help you if Claxton goes down for 15 games? Doubtful. So let’s be a tough grader like your old English professor and give the signings nothing more than a C grade. It’s also entirely possible that one of the three could wind up with the final two-way contract. Again, best wishes to all.
And as of Saturday evening, that’s it. There are still a few spots to fill. The Nets now have 18 players under one contract or another, three short of the limit. Patrick Gardner’s Exhibit 10 hasn’t been announced yet, but even he admits he’s been told he’s headed to Long Island. Like his new teammates, Gardner is a great story but he isn’t likely to move the needle. So when he gets signed officially, make it 19, leaving the Nets with that last two-way and a final Exhibit 9/10. Candidates for the final camp invite probably include Kennedy Chandler, the diminutive (6’0”) but hyperathletic point guard who played for the Nets in Summer League and two G League wings acquired in trades by Long Island: 6’6” D.J. Stewart who played for the Heat affiliate in Sioux Falls, and 6’8” Jordan Hall, who played for the Spurs affiliate in Austin and the Nets Summer League team. Chandler and Hall are 21, Stewart 24.
Beyond keeping a nine-man core and adding an equal number of newbies, the Nets also added four new assistant coaches led by Kevin Ollie who guided UConn to the 2014 NCAA title. He’s likely to be the first among equals on the eight man staff, the guy who would step in if Jacque Vaughn gets the flu or tossed during a game.
The staff has arguably undergone a bigger overhaul than the roster, transitioning from a veteran group geared for a championship run to a younger, developmental unit. There are four former G League head coaches, including one who ran Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence and another who was head coach in both French League and Australia’s NBL. Ollie was most recently director of coaching for Overtime Elite, the pro league that produced the Thompson twins. We like that. So give the Nets a B+
Then there is what they might have done, but because of repeater tax restraints, didn’t. (See last week’s OSR.) Brooklyn did not add a single player in a trade and all seven of their trade exceptions, ranging in size from $1.6 million to near $20 million, remain unused. Same with their $12.4 million MLE and $4.4 million bi-annual exception. They could, in theory, use them at the deadline, but as of now, don’t expect anything of the sort. The Nets had the taxpayers’ MLE — $6.6 million — last year and didn’t use it. The two biggest question marks from the post-deadline days are still unanswered: Where’s the scoring coming from? What about rebounding? It’s hard to grade the omissions anything higher than a D and we are probably being kind.
Insiders will tell you they believe that if and when the Nets show they can contend, not just compete, Tsai will once again open his wallet, as he did in the past. After all, they argue, he paid out out $323 million in luxury taxes since buying into the Nets in 2017. And to be fair all around, it’s simply smart business at this point to think long-term. It’s a consequence of spending so much and getting back so little from the “Big Three.” Deal with it.
So what’s the overall grade for the Off-Season? Let’s add it all up and weigh things, taking into account the curve provided by the 29 other teams’ off-seasons. Would a B- be fair? More than fair. C seems about right. Defense looks great. So does overall athleticism. They’re also the eighth youngest team in the league, down there with other rebuilding teams like the Jazz and Pacers, but not way down like the Pistons. And things could change.
Of course, Simmons’ status needs to be watched closely. As Spencer Dinwiddie told Dylan Burris of NetsPress last week, “If he’s there, we have a real puncher’s chance against anybody.”
Bridges’ star turn at the FIBA World Cup could be a big plus for him, too, even more than his time in Brooklyn. As Brian Lewis wrote Saturday, “Now that Mikal Bridges has put the FIBA World Cup in the rear view mirror, the NBA season is around the corner. And the Nets’ rising star will look to carry his red-hot form from the former right into the latter.” (Conversely, let’s hope Johnson’s stay in Steve Kerr’s doghouse doesn’t affect his confidence.)
To us, other than Simmons, the Nets fortunes will rely most heavily on Nic Claxton’s improvement. He didn’t get all the accolades he deserved last season. He and the Nets were particularly upset by him being snubbed for in balloting for the All-Defensive team. Again, other than Simmons, he has the most motivation of all the Nets. Another big year and he could be looking at an nine-figure deal.
