Following another season full of injuries, under-the-radar emergences and late-game losses, the Brooklyn Nets are nearly impossible to nail down.
Since the offseason began in July, the Nets have managed to move Timofey Mozgov’s albatross contract, draft two intriguing European prospects and add short-term pieces like Shabazz Napier and Ed Davis to the puzzle. Jeremy Lin, formerly presumed to be the next franchise point guard, was traded to Atlanta in a series of moves that brought Kenneth Faried and a protected first-round pick back in return. In bursts, the Nets have shown signs of life in recent years but that pesky injury bug has always derailed their efforts before too long.
While the roster and front office have both tentatively looked toward a playoff push this season, the Nets regained control of their own first-round draft pick for the first time in five years. Beyond that, Brooklyn has amassed a hearty collection of developing youngsters but, at this point, they’re still waiting for one of them to break out. Supplemented by veterans on low-cost deals — Jared Dudley and Treveon Graham included — the Nets may have the right mix of athleticism and experience to make some noise in the weaker conference.
To kick things off, here’s where the Basketball Insiders team projects the Nets to finish during the 2018-19 campaign.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s much of the same moving forward for the Nets as the front office continues its workmanlike efforts to get out from under the massive hole the previous regime dug for this franchise. In their final year without their own first-round pick, the Nets once again used their open cap space to eat some dead money and pick up a future asset, this time absorbing Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur from the Nuggets in exchange for a 2019 first-rounder and a 2020 second. On the court, the Nets will be a similarly feisty but under-talented group – they’ll be looking for major court time and development from guys like D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, with vets like Jared Dudley and Faried around to help mentor. They have enough depth that this could be a team that threatens for a lower playoff seed if the East is really as thin as it might seem to be, though whether that should be the ultimate priority at this point is debatable.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Ben Dowsett
The Nets are FREE! That should be the headline of their season. They finally control their own destiny again, which still leaves them as a mediocre team at best, but still. All credit should go to Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson for building a good foundation in such a bleak situation. The Nets had yet another subtly brilliant off-season, acquiring more assets while simultaneously getting out of paying long-term cash. With the solid group of veterans, they have to surround their solid group of young talent, the playoffs are a longshot, but not out of the question.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Matt John
Kenny Atkinson’s work with these Nets since the day he stepped foot in the organization’s headquarters has been nothing short of superb. He has the team believing in itself. His players are getting opportunities that they have earned and are flourishing because of it. Spencer Dinwiddie played spoiler almost all season long during clutch moments. D’Angelo Russell will be at full health to start the year and frontcourt players such as Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will keep improving as their careers become more and more established at this level. Unfortunately for Brooklyn, the Atlantic is no walk in the park.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
The Brooklyn Nets didn’t land any superstars this offseason, but I think they arguably maximized their resources better than any other team this summer. The Nets made several moves to add talent while maintaining future flexibility. Among other moves, the Nets traded Timofey Mozgov, the rights to Hamidou Diallo (45th pick in this year’s draft), a 2021 second-rounder and $5 million to the Charlotte Hornets for Dwight Howard. They also moved Jeremy Lin’s contract, signed Shabazz Napier to a partially-guaranteed two-year $3,787,723 contract, signed Ed Davis to a one-year $4.4 million contract and signed Joe Harris to a two-year $16 million contract. These are some solid moves and we haven’t even discussed some other deals that landed the team some additional draft assets. Brooklyn also drafted Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs. Long story short, the Nets made creative moves that helped to add talent to the roster and maintain the team’s future cap flexibility. This Nets team is far from undoing the damage from the last regime but they are certainly trending in the right direction.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
Rebuilding is a long and brutal process, but after years of trying to dig out from past mistakes, the Brooklyn Nets finally look like a team ready to do something. The roster has the right mix of veterans and young talent, they have a great head coach and if anyone on the roster pops into legit star status, the Nets could be a post-season team. If anything, the Nets will be scrappy, but in reality, they are likely the best kept secret in the East. Don’t be surprised if they win 40 or more games this year.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell
It’s September, which means it’s officially time to write about Russell and his potential to become a superstar once again. After two turbulent campaigns with Los Angeles, Russell joined the Nets last offseason as the presumed centerpiece on a roster full of secondary options. Russell dropped 20-plus points in six of the Nets’ first 12 contests, but he underwent knee surgery in November, missed 32 games and then struggled to find that electric consistency in his return. Despite all that, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Russell and he represents Brooklyn’s best chance of taking the next step as a franchise.
