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Nets’ Core Building Beyond The Box Score

With their future in flux, the Nets aren’t looking for another shortcut, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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In this juiced-up arms race of an NBA landscape, you’re either a contender or a pretender – but if you happen to be the Brooklyn Nets, the situation lately has been more akin to a dire, bleak nightmare. Long without control of their own draft pick and the inability to draw a top-level free agent in, the Nets have treaded water since Joe Johnson, the last reminder of their fruitless all-in gamble upon moving to Brooklyn, was bought out in February of 2016. By way of Brook Lopez’s sudden three-point explosion, their tireless chase on defense and their fast, chuck ‘em up offensive style, the Nets earned plenty of compliments last season — but without wins to go along with them, they ultimately mean little in the long run.

That why the Nets are focused on two keywords headed into an important 2017-18 season: Continuity and culture. If Brooklyn can build on a couple of the franchise’s main values, well, then there may just be a way out of this bottomless pit sooner rather than later.

Continuity

He’s the Nets’ head coach, but that hasn’t stopped Kenny Atkinson from getting his hands dirty for the second straight summer. As the Nets fearlessly charge into the great unknown once again, Atkinson has long loved the opportunity that coaching in Las Vegas affords him. The Nets went 20-62 in 2016-17, the NBA’s worst record, and that means the entire team can stand to improve, even the head coach.

“Quite honestly, I need to get better,” Atkinson candidly admitted on Monday. “I need to improve my game, I’ve had some situations out there where I was like: ‘Man, I could’ve done that better.’ I just feel like you’re in a flight simulator, the more reps you can get, the better you get.”

And for Atkinson and the Nets, there’s always room to be just a little bit better, which is why five members of last year’s team are leading the way in Las Vegas. For many participants, the various Summer Leagues act as an opportunity for draftees to acclimate themselves to their new league and a chance for those not yet on franchise’s radars to do so. But in the Nets’ case, their raw youngsters also double as a large majority of the team’s core – enter Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead and Archie Goodwin.

“Hungry is a good word, but they’re hungry to get better – that’s our whole theme this summer. We’re hungry to get better, we’re just so locked into the process,” Atkinson said. “That’s why we’re all here at Summer League quite honestly, rather than back in Brooklyn.”

The current roster is a complete work-in-progress, particularly so after the Nets moved Lopez, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, to the Los Angeles Lakers in June. Outside of D’Angelo Russell locked in at one of the guard spots and, hopefully, a sophomore year leap for LeVert, Atkinson and the Nets know that they’re far from out of the woods. Of course, they’ve got at least one more year of Jeremy Lin ahead of them – he owns a player option in 2018 – but it’s hard to imagine that he’s a long-term centerpiece in the way that Lopez was for nine years.

From there, the Nets have a chopped-together roster – one part youngsters trying to find their place, the other part a home for bloated salary dumps. Still, for a team that won less than a quarter of their games last season, they intend on bringing a majority of the roster back – well, those of them that aren’t traded away this summer. In fact, mid-way through July, K.J. McDaniels, Justin Hamilton and Randy Foye are the only three that won’t be returning thus far.

That’s because of the front office’s new commitment to continuity. As the Nets see it, it’s tough to find any type of stride with massive roster turnover year after year. Even if the team lacks an All-Star, why willingly start over at ground zero in each successive season? After clicking toward the end of Atkinson’s rookie year at the helm, in part thanks to Lin’s return after missing half the season, the Nets aren’t ready to hit the reset button again.

While Whitehead, LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson are all under contract for the upcoming season, the partial guarantees for Dinwiddie and Goodwin still loom large. As of now, both are expected to stay with the team, but should a few more free agents come along, the situation could play out differently – so that’s why Goodwin is in Las Vegas grinding: He’s trying to earn his spot back.

“I look at it as an opportunity to get better with our young core of guys, I been having up and downs throughout my career,” Goodwin said after their victory against the New Orleans Pelicans. “But I feel like here I really have an opportunity and I’m just trying to make the most of it.”

