The Long Rebuild
In the summer of 2013, the Brooklyn Nets tried to cut in line for an NBA championship. The team sent Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans and first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 — as well as the right to swap picks in the upcoming 2017 draft — to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White. The Nets likely thought those picks would be late first rounders since the team was set to contend for years to come. Instead, Brook Lopez suffered a broken foot 17 games into the 2013-14 season and the assembled core peaked with a 4-1 second round playoff series loss to LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.
Paul Pierce departed to the Washington Wizards the following summer after Brooklyn declined to offer him a contract. Thus began one of the most painful and prolonged rebuilds in NBA history. The Celtics used the 2014 pick to draft James Young 17th. But with the Nets refusing to commit to the core it invested so much in, Brooklyn finished 21-61 last season and surrendered the third pick, which Boston used to draft Jaylen Brown.
The Youth Route
Oddly, despite not owning its first round pick outright until 2019, the Nets are still having some success in building through the draft.
Last summer, Brooklyn traded starting power forward Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for the 20th pick, which was used on former Michigan shooting guard Caris LeVert. As Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett noted Wednesday, LeVert has flashed huge potential on both ends of the court. He leads the Nets in deflections per minute while contributing to gaudy efficiency numbers for roll men and spot up shooters he connects with. As Dowsett noted, his 30 percent three-point shooting isn’t all that was hoped, but he shot 40 percent from three from his sophomore season onward. There’s a strong possibility that his shot will round into form at the NBA level.
LeVert was considered to have lottery talent ahead of last summer’s draft, but recurrent foot issues caused him to drop and allowed Brooklyn to get him late in the first round. It seemed like a risky strategy to trade a known quantity in Young for a college prospect with an extensive injury history, but LeVert has played so well as a rookie that Nets’ GM Sean Marks’ decision is looking better by the day.
In addition to LeVert, one positive holdover from former GM Billy King’s regime is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 small forward who finished fifth in defensive real plus-minus among NBA small forwards as a rookie. Known as a defensive specialist, Hollis-Jefferson is shooting only 23 percent from three-point range for his career. But with the opportunity to play for Kenny Atkinson, a coach famous for his talents in player development, Hollis-Jefferson could eventually develop a reliable shot that would open up the game for him and unlock his full potential.
Besides identifying wing contributors late in the first round, the Nets also had success in targeting undrafted free agent shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick. In one of Marks’ first acts as Brooklyn GM, he signed Kilpatrick to a three-year deal in March of last year. Kilpatrick is currently third on the team in scoring behind Lopez (20.4) and Jeremy Lin (13.8) with 13.5 points per game on 34.4 percent shooting from three. Free agency has otherwise been a mixed bag for Brooklyn, as Lin has only been available for 21 games and power forward Trevor Booker has failed to take a major step forward, languishing in the bottom five of the roster in net rating.
Several big questions face the Nets in the coming months. The team already traded Bojan Bogdanovic to the Wizards for a lottery-protected first round pick that will almost certainly convey for this summer’s draft. That gives the Nets a pair of first rounders when combined with the late first rounder the team will receive from the Celtics via the previously-mentioned swap. With those picks in hand, Marks should continue what he’s already done by seeking more hidden gems outside the lottery. The team must also decide if it wishes to seek additional draft assets in a Lopez trade or enter next season with Lopez on an expiring contract. The Nets have already explored the market for Lopez, and retained him, in part, because no sufficiently attractive offer was presented. That could change as the draft approaches.
The Nets may have dodged a bullet when Portland and Miami matched massive offer sheets on Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson last summer. Since both teams retained their players, the Nets are faced with the decision to either continue to gun for free agents this summer or hoard cap space for 2018’s spectacular free agent class. The class of 2018 could include Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James, Paul George, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge and Derrick Favors. If two or more of those stars want to congregate on a single team — as James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did in Miami — Brooklyn could position itself as the most viable destination.
Lopez and Booker are set to expire after 2017-18. If Jeremy Lin declines his player option for 2018-19 and the Nets make no major salary commitments beyond next season, Brooklyn could hit the summer of 2018 with Andrew Nicholson’s $6.6 million as the largest contract on its books. The Nets might be able to trade Nicholson’s contract to a team seeking to reach the NBA’s salary floor, leaving enough cap space to court multiple stars.
It might sound like a pie-in-the-sky strategy, but Brooklyn’s front office must decide by the end of the season if it wants to shoot for the stars in 2018 or continue firing off huge offers to free agents this summer. It’s a valid question as, by committing $145 million to Crabbe and Evan Turner, the Trail Blazers have become a cautionary tale about how the sort of unrestrained spending Brooklyn attempted last summer can go wrong. Only Noah Vonleh had a worse net rating last season than Crabbe among Trail Blazers with at least 500 minutes of action. Crabbe has failed to take a significant step forward this season, remaining firmly in the bottom half of Portland’s roster in net rating. Meanwhile, Turner’s contract was even more questionable after he posted the second-worst net rating for Boston last season (minimum 500 minutes). Turner is a known quantity. This season only Ed Davis has a worse net rating among Trail Blazers with at least 500 minutes.
