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Brooklyn Nets 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders begins our 30 team previews with a look at the Brooklyn Nets.

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Starting today, Basketball Insiders will preview all 30 NBA teams ahead of training camp later this month. First up, the 20-62 Brooklyn Nets – are brighter things finally on the horizon?

After two straight seasons in the NBA’s basement, there’s a sense that the Nets have reached the proverbial end of the tunnel. Brooklyn owes just one more unprotected first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018, but the Nets have cultivated an interesting roster of raw prospects, once-overpaid veterans and forgotten castaways.

The offseason trade that swapped franchise center Brook Lopez for D’Angelo Russell was an emotional one for fans, but the return was undeniably excellent. Russell, along with the additional captures of Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov, should make for an exciting – if not loss-filled – 2017-18 season.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

For the first time in the last few seasons, the Brooklyn Nets actually have some identifiable talent on their roster. After making some offseason transactions — and finally moving on from Brook Lopez — the Nets now have some guys on board that can help them pivot towards their future with a slight beacon of hope.

The main piece of that transition will be 2015 second overall pick, D’Angelo Russell. Brooklyn acquired the enigmatic guard from the Los Angeles Lakers in the Lopez deal, and despite a few underwhelming seasons in Hollywood, Russell still possesses a wealth of talent. Perhaps a change a scenery and a bright, young coach like Kenny Atkinson can help Russell live up to the hype he garnered coming out of college.

Along with Russell, other newcomers such as Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, and 2017 first round pick Jarrett Allen, add some competitive pieces to a team that finished with the NBA’s worst record just a season ago. With next year’s pick still owed instead of owned — now to the Cleveland Cavaliers — Nets’ fans will need to look towards the development of their young pieces next season for any type of solace.

5th place – Atlantic Division

– Dennis Chambers

After so many seasons of ineptitude, it’s easy to write off the Brooklyn Nets because most likely stopped paying attention some time ago. While the Nets have earned all the disrespect they get, most people may have missed how much work the Nets front office did over the last two years to build a respectable young core, to go along with a great young coach.

While the Nets are not going blow away the top tier of the East, they are as good as almost enough sitting outside the playoff picture looking in. If the young guys can blossom and the Nets avoid the injuries that have plagued them, they could be a sneaky play for the eighth seed in the East in a best-case, and should be in the hunt for a 30 plus win season. Given where the Nets were 20 months ago, that would tremendous progress.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

Compared to where they were a year or even 18 months ago from a team-building perspective, what Sean Marks and his Nets front office staff have done is remarkable. They’ve taken the worst cap/picks situation in the league and slowly but surely shaped it into something that at least resembles a solid future, with youngsters like D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert along with a decent foundation. Some, though, are getting a bit ahead of themselves – while the Nets have done a great job making something out of less than nothing, and while it’s true that they don’t benefit from tanking this season since they don’t own their 2018 pick, they’re still in for a lot of losses. Brook Lopez may not have fit the Nets’ current timeline, but he was easily their best player, and guys like Timo Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll don’t fill his shoes. This team will show flashes of potential, particularly from the young guards, but will still lose a ton of games and finish last in the Atlantic division.

5th place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

The Brooklyn Nets continued their ongoing overhaul this offseason by trading Brook Lopez and the rights to Kyle Kuzma (27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft) to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. The Nets also acquired DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe, along with some young talent like Jarrett Allen. Nets GM Sean Marks continues to opportunistically acquire young talent in aggressive deals, which has been necessary as a result of the last regime’s irresponsible and ineffective series of trades that left the Nets with few assets. Russell is the most interesting acquisition. The second overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft is very talented, but comes with some baggage after a bumpy tenure with the Lakers. However, if he is focused on excelling on the court and minimized the off-court distractions, he could end up being a major steal for the Nets. Brooklyn still doesn’t have the top end talent to make any serious noise this upcoming season, but their front office is doing a nice job of building a future for a franchise that was stuck in the mud not so long ago.

5th Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s only been three years since the Nets last made the playoffs, but it feels like they have been floundering amid the floodwaters of the league basement for something like a decade. The rebuild really hasn’t been an all-out for disaster for as long as some may think, and to be completely frank it’s all moving along much more quickly than some thought would be possible without any high draft picks. This is a team that should have Markelle Fultz and Jaylen Brown on the roster, but coming out of these last few years with D’Angelo Russell is, at the very least, more of a consolation prize that even they probably expected. The Nets still are bad, but they can at least be better than the New York Knicks, and with a cleaner cap with which to improve down the road.

4th Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell

Russell enters the franchise fold at the perfect time and will immediately become the focal point in the Nets’ up-tempo offense. Although he was shipped off this summer to make room for Lonzo Ball, Russell showed plenty of promise while with the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists per contest in 2016-17 and his fresh start with Brooklyn is a compelling storyline. At his best, Russell is a sharpshooting playmaker that can carve a defense to pieces either off the dribble or from behind the arc. Yes, there will be some growing pains, but the third-year budding star should easily secure his best NBA season yet under the inventive Kenny Atkinson.

