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Fixing the Brooklyn Nets

Moke Hamilton looks at what the Nets should do this summer to turn things around.

Moke Hamilton

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As the Brooklyn Nets have slowly transformed their organization, newly installed general manager Sean Marks faces an uphill battle. Long gone are Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams, the latter once being deemed the franchise’s cornerstone.

Instead, the Nets feature a core of young players who are still mostly trying to find their way in the NBA, and Brook Lopez—the mainstay who has improbably played all seven years of his career with the franchise.

The simple truth for the Nets is that the franchise will have to wait until 2019 before it owns its own first round pick, so immediate improvement is not likely to come as a result of the draft. Certainly, late picks can be purchased and diamonds in the rough can be found (Jimmy Butler was selected with the 30th pick of the 2011 draft), but odds are, it will take Marks at least three years to get the Nets back into playoff contention, especially with scores of other Eastern Conference teams improving and becoming all the more competitive.

The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have risen as the cream of the NBA’s Atlantic Division while the Nets, Knicks and Sixers have been dwelling in the cellar. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to change anytime soon for Brooklyn, but that doesn’t mean that this offseason should be forfeited. With the right decisions and some good fortune, the Nets should easily be able to improve upon the 21-61 record the team turned in this past season.

Hire the Right Head Coach

Since moving to Brooklyn prior to the 2012-13 season, the Nets have already had five different head coaches: Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins and Tony Brown. Johnson seemed to have worn his players out and no longer seemed to be resonating with them, while Carlesimo didn’t get much consideration to retain the job on a permanent basis.

Kidd was handed the reigns while the ink was still wet on his retirement papers and, as a rookie head coach with no prior experience, was put in the unenviable position of trying to lead a veteran-laden team with aspirations of contending. With his surprise departure to Milwaukee, the Nets eventually settled on Lionel Hollins. What became obvious after a few months on the job was that Hollins began to fray and didn’t seem too interested or happy with coaching a rebuilding team. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem that he and the front office were on the same page with regard to what the expectations were for the club entering the season, and it showed.

Now, after having been led by Tony Brown for the final 45 games of the season, the Nets are in the market for a head coach and it will be an important decision for Marks and his staff. With a young team that isn’t expected to contend anytime soon, the Nets would probably be wise to find a young, patient coach. Finding one who possesses the prior experience and acumen to succeed on the NBA level, though, is the difficult part. Steve Clifford and Brad Stevens are both fine examples of coaches who may fit the mold of what the Nets should seek, and clearly, avoiding the type of situation that we just witnessed in Sacramento with George Karl should be the priority.

Without question, names like Tom Thibodeau, Jeff Van Gundy, Scott Brooks and Brooklyn-born Mark Jackson’s names may surface, but Marks is expected to bring in someone who has past ties to the San Antonio Spurs organization (like himself).

Regardless as to which way the general managers goes, one thing is for sure: his tenure and progress may be set back if he makes a poor decision. Winning teams are built on brains in the front office and solid leadership on the bench.

Be Creative With Finding Talented Players

As stated previously and noted by countless other outlets, the Nets have a bit of a draft pick deficit over the coming years. In his introductory press conference, though, Marks appropriately pointed out that while draft picks are an important tool for upgrading the talent on a team, they are not the only way.

One of the most impressive things about the Spurs organization has been their consistent ability to scout, find and develop unheralded players and turn them into successful NBA professionals. It is probably his experience in that culture which helped Marks land the job in Brooklyn, as the Nets will need that type of acumen if they are to have any chance at returning to the playoffs anytime soon.

After nearly six years on the job, Billy King’s tenure as general manager will be mostly remembered by failed “get rich quick” schemes: the trades for Deron Wiliams, Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett all included draft picks and/or young prospects, and in the long run, the Nets walk away with nothing to show.

A wise man learns from his mistakes, but a wiser man learns from the mistakes of others. If there is one thing we have learned over the course of the past 15 years, it’s that the majority of successful franchises do not make a habit of trading their draft picks. In all likelihood, for Marks to help the Nets move forward, he must subscribe to this adage and be creative in finding ways to upgrade the talent on his ball club.

Don’t Overspend On Marginal Free Agents

As it relates to draft picks, the Philadelphia 76ers happen to be in the opposite situation as the Nets. Over the course of the tenure of the recently removed Sam Hinkie, the Sixers operated under the cap and used their ability to absorb contracts as currency. In practice, if a team were at or over the luxury tax and wanted to get under, the Sixers would take on a contract and charge the trading team a second round draft pick of two for their trouble. This is the epitome of a win-win situation.

Operating in this manner would be beneficial to a team like the Nets as it would present them with an opportunity to accrue some picks. Although they will likely be second round picks and the like, it will at least give the team shots at bringing in young talent. Another under-mentioned fact is that teams are required to spend 90 percent of the salary cap on their team’s payroll, and with the cap this summer expected to be around $92 million, that means each team will be required to spend upwards of $80 million on player salaries.

The best question to ask, however, is “What if a team doesn’t spend at least 90 percent of the cap?” And the answer there is pretty simple: they are required to write a check to the players on their roster for the difference. The players then share that money equally.

In other words, a team that finishes the season under the cap will be required to spend 90 percent of the cap, anyway, and the penalty for doing it in the manner mentioned here is nonexistent. For that reason, if the Nets find themselves having struck out on some of the bigger named free agents this summer, as opposed to doling out big money contracts to third-tier free agents, the franchise would be better off simply operating under the cap and attempting to be proactive and opportunistic as it relates to reliving the luxury tax burdens of other teams. For their trouble, they may be able to score a few draft picks.

Trade Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young

At 27 and 28 years old, respectively, Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young each have many productive years ahead of them in the NBA, so long as they stay healthy. And while each has proven to be a valuable contributor at the NBA level, neither is capable of shouldering the burden for a playoff team.

The market may not be high for Lopez, as the league’s infatuation with small ball and spread offenses take the luster off of a plodding and meticulous big man, however, there are teams that would be solidified by having a soft-shooting center in the middle. Young, on the other hand, is an underrated player in the league that impacts both ends of the floor and is capable of catching fire and carrying an offense at times. Although it is difficult imagining their trade value getting any lower, it is probably safe to assume that it won’t get any higher, either.

With a core of youngsters and a few that seem to deserve a real shot in the NBA, now may be the right time for Marks to look to trade Lopez and Young for assets for the future. Traditionally, the Nets have been buyers in these types of trades. Now, they should sell.

* * * * * *

Turning a franchise around is no easy endeavor, and Marks is likely to learn that well. Although it may take the Nets a few years to find themselves back in playoff contention, by finding the right head coach, being diligent with respect to signing talent, maintaining a thrifty and patient outlook and selling some of their talent for future assets, a productive offseason can still be had.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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