Goodwin is certainly raw, but he’s only just 22 years old and somehow entering his fifth NBA season after the Phoenix Suns waived him before the first game in 2016-17. Although Goodwin has never averaged more than 8.9 points per contest, the flashes are certainly there, lurking. In the pick and roll, Goodwin is a tough guy to defend, gliding to the hoop in Las Vegas like a seasoned veteran. With his 6-foot-5 frame, the Nets also like his potential as a pesky defender – but could he earn significant time on a guard-heavy roster?

The Nets’ patience in Goodwin has paid off and the guard has averaged 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 57.7 percent from the floor in just 20.7 minutes per game during Summer League so far. The Nets are no strangers to taking on D-League projects, but it feels like Goodwin has some legitimate sticking power in Brooklyn – just like key bench scorer Sean Kilpatrick did last season – all because those around him are giving him the chance to succeed.

“When I got here, the guys accepted me right away, so they made it a lot easier for me than I thought it would be,” Goodwin said upon arriving at Summer League last week. “They made it easy for me. . . and hopefully, I’ll be around for the long run.”

Culture

Yet, for all the Nets’ losses last year, general manager Sean Marks isn’t looking for any get-rich-quick shortcuts. Their commitment to continuity has gone hand-in-hand with their evolving culture during the lengthy rebuild.

Although Hollis-Jefferson is now Brooklyn’s longest-tenured player at three seasons, the franchise has aimed to cut out the pitfalls that doomed their roster’s former versions. From arriving late to practice to animosity between players, that veteran-laden Nets roster – created by way of today’s missing draft picks – fell short season after season until most were traded, bought out or fled in free agency.

But now, the roster is full of players that actually want to make a name for themselves in Brooklyn, a big difference in just a few years time for a team this far out of long-term contention.

“We can make a huge jump, we’re all young, [those at Summer League are] all under 25,” Dinwiddie told Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders. “We’re all hard workers, we’re all hungry for success, to be better as a team and try to win. The sky’s the limit.”

And it’s true – the team’s oldest players heading into next season are currently Timofey Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll, both acquired this summer via salary dump and each turn 31 next week. But as of now, chemistry is one of the Nets’ biggest foundational supports, banking on kinship and unity to help build the culture that the franchise has lacked since they played a state over in New Jersey. Sure, it sounds hokey, but it’s given this young roster with no expectations a reason to be confident.

That’s why nearly every member of the Nets has popped up this summer in some way, shape or form. There are cuts to Marks in the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center as he speaks on the phone and evaluates his young assets. That’s why Lin, Kilpatrick and Joe Harris took in Sunday’s contest courtside, and why Russell was working out past midnight with LeVert just days after he was acquired.

It’s one thing to get players to compete for a rebuilding, pick-less franchise like the Nets, but it’s another thing altogether for them to uniformly buy into it.

“I think when you’re trying to build a culture, reestablish yourself in the league and start really from the ground up, you kinda have to do stuff like this because chemistry is so important,” Dinwiddie said. “When you look at the Warriors, it’s not just their collection of talent but the way they play together and that’s what we’re trying to foster.”

The Nets’ situation is well-documented at this point – although it got a little better following their pending trade for the aforementioned Carroll and the Toronto Raptors’ first- and second-round selections in 2018 – but this small core competing this summer represents a very real, tangible ideal for the struggling fanbase: hope.

Heading into to another season without control of their own draft pick for a final time and a playoff berth still unlikely, finding any type of advantage is key. That’s why they’re all in Las Vegas grinding away, even Atkinson. While these wins won’t translate to any automatic successes in the fall, it’s the idea of family and togetherness that’s dragging Brooklyn through the last stage of their grueling rebuild.

Of course, the results of these glorified scrimmages mean very little. But for a franchise well on it’s way to changing their status league-wide, stacking their roster and sending the head coach for a tune-up doesn’t signify desperation, it displays readiness.

“I’m going to fight Sean to do it again next year, he probably won’t let me,” Atkinson admitted on Sunday. ”[But] it’s like a dress rehearsal for the regular season, I love it.”

As Dinwiddie put it, the sky’s the limit for the Nets, particularly so as they look to build on a difficult 20-62 season. Although they may need to wait a few more years before real – ahem, postseason – results arrive, it appears as if Atkinson, Goodwin, Dinwiddie and the rest of the franchise’s key contributors will enjoy the ride every tiny step of the way.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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