Heading into his fourth professional season, Russell is just 22 years old and often showcases the skills of an offensive juggernaut. Through 191 games, Russell has hit three or more three-pointers on 50 separate occasions already, even hitting career-best averages in the rebound (3.9) and assist (5.2) departments in 2017-18. With the aforementioned Lin out of the picture for good, the Nets hope he’ll lead a formidable 1-2 backcourt punch alongside Spencer Dinwiddie.
Ultimately though, Brooklyn will go as far as Russell takes them.
Top Defensive Player: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
For the Nets’ best defender, it’s easily Hollis-Jefferson — a long, hard-working 6-foot-7 forward that can practically guard four positions on the floor. Although Hollis-Jefferson’s offensive game improved considerably last season, the longest-tenured Nets’ biggest benefit is offering head coach Kenny Atkinson loads of positional flexibility. Hollis-Jefferson can guard faster opposition, switch admirably in the pick-and-roll and does a fine job of defending the perimeter, a trio of skills that make him the Nets’ poster child for versatility. His determined energy and ball-hawking nature have deservedly made Hollis-Jefferson a mainstay in Brooklyn’s crunch-time lineups since he was drafted in 2015.
Hollis-Jefferson is up for restricted free agency next July, so expect more of his nightmare-creating defense and small-ball athleticism all year long.
Top Playmaker: Jarrett Allen
Last September, it was fair to assume that the raw rookie might spend most of his year in the G-League — instead, Allen quickly became one of the league’s most interesting projects. The Nets started Allen off slowly, often using him in low-risk chances behind Tyler Zeller and Mozgov. But once he was truly unleashed, it was quite the introduction to the high-flying, shot-blocking 20-year-old. Truthfully, Allen is Brooklyn’s best playmaker because, well, he simply makes stuff happen, both on offense and defense. By all means, this is a slightly-altered twist on the normal connotation of a playmaker — but he literally just makes plays, it’s that easy.
From throwing down thunderous dunks to popping off the pick-and-roll or even smashing away a weak-side block, the Nets played so much better deploying Allen as the starting center. Although Russell is the better scorer, Dinwiddie the better passer, Allen Crabbe the better shooter and so on and so forth, there’s something magnetic about Allen. It could be his 58.9 percent tally from the field or his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time — but the court seems to open up for everybody when Allen is on the floor.
In some cases, there’s no better definition of a playmaker.
Top Clutch Player: Spencer Dinwiddie
The recent third-place finisher for Most Improved Player has patiently waited his turn to be mentioned in a superlative category — admittedly, there’s an argument for Dinwiddie all over the place here. Even if Russell inches him out in overall offensive firepower, Dinwiddie definitively deserves the title of the Nets’ most clutch, as he proved periodically last year. Beyond saving the season after Lin and Russell went down, Dinwiddie thrived and lived for the fourth quarter’s biggest moments by hitting a multitude of tough crunch-time buckets.
For much of the year, Dinwiddie went toe-to-toe against the likes of C.J. McCollum and Russell Westbrook for game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final minute. At a fraction of the cost, Dinwiddie nearly carried the Nets through another frustrating season. Whether he was fearlessly bouncing off seven-footers in the paint or launching away from behind the arc, there’s no question that Dinwiddie is clutch — but what does he have in store for the encore?
The Unheralded Player: Kenneth Faried
At long last, Faried has been freed.
Following his breakout campaign way back in 2012-13 — 11.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game — Faried has seen his court opportunities decrease almost every year since, even falling to a paltry 14.4 minutes last season. Thanks to the emergence of Nikola Jokic and the recent addition of Paul Millsap, it’s no wonder that Faried had dropped out of the rotation — but now, he’s back in a golden situation. Faried, of course, is a somewhat limited player. He’s attempted 20 three-pointers (and made only two of them) and over his seven-year career, while 87.9 percent of his shots have come within 10 feet of the rim.