Top Defensive Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

Since he joined the Nets in 2015, Hollis-Jefferson has long stood out as one of the franchise’s most athletic defenders on the floor. Although Hollis-Jefferson’s jump shot hasn’t quite acclimated to the league average yet, he began to find his niche as a small-ball power forward last winter. The forward’s versatility and length have allowed him to defend three different positions, both on the perimeter or on the block. Hollis-Jefferson still has plenty of inconsistencies in his game, but it goes to show how much faith the Nets’ coaching staff has put in the rugged defender, now the franchise’s longest-tenured player.

Top Playmaker: Jeremy Lin

As the Nets bottomed out without Lin for 46 games last season, it quickly became clear just how important he was to Atkinson’s first-year offense. Lin is not an All-Star, but he was undeniably the glue that held together the Nets’ inexperienced roster. Of course, look no further than the Nets’ record with Lin (13-23) versus without (7-39) and the picture becomes much clearer. For those that are still discounting the Nets, they may not have considered the implications of a completely healthy Lin in 2017-18. Lin is an incisive playmaker and, when he played, was a fantastic facilitator and leader for Brooklyn. Whether he’s working off the pick-and-roll with Mozgov or kicking it out to their surplus of three-point shooters, Lin’s dynamic ball-handling skills will be key for the Nets this season.

Russell may come for this crown soon enough but Lin’s proven ability to make those around him better gives him the edge for now.

Top Clutch Player: D’Angelo Russell

If you had to pick somebody for this category, it’s likely newcomer D’Angelo Russell once again. However, given how little the league knows about the Nets’ franchise post-Lopez, that could be a total guess.

While plenty of guards have come and gone since the Nets moved from New Jersey, Lopez had been the one constant in the fourth quarter. With Lopez now in Los Angeles, Atkinson will have his pick of the multi-talented litter. In two NBA seasons, Russell has already shown his penchant for the big moment and his role as an offensive focal point will lend itself to those final shot opportunities.

After Russell, it’s safe to assume that Lin, Crabbe and Caris LeVert will also get plenty of chances to shine in late-game roles. Given Atkinson’s penchant for a free-flowing, quick-paced offense, the jury is out here until one player proves that they’re ready to carry that massive responsibility. The smart money, however, is on Russell.

The Unheralded Player: DeMarre Carroll

Although he arrived in Brooklyn via a classic salary dump deal in July, Carroll is being overlooked as a perfect fit for this scrappy roster. As a stretch power forward, Carroll is a far better three-point shooting option at the position than the aforementioned Hollis-Jefferson or the energetic Trevor Booker. Carroll is a career 36 percent shooter from three-point range, a skill he honed while working with Atkinson, then an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks, from 2013-15. Now, it’s unlikely that a full renaissance for Carroll is ahead, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for him to become one of the Nets’ most important contributors – both on and off the court – in 2017-18.

Best New Addition: Allen Crabbe

The Nets signed Allen Crabbe to an offer sheet worth four years and nearly $75 million in the summer of 2016 and have now finally earned the right to pay him for the foreseeable future. More or less, this is to say that the Nets absolutely adore Crabbe and he’ll be a key contributor on offense from day one. It’s been well-documented by this point, but the Nets took and missed a whole bunch of three-pointers in 2016-17. In fact, they ranked fourth in attempts (31.6) but finished with a poor 33.8 percent rate from beyond the arc, the fifth-worst average in the entire league. Enter Crabbe, a three-point shooting specialist that knocked down 44.4 percent of his attempts last season. Crabbe will have to adjust to life without Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum opening up the floor for him, but the fit here was excellent.

– Benny Nadeau

WHO WE LIKE

1. Sean Marks

Deservedly so, praise has flowed for the Nets’ general manager all summer and his rebuild-on-the-fly is looking better than ever. Without sacrificing any draft picks outside the No. 27 overall selection in June’s draft (Kyle Kuzma), Marks has built a competitive, potential-laden squad without mortgaging any future assets. While Russell, Crabbe, Carroll and Mozgov will all have large roles in 2017-18, Marks also acquired the Raptors’ 2018 first- and second-rounders for taking on the final two years of Carroll’s deal.

With only a few true untouchables on the roster, it’ll be interesting to see what other assets Marks can acquire should the front office decide to part with any of their expiring veterans near the next trade deadline.

2. Kenny Atkinson

As Basketball Insiders reported back in July, the Nets have been building beyond the box score and Atkinson has been at the forefront of that cultural movement. Once again, Atkinson coached the summer league team for the second straight year, and he’s unanimously well-liked throughout the organization. Most new head coaches can struggle to fully implement their offense in year one, so with a healthy Lin and better three-point shooters on the roster – watch out, world, Kenny is coming.