If both Simmons and Claxton can add to the offense, add to the rebounding, then we’d have to change the narrative. Off-season ratings and grades, as well as all those videos we watched so closely, only matter till the ball goes up on October 24. Then, we could all look stupid. (And we will reserve final judgment till after the preseason when we do our annual reporters’ roundtable.)
Comings, goings and promotions
Staying in the personnel lane, a check of LinkedIn showed a couple of interesting hires and a promotion in the front office. The biggest news is probably the hiring of veteran NBA and international coach Rex Kalamian as a Nets scout, officially Pro Player Personnel Scout.
Kalamian has had a 30-year career in coaching. Most recently, he was an assistant coach for the Pistons, filling in as interim head coach last season after Dwane Casey was let go. Previously, he served as an assistant with the Clippers, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Kings, Thunder, and Raptors. He’s worked under Hall of Famers like Larry Brown and Bill Fitch. The Athletic described the 65-year-old in a profile two years ago as “the man next to the man, the mind behind the mind,” a defensive guru and all-around wise man.
Last year, the Armenian-American was named head coach of the Armenian national team. (The Long Island Nets new head coach, Mfon Udofia, also has experience as a national team head coach with Nigeria.) Kalamian now brings his experience to a scouting staff that may already be the largest in the NBA.
Ryan Gisriel has long been Sean Marks alter ego as Nets’ Director of Basketball Operations. Gisriel’s tenure with the Nets goes back a decade, first as an intern, then assistant to Billy King before rising the Nets corporate ladder under Marks. In July, he was named to a new job, Executive Director of Basketball and Business Operations. Gisriel has long been the basketball liaison to the business side of things at BSE Global, the Nets parent company, and the promotion should him more heft in that role and put him on track for a bigger corporate role.
Beyond those two moves, the Nets also made a small hire we found interesting. Foster Loyer joined the team this summer as an Assistant Video Coordinator, a catch-all title for entry level hires that is often a stepping stone to bigger things. The Head Video Coordinator sits on the Nets bench. That’s currently Travis Bader — nickname “Darth.” He was the first NCAA Division I player to make 500 threes in a college career. Loyer has a similar specialty. In his five-year college career, three at Michigan State, two at Davidson, Loyer was one of the NCAA’s top free throw shooters, hitting 92.3% at the line for his career, leading the NCAA Division I two years ago with a 93.5% rate. In high school in Michigan, he once made 119 straight helping him win the Mr. Basketball award for the state. We know a couple of Nets players who could benefit from his talents. For long-time Nets fans, Loyer’s name may sound familiar. His father, John Loyer, was an assistant under Lawrence Frank in the darkest days in New Jersey. Dad then joined the Pistons, depriving New Jersey high school basketball of his son’s talents.
Since the Nets don’t publish every hire, we check LinkedIn regularly. We try not to miss much.
Liberty, Liberty, Liberty
The Liberty’s first playoff game of 2023 playoffs was a happening at Barclays Center, a raucous affair that is very much unlike the NBA experience in a lot of ways. Dare we say it: The WNBA is just more fun. It’s less about the peripheral issues of pro basketball and more about the game itself. You might not see as many dunks or other derring-do, but the game is pure. There are more kids in the stands, more women although there are a lot of young men too,
Some of those young men play for the Nets. At the Mystics game Friday we counted a large number of Nets players and front office types. The Nets tweeted out images of players at the game Friday...
And Mikal Bridges shared his own fandom...
For the record, the Nets players on hand included Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dennis Smith Jr, Lonnie Walker IV, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Royce O’Neale. In the past, we’ve seen Cam Johnson, Noah Clowney, Dariq Whitehead, Jalen Wilson and Harry Giles III courtside for big games. That’s a quorum or at least a huddle! There may be more who we’ve missed.