But for what he lacks in range, Faried makes up for it by being an absolute menace and a pest in the paint. Even during his rotation-shortened 2016-17 season, Faried managed to pull down nine or more rebounds in 25 games. The player that came closest to reaching that total for the Nets last year was DeMarre Carroll at 19. Generally speaking, if Faried gets his minutes, he’s a near-lock to rebound at an above average rate. For a team that struggled to do exactly that in crucial moments all last season, Faried should bounce back in a big way in Brooklyn.
Best New Addition: Ed Davis
Similarly to Faried, the newly-signed Davis fills a massive hole for the Nets in the frontcourt. He’s a strong rim protector — in Portland, opponents shot 43.6 percent against Davis in 2017-18, the best mark on the roster — and a steady rebounder. Supporters of the Trail Blazers were sorely disappointed when management let Davis walk this offseason, but their loss is most clearly the Nets’ gain. Quincy Acy, Timofey Mozgov, Jahlil Okafor and Dante Cunningham have all been moved on from, so Davis immediately becomes the first big off the bench.
He’ll presumably spend most of his minutes backing up Allen, but he’s got the versatility to spell Hollis-Jefferson and Carroll at power forward too. Davis won’t be the Nets’ long sought-after answer as a stretch four, but he’s excelled in every high-energy role he’s been handed since he joined the NBA in 2010. Due to his fantastic fit and impending opportunity, this could be a career-best campaign for Davis in black and white.
– Ben Nadeau
WHO WE LIKE
1. Sean Marks
For the second offseason running, general manager Sean Marks takes the top spot here — and why wouldn’t he? With the Nets still firmly looking toward free agency in 2019, Marks executed the rebuilding grand slam this summer. Not only did he acquire future draft assets, but Marks shed one the NBA’s worst contracts, unclogged positional jams and addressed the roster’s biggest weaknesses — all without taking on major salary commitments past this upcoming season.
To top it all off, Marks selected two highly-rated European prospects in Džanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs back in June’s draft. Although both rookies are far off from contributing on a nightly basis as they stand, Marks has quietly put together an assortment of prospects while replenishing picks and looking toward the future.
Under Marks, the Nets are in safe and sound hands, finally.
2. Caris LeVert
Alongside Dinwiddie, LeVert was one of the Nets that dutifully saved the sinking ship behind those crushing injuries at point guard. Thrown into the deep end, LeVert thrived as a playmaker and court general, upping his assists average from 1.9 to 4.2 almost overnight. In December, LeVert tossed out a career-best 11 assists to go with 12 points and five rebounds. Even better, the third-year professional made two or more three-pointers on 27 occasions, proving that some important strides of improvement are already here.
Even if he comes off the bench below Crabbe or Carroll, LeVert seemingly makes everyone around him better, regardless of the role he’s in that night — so expect big things from the flexible utility man in 2018-19.
3. Džanan Musa
On the topic of their rookies, Musa assuredly looks like he’s worth the excitement — maybe not in 2018, but in the very near future. Following Luka Dončić, Musa entered the NBA Draft as the most captivating overseas scorer and the Nets were happy to scoop him up at No. 29 overall. Musa himself believes he could play anywhere in the frontcourt — even at point guard — and at 6-foot-9, that’s a tasty proposition for Atkinson.
In April, Musa tallied 36 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds on 5-for-7 from three-point range for KK Cedevita off the bench — exhibiting the type of all-around game he may eventually possess. As of now, Musa will likely get spot minutes to spell Joe Harris and Carroll at small forward. Nevertheless, the Nets will need to be patient with Musa as he must get bigger and stronger before he can frequently contribute at the highest level. Either way, Musa is only 19 years old, the seventh-youngest player in the NBA this season.
4. Allen Crabbe
The acquisition of Crabbe last year came paired mixed feelings and his slow start didn’t convince many doubters either. But after settling in, Crabbe averaged career-highs almost across the board — in points, rebounds, three-pointers, assists and minutes — and launched from deep an astonishing 7.1 attempts per game, 13th-most in the entire league. As most sharpshooters go, when Crabbe is locked in, he’s a game-changer without hesitation, but he’ll need to find more consistency moving forward.
