With apologies to Mick and Keith... “This could be the last one, maybe the last one. I don’t know.”
The off-season ends when pre-season begins and pre-season officially begins with Media Day which is a week from Tuesday. So technically, next weekend is still part of the off-season so we probably should finish up with one last Off-Season Report. But also between now and next Saturday, there should be a bit of news. On Tuesday, Sean Marks and Jacque Vaughn will give their annual pre-season press conference which is basically an off-season review. So maybe we won’t need to fill these pages with another report so close to the pre-season. We’ll let you know about such weighty matters closer to the weekend.
Well, with that out of the way, we can address what’s been a relatively light news week. Putting aside the Liberty’s continuing drive for the prize, it’s been mostly about checking the web for news of who’s back in Brooklyn for training camp with some attention paid to Long Island’s roster-building.
It appears everyone is either back or about to return. Although we don’t know where Ben Simmons’ rehab stands — 3-on-3, 4-on-4, 5-on-5? — it also appears everyone else is healthy and ready to go. Barring any news between now and Tuesday, you can be sure that the first question asked Marks and Vaughn Tuesday will contain some variation of two words, “Ben Simmons.” Dorian Finney-Smith was the only Net to undergo the knife this summer and that was surgery to straighten out the pinkie finger on his shooting hand back in April, says after the Nets lost to the 76ers in first round play. He’s been shooting in social media posts so we assume that he’s good to go.
Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson appear to be no worse for wear after playing 13 games — 12 for CJ — between August 7 and September 10 on their round-the-world journey with stops in Las Vegas, Malaga in Spain, Abu Dhabi in the UAE and Manila in the Philippines. That’s a lot of games and a lot of mileage without an metal to show for it.
One thing the FIBA World Tour did was once again establish Bridges as a star in the making. After his 27-game tour de force following the superstar trades in February where he averaged 26.1 points —27.4 if you don’t count his four-second cameo in the season finale — Bridges led Team USA in efficiency and finished second in scoring to Anthony Edwards. Your could see his confidence rising as the games went on. In the final three contests, he averaged 20.0 a game leading up to this lasting image at the end of regulation vs. Canada in the bronze medal game...
It was more than Bridges stats or that heady play to give the U.S. one last breath in cup play. Bridges was one of the leaders in Manila, as Team USA coach Steve Kerr noted. He made friends along the way, too, expanding his contact list for possible future use. No doubt, Bridges will have to be a leader and recruiter for Sean Marks & co. as the Nets begin their rebuild, reset, reestablishment, re-something. He may not officially be a “star” under Adam Silver’s new definition but that seems more bureaucratic than a reflection of where he stands in the NBA. He has the respect of the league and its players and he’s used it, whether that’s encouraging Ben Simmons in his return or taking potential free agent Donovan Mitchell out to a ball game as he did early in the Liberty season...
Maybe the Knicks are in the lead for Mitchell’s services if as predicted by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst this week the native of Elmsford, N.Y. tells the Cavs he won’t re-sign with them and wants a new address — preferably in a city with a zip code that starts with a “1” . Before he was traded from Utah to Cleveland a year ago, The Athletic reported that Mitchell’s three preferred destinations were the Knicks, the Nets and the Heat. You’d think that the Heat is unlikely to pursue him if they get Damian Lillard. All we are saying is watch this space ... closely ... as we get near to the trade deadline. You might even hear some media questions about his future when the Nets open vs. the Cavaliers at Barclays Center on October 25.
One final thing about Bridges and Mitchell and the general topic of free agents. While some pundits and fans suggested after the superstar trades in February and the resultant recriminations that no star or superstar was ever going to want to resettle in Brooklyn, either as a free agent or a player wanting a trade. The collapse of the “Big Three,” Kyrie Irving’s claims of disrespect, etc. had created a toxic atmosphere, a repugnant culture, we were told.
That is decidedly not how the front office views the NBA landscape. Marks, Tsai, et al are extremely confident that Brooklyn — and New York — remain a lure. The feel the same about the young core and a performance team that even Kevin Durant raved about when he exited. Of course, as we’ve noted before and will note again down below, that kind of big move won’t necessarily easy considering restraints that by now should be obvious.
Ben Simmons said all the right things in his exclusive with Tina Cervasio early in the week. Reiterating what he told Marc J. Spears a couple weeks back, Simmons praised Jacque Vaughn as a “great coach” and spoke positively about his new home and his new health.