Friday also saw a front office contingent in the stands led by Sean Marks that included Assistant GM Andy Birdsong, Assistant Brooklyn coaches Corey Vinson and Ryan Forehan-Kelly and L.D. Williams, an assistant at Long Island. Marks wasn’t just there for the game. He was also on hand to honor Jonathan Kolb, the Liberty GM, who received his WNBA Executive of the Year hardware. No doubt Joe and Clara Wu Tsai love to see it. (And if you’re looking for further evidence of crossover, the picture accompanying this story shows the Liberty not the Nets practicing at HSS Training Center.)
It’s not just the WNBA either. There’s something else different about the Liberty. They know how good they are and are not stepping back. Post-game, Sabrina Ionescu had this to say...
“We’re going to let our work do the talking,” Ionescu said. “We’ll be able to shut up those people on Twitter that have anything to say [about] what’s going on with New York sports.
“We’ve been playing the best basketball that’s been played in New York City for a very long time. Whether people recognize it or not, they will in the next few weeks. I’m excited to see what they say then.”
Who’s she talking about? Stefan Bondy, Knicks beat writer for the Daily News, who took to Twitter last week to write this...
In the three major sports, very possible the Knicks are now the best team in New York.— Stefan Bondy (@SbondyNBA) September 12, 2023
Wait a New York minute, said Liberty followers. We’re 32-8! That’s an .800 winning percentage! We’re favored to win it all! The response was heated, with Liberty fans on one side and Knick fans being Knick fans on the other. What’s with this “major sport” stuff? Barbara Barker of Newsday had her own response to a Knicks fan...
Why? Are we going to have the Rangers play Knicks 5 on 5? Or Giants? Or, for that matter, St. John's? Why are some people (read idiots) obsessed w/ judging women's teams by how they would compete against a men's team. I don't think the pro athletes, men or women, think that way. https://t.co/d6Wo9ocsLd— Barbara Barker (@meanbarb) September 13, 2023
She even wrote a column about it all that led this way...
Someday, it won’t be a big deal to state the obvious.
Someday, a sportswriter will be able to post on social media that the Liberty are the best professional team in New York without getting dragged into a misogyny-laden Twitter/X-fest where people question whether women’s basketball is a real sport or demand that the Liberty beat the Knicks before they can be declared any good.
Someday, we will all be able to celebrate the greatness of a women’s team rather than be threatened by their success.
And it didn’t end with Ionescu’s commentary or the fan debate or Barker’s column. Kolb made his thoughts known as well on Friday after receiving the EoY award.
“We play professional sports in New York, right?” said the Liberty GM. “It was actually the first time I sent a tweet to someone that said ‘read the comments.’ I saw this quote on Twitter where they were talking about the best teams in New York, and the Liberty weren’t listed. And everybody let them have it. That was cool.
“That was something where you’re seeing change.”
So did Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello.
“The Liberty is the best team in New York,” Brondello said, as Brian Lewis reported. “And it’s kind of a bit of ignorance really from them. We’ve got a special [vibe]. People that have been to these games will tell everybody how great it is. But it’s more about breaking down the barriers of the perception.
“It’s kind of annoying. We’re used to it, but hopefully we continue to break down the barriers and the perception that goes around with that.”
Try as we might, we can’t see Bridges or Marks or Jacque Vaughn reacting to a sportswriter’s tweet like that. But we loved it!. It’s part of the who the WNBA and Liberty are. It’s that purity aspect of the game we talked about. The Libs were saying, Screw the filters, screw the perceptions. Take us as we are. We know how good we are ... and if you don’t like it, too bad. Screw you, too!
Next week will be the last Off-Season Report of the summer. Off-Season ends when preseason begins on October 2 with Media Day. It’s unofficially preseason already at the HSS Training Center. Just about everyone is on hand, getting ready, showing off new bodies — you know, the proverbial 15 pounds of muscle; new tweaks to their game; new attitudes. We won’t hear much till Media Day, but every year around this time, you start to hear leaks that this player or that has looked surprisingly good. You also used to also hear which player showed up needing a larger sized uniform, but those days appear to over. This group, no matter what else, seems quite professional, quite committed and maybe, like the Liberty, carrying a chip on their shoulders.