When Crabbe hit three or more three-pointers, the Nets went 14-18, a far cry from their 5-16 record when he made just one or zero from deep. For a team that jacked up the second-most three-pointers in 2017-18 — and registered a lukewarm 20th-ranked percentage on them — it’s evident that Crabbe will be a key cog in Brooklyn’s offense for the foreseeable future.
5. Joe Harris
Last, but definitely not least, is Harris, the Nets’ first official success story in the new regime. Brooklyn picked him off the scrap heap in 2016, but Harris fast became one of the team’s best shooters and defenders — eventually making him an asset they badly wanted to re-sign this summer. Harris’ 41.9 percent clip from three tied him for 16th-best in the NBA and he functioned side-by-side with Carroll as the Nets’ most reliable two-way players throughout 2017-18.
But given the Nets’ current status in purgatory, it was fair to wonder if Harris would take his renewed career and head to a contender. In lieu of that, Harris signed a two-year deal worth $16 million to stick around for a few extra attempts. As Brooklyn’s modern-looking offense gets further fleshed out and refined, there’s a fair chance that Harris will only continue to rise.
– Ben Nadeau
Everybody knows that the Nets’ biggest strengths lie within their three-point prowess. It’s not hyperbole to say that Brooklyn lived and died by the three in 2017-18 and it’s unlikely to change at this stage. However, they’ve now got the personnel to do so, so their nightly consistency simply needs to catch up to their fire-rate. But instead of regurgitating those statistics again, let’s look at another potential strength: the Nets’ positional flexibility.
All their point guards can play off-ball at the two, a group that now includes Shabazz Napier. Elsewhere, Musa believes he can handle those responsibilities and LeVert proved he could for much of the previous campaign. At 6-foot-5, Graham can guard multiple positions, a skill set that Carroll and Hollis-Jefferson both filled last season to great success. The duo of Faried and Davis give the Nets have two capable options backing up Allen, while both could play power forward when Carroll or Hollis-Jefferson slide up a position.
Given Brooklyn’s penchant for fast, three-point launching offensive sets, they’ll need their players to wear many different hats all year — for once, they might have the roster to pull it off.
– Ben Nadeau
It’s a sore subject in Brooklyn, but they’re another below average defense unit heading into 2018-19. The good news is that they’re trying and incrementally improving. The Nets have learned to defend the three-point line decently under Atkinson, but have lacked a second rim protector like Allen until now. Davis gives the Nets a sorely-needed upgrade in rim protection and Faried will help to ease any lingering rebound concerns.
More or less, the Nets have effectively addressed solutions for their most glaring weaknesses — all the same, there’s still a giant part missing: a superstar.
Enhanced team defense and three-point shooting are great, but until the Nets find a bonafide star to carry them through difficult, tight contests, this will remain their middling fate. Naturally, they hope to have a budding star in Russell already, but LeVert and Allen have both shown promising flashes in addition. Conclusively, the Nets are stuck in the 9th/10th/11th range as long as their roster is a compilation of second and third options, sadly.
– Ben Nadeau
THE BURNING QUESTION
The Nets can’t actually make the playoffs… right? (Version 2.0)
So here we are again, wondering the Nets could make a playoff push in the Eastern Conference. Here are the cliff notes summary in full: Brooklyn plays in the weaker conference, they are healthy (for now) and their young core is another year wiser. Thus far, Atkinson and Marks have steered their ship elegantly in the right direction, but it’ll be up to the players to finally put it all together.
For now, it’d be reasonable to say that the Nets have an early leg up on the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic and, depending on how the Kristaps Porzingis situation unfolds in a few months, the New York Knicks. Unfortunately, that’s not a strong enough case to put the Nets as a definite playoff contender just yet — but it’s feasible to expect that they’ll hang around 9th or 10th place at the very least.
On the other hand, if D’Angelo Russell evolves into the star-caliber player he’s capable of becoming, then all bets would certainly be off.
– Ben Nadeau
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