“I’m super excited to be in Brooklyn,” he told Cervasio. “We got a great team. I think this year is going to be a completely different year (compared to) the last couple.
“[I feel] amazing. I think this is the first summer where I’ve really had to just get healthy and get back on track to where I need to be,”
Put aside what Simmons said with with his words and focus a bit on what he said with his body language, his comfort and confidence in saying those words. The 27-year-old’s mental health is as critical as his physical and Simmons appears ready to show his wares in front of 18,000 fans every night whether it’s Barclays Center or Wells Fargo Center. It’s just another datapoint until he actually shows it.
The headline out of Cervasio’s interview was his answer to her question, what he’s most looking forward to this season.
“Just playing with guys who are just easy to play with, that just have one goal and that’s to win,” he replied. “I don’t think guys have too many individual goals. I think the team is going to come first and I think the culture that Jacque Vaughn and Sean Marks are building now has been incredible.”
He is not the first Nets player to say things weren’t right the last two years of the “Big Three” experiment. Both Goran Dragic and Bruce Brown hinted at some of the same issues after they left Brooklyn.
Indeed, we’ve been told that playing with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving wasn’t easy for Simmons. KD was and is a tough taskmaster and Irving had a tendency to blame others when things went wrong. Whether that’s an overly harsh assessment or a way to cast blame for other failings, there was evidence of chemistry issues on the court last season. To be fair, there were also issues between Simmons and Vaughn that led the head coach to make some uncharacteristic public statements criticizing Simmons play and fit. The Nets were, in a word, exasperated. Simmons says those issues have been worked out as has Vaughn who said during Summer League that he was excited to coach Simmons this year. Vaughn in fact regularly visited Simmons in Miami when he was rehabbing.
We won’t have to wait long to see what progress Simmons has made ... yes whether he can handle the pressure. He may not play in all the preseason games, Spears reported, but the first two weeks of the regular season are brutal, with one star after another on Brooklyn’s schedule, the kind of stars Simmons craved going up against in the past.
The Nets face the Cavaliers with Donovan Mitchell; the Mavericks with Irving and Luka Doncic; the Heat with Jimmy Butler and maybe Damian Lillard; the Celtics with their new Big Three of Jayson Tatum, Jaylin Brown and Kristaps Porzingis; the Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Clippers with a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, then Boston again. Of those games, the Mavs, Heat and the Celtics games will be on the road.
So, Simmons will be called upon early to provide defense in particular. It will be a test for the Nets as a whole, but Simmons in particular. It’s why they play the games.
Viva Las Vegas
There was a little bit of surprise when the Nets announced they were splitting time between Brooklyn and Las Vegas in training camp: four days at HSS followed by two days at UNLV and the first preseason game vs. the Lakers at the T-Mobile Center. Then again, Las Vegas is familiar territory for the NBA and to more than a few Brooklynites on the roster.
Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson spent the Team USA training camp there. Also, the team’s three rookies and a couple of their Exhibit 10 signings were out there as well for Summer League where they were joined by team veterans who sat courtside.
Indeed, over the last three months, Las Vegas has hosted the NBA Summer League, the WNBA All-Star Game and Weekend, the Team USA training camp and first exhibition game, as well as the WNBA Commissioner’s Cup. On December 9, the NBA’s first in-season tournament will hold its championship in Las Vegas.
We used to think Seattle was the NBA’s top expansion city as the NBA tries to rectify its short-sighted decision to push the NBA out of the Pacific Northwest, sending the Supersonics and Grizzlies to smaller markets in Oklahoma City and Memphis. No more. The league is as much married to Las Vegas as those couples who repeat their vows in the various Elvis-themed wedding chapels around the city. That’s a change. There was a time not that long ago when the NBA and other leagues were concerned the pervasive influence of gambling could harm the integrity of the game. Now, with sports betting legal in half the states, that concern is moot. Moreover, the league’s governors see sports betting as a cash cow and a few have investments in Nevada themselves. Tillman Fertita, owner of the Rockets, operates the Golden Nugget casino change, for example.
The city and league have also gotten beyond the chaos and bad publicity that surrounded the 2007 NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. It was marred by 400 arrests and a shooting that paralyzed a night club bouncer from the waist down. The weekend was seen then as a big setback for the city’s desire to entice pro sports teams to Vegas. The mayor at the time called it a “disastrous weekend” all around.
