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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

Rookie Of The Year Watch – 01/17/18

Shane Rhodes checks in on a tightening Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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As the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun. And this NBA season sure has flown.

Not only has there been some great storylines this regular season, there has been even better basketball and, in recent days, plenty of petty fights or squabbles to satisfy the rowdiest of fans.

Still, nothing is more satisfying than winning. And while most rookies aren’t in a position to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they are in a position to take home another award; Rookie of The Year. The 2017 rookie class has been one of the more fun and exciting classes in a long time. But, at the season’s midpoint, who is leading the pack?

6. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers

While the shot still isn’t there, Lonzo Ball pretty much does everything else well for the Los Angeles Lakers. Averaging a solid 10.2 points to go along with 7.1 rebounds and assists per game, Ball has been an all-around contributor for this young Laker squad and has done it all while playing under the crushing pressure of his father LaVar and the city of Los Angeles. He often tries to get everyone involved in the offense and is constantly pushing the tempo. While it hasn’t resulted in many Laker wins yet, it surely will in time.

However, when I say his shot isn’t there yet, it really isn’t there. Ball’s current shooting splits of 35.6/30.3/40.8 from the floor, three and the line, while improved on his early season numbers, are pretty much a disaster; certainly not what the Lakers expected when they took him second overall. While there have been flashes of the player that shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc at UCLA, Ball’s shooting has been streaky at best but those numbers, alongside his form, should continue to improve over time. The Lakers will need it to if they want to have any chance of climbing the Western Conference ladder in the near future.

5. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Lauri Markkanen has played a major role in the recent surge by the Chicago Bulls. While it may seem strange to say that a 17-27 team is surging, not many people thought the Bulls would win this many games over the course of the whole season after trading star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves in the offseason.

Markkanen has averaged 15.5 points to go along with 7.6 rebounds per game this season while shooting 43 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from three. While those numbers have dipped since the beginning of the season, Markkanen still ranks fifth among rookies in three-point percentage. The return of guard Zach LaVine alongside the emergence of Kris Dunn — both acquired in the trade with Minnesota — should go along way in alleviating the offensive burden on the Finnish forward as well.

Markkanen’s defense is really the only thing holding back his game; 0.6 blocks per game seems a little too low for someone who stands at seven-feet tall, while his 108.4 defensive rating leaves a little something to be desired.

4. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

At this point in the season, Kyle Kuzma is still, by far, the steal of the draft for the Lakers.

Averaging 16.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, Kuzma ranks third among rookies in scoring while he sits fifth and sixth in rebounding and three-point percentage, respectively. He has certainly forced his way into the Lakers’ future as a building block, but Kuzma needs to do more on the offensive end outside of scoring the ball. His assist percentage of 9.6 is among the lowest of the team’s regular rotation and could certainly stand to improve as the Lakers continue to push to become a more ball movement oriented team.

Kuzma’s defense, while not terrible, could use some improvement as well. Kuzma isn’t overly athletic, so he has trouble keeping up with smaller forwards and guards when switched onto them. Improving his agility and or quickness could go a long way here.

3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Most rookies in Jayson Tatum’s position — playing on a Conference contender — don’t have much of a shot at taking home Rookie of the Year. That fact alone makes what Tatum has done this season for the Boston Celtics that much more impressive.

Averaging 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, Tatum has played an integral role for the Celtics, who currently sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. He remains one of the most efficient rookies on offense, shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three while maintaining in the poise of a veteran in late game situations. Tatum plays a large part in Boston’s elite, league-leading defense as well, and his defensive rating of 99.1 paces all rookies.

There hasn’t been much to complain about when it comes to Tatum outside his aggressiveness on the offensive end. As the Celtics’ fourth option, Tatum doesn’t really need to shoulder much of a load on offense, but it would still be nice to see him to at least attempt create his own shot on a consistent basis when he is running with the second unit.

2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

There is no doubt about it, Donovan Mitchell has been the most explosive, if not most exciting, rookie in this class. His 18.9 points per game leads all rookies while his scoring and high-flying athletic ability have created more than a few highlights for the Utah Jazz in recent weeks. Mitchell is also second among rookies in total steals, registering 61 pickpockets on the season.

In the absence of Rudy Gobert, Mitchell has managed to keep the Jazz somewhat afloat in the tough Western Conference. The two should certainly form an interesting pick-and-roll tandem when Gobert returns and, sitting at 10th in the West with a 17-26 record, they are capable of making a late-season push into the bottom of the playoff picture.