3. Trevor Booker

In amongst the numerous arrivals and departures stands Booker, the hard-nosed veteran that single-handedly kept the Nets in plenty of basketball games last season. He’ll find himself in a leading role off the bench this time around, but his massive importance remains the same. If you took note of every rim-rattling, pump-up-the-crowd moment from the Nets’ 2016-17 season, Booker would probably account for a solid 50 percent of them all by himself. Booker averaged 10 points and eight rebounds in his first year with the Nets, both of which were career highs.

He may not feature as much this season, but Booker will still grab plenty of rebounds, play hard and become an anchor for a bench unit that needs a strong veteran presence.

4. Caris LeVert

After waiting until December for the talented LeVert to arrive, the Nets gave him plenty of opportunities to succeed. By year’s end, the training wheels were off and LeVert was regularly playing close to 25 minutes a night. If LeVert can improve his rookie season mark of 32 percent from downtown, there’s no reason why he can’t cement his place in the Nets’ young core for years to come. While the new trio may eat into LeVert’s ceiling this season, the sophomore’s positional flexibility will make it awfully hard to keep the smooth scorer off the floor for too long.

5. Isaiah Whitehead

Following the long-term injuries to both Lin and Greivis Vasquez just a week into the season, the second-round rookie was thrown to the wolves almost immediately in 2016-17. All of a sudden, Isaiah Whitehead was going toe-to-toe with Chris Paul, John Wall and many of the NBA’s elite-scoring point guards on a nightly basis. And in all honesty, Whitehead fared pretty well, using his immense athleticism to make up for his lack of professional experience. He’ll battle it out with Spence Dinwiddie for the lion’s share of backup minutes at point guard this season, but after a full offseason of training, it’s fair to expect a big jump from the former Seton Hall star.

– Benny Nadeau

SALARY CAP 101

The Nets used most of their cap room this summer to bring in Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll via trade. The team currently has 16 players under contract, with Spencer Dinwiddie, Milton Doyle and Jeremy Senglin each hoping to earn one of the two available spots with a strong pre-season. Brooklyn could get to $6.6 million in cap space under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, if they let all three go. Additionally, the Nets still have their $4.3 million Room Exception available to spend.

Next summer, Brooklyn could have as much as $28.5 million in spending power under a $102 million salary cap. The big decision will be on Jeremy Lin, who has a player option at $12.5 million for the 2018-19 season. If he chooses to finish out his contract, he would cut the Nets’ potential cap room in half. The franchise also needs to decide, before the start of this coming season, on the team options of D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for the following year.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Even though the Nets look as if they’re finally on the rise, they’re still bound to lose more games than they win in 2017-18 – but sometimes it’s about the journey, not that final destination. If the Nets manage to stay healthy, they’ll punch far above their weight class in most games this season. Brooklyn lives and dies by the three-point shot, but their newest additions should lend a huge hand in getting that dismal 33.8 percent rate up into the middle of the pack or near the league average.

After years of slow isolation basketball, Atkinson gave the Nets a far more modernized offense in 2016-17. In fact, the Nets’ 103.5 pace last season was the league’s highest mark and that was even with the generally plodding Lopez in tow. With better positional fits across the roster, the run-and-gun Nets should improve on what they started last year.

– Benny Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

How in the world will the Nets replace Brook Lopez? Despite the constant shuffle through head coach after head coach, Lopez rolled with the punches for years as he expanded his range and became an adequate rim protector in the paint. Russell, Crabbe and Carroll will certainly benefit the Nets’ very real need for improved three-point shooting, but there’s also little chance Mozgov and rookie Jarrett Allen can completely replace Lopez’s per game contributions. Beyond that franchise center-sized problem, the Nets still lack too many defensively inconsistent rotation players for comfort.

In 2016-17, the Nets averaged 105.8 points per game, a total that nearly cracked the top ten in the entire league. Unfortunately, Brooklyn then gave up 112.5 points on the other end, a defensively-gross mark second to only the Phoenix Suns last season. As long as Hollis-Jefferson is spearheading the defensive efforts on his own, the Nets will struggle to see games out in the final few minutes once again.

– Benny Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

The Nets can’t actually make the playoffs… right?

Sean Marks’ shrewd offseason moves may have started this conversation, but when the Celtics dealt the final first-round pick the Nets owed them to acquire Kyrie Irving, the question spread like wildfire: What if the Nets suddenly weren’t all that bad again? This summer, players like Lin and LeVert even took it a step further and stated the Nets’ intentions to make the playoffs in this weakened Eastern Conference.

Of course, plenty of teams around the Nets have bottomed out with a Marvin Bagley-sized reason to tank should the season go south by the All-Star break. At the end of the day, a postseason appearance feels more like wishful thinking and an appropriate goal for the young Nets rather than a potential reality. Still, after finishing with a combined 79-167 record over the past three seasons, Brooklyn is finally approaching that light at the end of the long, pick-less tunnel. After all this Nets franchise has been through since that 2013 blockbuster trade, that’ll be more than enough to be proud of in 2017-18.

– Benny Nadeau

Next up is the 2017-18 Phoenix Suns Season Preview, set to drop tomorrow.

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