Since then, the city has attracted the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders, the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, the United Soccer League’s Las Vegas Lights FC and the National Lacrosse League’s Las Vegas Desert Dogs, owned by Joe Tsai and celebrity sports investors Wayne Gretzky, Dustin Johnson and Steve Nash. In addition to an NBA expansion team, the city is also likely to become home of the MLB’s Oakland A’s sometime in the near future.
So, the Nets time in Las Vegas, including their preseason game vs. the Lakers — the only preseason game in the city this year, is more of a natural progression for the city and the league. As they say on the Strip, good luck, gentleman.
Rolls Royce is everywhere
We’ve seen a lot of Royce O’Neale this off-season. His social media is filled with fashion statements of course, but also support for his teammates as well as for the Summer League Nets in Las Vegas, the Liberty, where he has been a regular this season. even the Nets GC, the organization’s NBA2K team.
He also spent time in Miami, working out with teammates Ben Simmons and Dennis Smith Jr. and playing with Smith Jr. in the Miami Pro League. Like fellow vet Spencer Dinwiddie and unrestricted free agent Nic Claxton, he’s on an expiring deal this season, essentially auditioning for what could very well be his last big NBA contract. In spite of that, O’Neale seems to be a big glue guy for next season’s Nets.
There were a lot of reports early in the off-season that O’Neale might be traded for a future first rounder. He and Dorian Finney-Smith, rumored to be available for two firsts, seem to overlap, said some. As an expiring, he would be particularly valuable, they argued. But those rumors dissipated after the Nets were able to dump the salaries of Joe Harris and Patty Mills for three second rounders, all of which they acquired in the superstar trades. Maybe something happens in the waning days of the off-season, but it looks like O’Neale will be back in the Nets rotation. We got no problems with that. The 3-and-D mindset should work very well.
Dorian Finney-Smith is a proud son of Portsmouth, Va., where he has worked with the community while playing in the NBA. This week, he was given the key to the city in honor of his success on court and his work off.
Some fans were shocked and upset last week with our analysis of how the threat of luxury taxes will affect and likely limit what the Nets can do over the next two seasons. It’s not as if the Nets didn’t warn everyone that the 2025-26 season was their goal line in the current reset. Emphasis ours.
“We have to keep our flexibility,” Marks said in talking with the media on July 9 during the Summer League. “We’re looking forward not only this year and next year, [but] the year after that, and trying to find players that will be with us in two or three years. What does it look like?
“[Our core] are mid-20s, some younger than that, so this is something that what can they show us in this next season that proves they should be part of this group in the next year or two after this. And as the group evolves and their game evolves, too, we can sort of grow together,” he added.
Back in April while extolling the team’s “core,” Marks also talked about the Nets overall strategy: not “costing the future for the right now.”
“We just have to be ready for whatever comes our way,” said Marks now in his eighth year as Nets GM. “And if we can make a change that we can compete, we’ll be strategic about it. Because I don’t think we want to put ourselves in a place where we’re costing the future for right now either. I think we got a bright pathway and right now I’m enjoying that.”
Why 2025-26? Because they should be out of repeater tax territory by then unless they pay the luxury tax again this year or next. If they do, they’ll be liable for the repeater tax again in 2025-26. Also, their biggest contract, Ben Simmons, will be done, or if he blows up, extended. Either way, that’ll be settled. Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and hopefully Nic Claxton will still be under contract as will the rookies if they’ve worked out. They’ll have a cap space and assets to take on other contracts. And there will be big stars in free agency (although a number of them are older.)
Maybe, we’re being too conservative, that a big deal will blow everyone away and things will change, refreshment, light and peace everywhere. Maybe, but there’s no glow of that anywhere on the horizon. In the meantime, fans have to hope that everything works out this year and next, that there’s progress and development. The Nets players and staff are guardedly optimistic about this season, the players publicly, the staff privately. Of course, every team has hope at this point.
Congratulations to the entire Eagle family. Family reunions are great. In a short time on the air, Noah has distinguished himself, calling a variety of sports on a variety of media, from radio to Sponge Bob. That’s a range.
It all seems pre-ordained. A few years back, when Noah was still at Syracuse, he was standing with his father and Chris Carrino among others, at a Nets event at HSS. Carrino introduced Noah and said something like, “you want pipes, this kid has pipes!“ broadcast lingo for a great voice. Smiling, Carrino asked Noah to go into announcer mode. Without hesitation, he obliged. He was as good as advertised. At that point, you knew it was just a matter of time.
We’re also told the entire team will be back this season. No subtractions, just the addition of Noah. That, too, is a good thing.