The only problem with Mitchell, as it has been all season, is his efficiency. Mitchell is shooting just 44 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three, but a lot of that has to do with his 28.4 percent usage rate. As the Jazz return Gobert and others, Mitchell’s usage rate should drop, which should coincide with a drop in field goal attempts and an uptick in his shooting percentages.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

For better or worse, this award is still Ben Simmons’ to lose. He hasn’t been the dominant player he was in the early season for the Philadelphia 76ers, but Simmons still has a leg up on most rookies thanks to his athletic ability, court vision and ball-handling skills. Simmons and his 16.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.1 assists per game are still a matchup nightmare against most teams due to his sheer size when compared to the average point guard as well.

Simmons is not without his faults, however. Whether it’s because he is shooting with the wrong hand or something else, Simmons’ jump shot needs plenty of work. While he’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, most of his attempts are dunks or hooks close to the basket. He still has yet to make a three-point attempt, taking just 10 on the season. Simmons’ lack of shooting means defenses can almost completely ignore him outside the paint while the offense goes into a pit when fellow star Joel Embiid is on the bench; that will need to change if the 76ers want to be the powerhouse The Process has led them to believe they will become.

Again, Rookie of The Year is Simmons’ award to lose. However, if he is unable to adjust his offensive game — especially when Joel Embiid sits — he will begin to feel plenty of pressure from his fellow rookies who are on the rise.

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NBA Daily: Jayson Tatum: Boston’s X-Factor

Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum speaks to Michael Scotto about his early adjustments and success.

Michael Scotto

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When All-Star Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia five minutes into the season, the outlook changed drastically for the Boston Celtics this season.

“I think our group, going into the season, there were a lot of expectations with Gordon [Hayward] and then the injury happens, and a lot of our younger guys had to grow up a lot quicker,” Celtics center Al Horford told Basketball Insiders on January 6 before facing the Brooklyn Nets. “It has given our team an opportunity to develop, to embrace the challenge that we have in front of us, and it’s opened up a lot of playing time for guys.

“I feel like we’re taking advantage of it. We’re growing as a group and, really, I feel like there’s no ceiling for our group. As long as we keep defending and keep doing the things that we need to do on the defensive end, I think it’s going to put us in a position to be successful.”

Those expectations included challenging the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference crown and potentially a championship.

In Hayward’s absence, the youngest player had to grow up the quickest: third overall pick Jayson Tatum.

“It just gave me more of an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders in a video interview. “It’s definitely unfortunate that it had to come the way it did with one of our best players getting hurt, but we’ve all just had to contribute more, step up more losing him on the first night. We had 81 more games left, so we couldn’t make excuses for that.”

The 19-year-old forward has made the most of his opportunity as a full-time starter in his rookie campaign. Tatum is averaging 13.9 points while shooting 50 percent from the field, a league-leading 46 percent from beyond the arc, and 82 percent from the foul line as of January 16.

The 6-foot-8 forward has shown a penchant for coming through in the clutch halfway through the season. According to Basketball-Reference, Tatum has shot 60 percent from the field and 54 percent from beyond the arc in the fourth quarter.

The Eastern Conference December Rookie of the Month has taken some notes in the clutch from four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving.

“I grew up in high school and college seeing him on TV and now seeing it live on your own team,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “He’s one of the best players in the world, and he puts on a show each and every night.”

Tatum and Irving, both Duke alumni, played for coach Mike Krzyzewski and are in their first season under Celtics coach Brad Stevens.

Tatum notices differences between the two coaches who have molded the talented teenager.

“They’re both great terrific coaches,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Coach K has been coaching for a long time, but they definitely both know a lot. Brad is a lot more chill, Coach (K) is a lot more fired up, slapping the floor and yelling at guys. I definitely respect them both, and it’s an honor to play for both of them.”

Stevens’ defensive system has helped Tatum realize the defensive potential that drew comparisons to Paul George from scouts and executives before the draft. According to Basketball-Reference, the rookie is tied for third in defensive win shares with George (2.5) and ranks eighth in defensive rating (101.5).

On offense, Tatum has put in time with trainer Drew Hanlen of Pure Sweat Basketball to work on his isolation moves and improve his 3-point shooting. Tatum shot a pedestrian 34 percent from 3-point range at Duke, but now leads the NBA shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc.

Thus far, Tatum has shown encouraging flashes of becoming the player he ultimately wants to be on both sides of the court.

“Just being in the All-Star game as many times as possible, win MVP, win a championship,” Tatum told Basketball Insiders. “Everyone wants to win a championship. Just play as long as possible. Hopefully, I can do that.”

If Tatum continues to be near the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation, rise to the occasion in the fourth quarter and remain a lockdown defender and 3-point shooter, maybe he and the Celtics can realize those heightened expectations after all.

Is that a lot to ask of a 19-year-old?

Absolutely.

However, as the NBA has learned, Tatum is no average teenager and the x-factor towards how far Boston can go this season.

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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