Crabbe might have made a leap with a bigger role in Brooklyn, or he could have been the same cap-clogging underachiever he currently is in Portland. Johnson would likely have been a more positive addition, but since he stayed in Miami, the Nets can explore their options. Even if Brooklyn avoids long-term salary commitments this summer but fails to attract stars in 2018, the team could retain full Bird rights for Lopez and early Bird rights for Lin. A core of Lopez and Lin along with a corps of developing wings and whatever impact free agents are inevitably attracted by cap space is a foundation Brooklyn can build on. The Nets are in the NBA’s top media market with a top five arena. If the Warriors win another championship after obtaining Kevin Durant, the super team trend could continue and Brooklyn would be poised as a potential destination.
More Conservative Options
One thing that would undoubtedly help the Nets would be doing a better job of recognizing the talent that’s already on the roster. Yogi Ferrell’s success in Dallas has been salt in the wounds of a Brooklyn fan base already robbed of talent by King’s disastrous trade. But in addition to Ferrell, the Nets also waived Willie Reed, who is exactly the sort of young, rim-protecting big man the franchise desperately needs.
If the Nets want to throw a big contract at a wing coming off his rookie deal, the franchise could do a lot worse than current Atlanta Hawk Tim Hardaway Jr. Once derided for his defensive shortcomings as a Knick, Hardaway has become one of the Hawks’ most consistent two-way players. His plus-5.4 on-court net rating through 64 games is second on the team. Bench players often benefit from playing fewer minutes against opposing starters. But when Thabo Sefolosha lost time to injury and Hardaway was pressed into service as Atlanta’s starting shooting guard, his net rating improved. Opponents are shooting just 39.7 percent overall when guarded by Hardaway, per optical tracking data on NBA.com, and only 32 percent on three-pointers.
But if the Nets go the route of hoarding cap space, the biggest short-term need is a physical power forward who can rebound but also stretch the floor. There are several undervalued options to fill this role for Brooklyn that include another current Hawk, Ersan Ilyasova. Linsanity happened when — with Carmelo Anthony out — Mike D’Antoni surrounded Amar’e Stoudemire-Lin pick and rolls with three-point shooters. Ilyasova fits that configuration and he defends and kills opponents’ possessions with his rebounding.
Other options could include Nikola Mirotic, who has struggled mightily this season. Despite these struggles, Mirotic has a better on-court net rating than any Bull except Jimmy Butler this season. For all his struggles, the Bulls are still performing better as a team with Mirotic on the court than almost any other player. This speaks to the value of stretch big men in the pace-and-space era. Even with Mirotic shooting a career-low 30 percent from three, he still pulls an opposing big man away from the basket, opening the driving lanes that Lin thrives in. If there was ever a player whose value seems so low that his team might let him walk rather than match a modest offer in restricted free agency, Mirotic is that player. Brooklyn could steal Mirotic on a bargain contract and then watch him flourish in a new role away from Chicago’s dysfunction.
Two other players that could get overlooked due to their current teams’ salary cap crunch are Clipper forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and current Raptor forward Patrick Patterson. Mbah a Moute would be an exceptional addition for the Nets as he can play either forward position at both ends. Known as an elite defender, he has worked on his outside shot and is currently hitting a career-best 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. This makes him a perfect frontcourt partner for Lopez and an ideal candidate to improve Brooklyn’s porous defense.
Patterson isn’t exactly the banger that Brooklyn needs, but he’s another under-the-radar commodity that could be available. Toronto made a major commitment to Serge Ibaka by trading away Terrence Ross, a legitimate rotation piece. With Kyle Lowry possibly commanding the max and the luxury tax looming, Patterson will almost certainly change teams this summer. Toronto is plus-11.5 per 100 with Patterson on the court, easily a team-best among Raptors to play meaningful minutes.
Finally, two players the Nets should consider are a pair of teammates on the Serbian national team. Miroslav Raduljica (rad-oo-LEETS-uh) is an overlooked, bruising big man who would give the Nets the enforcer it needs. He doesn’t stretch the floor to the three-point line like countryman Nikola Jokic, but he absolutely has a face-up game. As seen in these highlights, Raduljica can pull up from the elbow and baseline, has a dribble-drive game, and a penchant for thunderous dunks and the occasional highlight assist. In 53 career games for the Milwaukee Bucks, Raduljica averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per 36 minutes. Don’t let the snarling biker look fool you: Raduljica speaks or understands five languages.
The other Serbian national team member the Nets are already rumored to be interested in is current CSKA Moscow point guard Milos Teodosic. His contract expires July 1, and he has expressed interest in making the jump to the NBA. Teodosic gained wide acclaim by leading Serbia to the silver medal in last summer’s Rio Olympics. Serbia fell to the United States 94-91 in the gold medal game and Teodosic has been coveted by NBA teams ever since. Sportando recently reported that the Nets are among the teams that plan to pursue him. Teodosic is not noted for his defense but he has a flair for dramatic passes and an elite feel for the game.
This summer’s free agent class isn’t as star-studded as 2018’s, but it’s fair to ask if Brooklyn should pass up so many players that could help now to chase a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So, should the Nets continue to hoard cap space and keep the sheet clear for the summer of 2018 or look more toward short-term improvement via players who are more attainable? If Marks has the right answers, he could transform the Nets from one of the NBA’s most painful fan experiences to an unexpected success story. But if he chooses unwisely, history is unlikely to let him or Brooklyn’s fans forget.
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