Resuming our “Fixing” series on Basketball Insiders, we’ll take a glance at one of the better run teams in the lottery.
The Brooklyn Nets are not the same team as they once were. For the majority of the season, Kenny Atkinson has had his guys fighting tooth and nail with every team crossing their path. Recently they’ve lost 17 out of 20 games, but that included a lengthy eight-game skid where the team was depleted with injuries, which essentially has been the story of the season.
Team leader Jeremy Lin played 25 minutes in the season opener before rupturing the patellar tendon in his right knee, keeping him out for the year.
D’Angelo Russell played with a chip on his shoulder until mid-November, when he went down with a significant injury and had surgery to remove loose bodies in his left knee, causing him to miss two months of action.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson got hurt on January 26 and was diagnosed with a strained right groin that kept him out for 11 games with Brooklyn still in the hunt for the postseason.
On top of all that, the Nets are constantly plagued by an assortment of knick-knack injuries to key players.
Thanks to tough luck at the wrong time, Brooklyn is 21-46 and sits as the third worst team by record in the Eastern Conference.
What Is Working
Brooklyn keeps on growing. The number one thing you want to see with a young team other than wins is collective improvement with each game. For the most part, that’s been evident with this group of guys.
When healthy, Russell has shown glimpses of potential superstardom when the lights have shined brightest. Both Caris LeVert and Hollis-Jefferson have increased their offensive production from last season while maintaining their bothersome ways defensively with a heavier workload. Spencer Dinwiddie’s memorable campaign has been a revelation about his determination and leadership as a professional.
Rookie center Jarrett Allen has surprised Atkinson with his confidence and earned a spot in the starting lineup despite being 19 years old. Joe Harris has become a reliable rotational player who can score the ball. Recently, Allen Crabbe has seemed to be more comfortable shooting the rock. DeMarre Carroll’s season of reclamation is showing the league that he’s not done yet notwithstanding what happened with the Toronto Raptors last year.
As a team, Brooklyn lives out on the perimeter. Their 42.8 percent three-point field goal attempt frequency is second behind the Houston Rockets. They’re a selfless bunch that passes often and moves the ball to get good shots. Perimeter defense is always an area where they excel, holding opponents to less than 25 threes per game.
What Needs To Change
While the Nets attempt a lot of triples and limit their opponent’s three-point rate, they don’t make as many shots as they should and their opponents still knock down a good amount of theirs. They are dead last in field goal percentage (43.7) and allow the second-most points per game (110.1) in the league.
They’ll have to require a better effort in holding off opposing big men from pulling down rebounds. Defensively, Brooklyn has to disrupt things much more for offenses they take on, as they sit at the very bottom of the barrel in turnover percentage, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Truthfully, the main issue Brooklyn has is the sizeable contract of Timofey Mozgov. He hasn’t played over 10 minutes in a game since late December. Other than that, there’s not much wrong as far as the future of the franchise is concerned.
Focus Area: The Draft
Thanks to the previous regime’s terrible past mistakes, general manager Sean Marks and the Nets’ hands are tied in the 2018 NBA Draft. Their first-round draft pick, once in the hands of the Boston Celtics, is in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ control.
Brooklyn did, however, cover for the loss last summer. By taking on the two years and $30 million remaining on Carroll’s contract, the Toronto Raptors attached a lottery-protected first-rounder and second-rounder as sweeteners. So they won’t be completely on the outside looking in, likely selecting in the late 20s with potentially two second-round picks to use.
The late portion of the draft isn’t necessarily a bad place to be in. There’s been plenty of talent, even All-Star talent, to come out in this range. Rather than focusing on positional needs, the Nets should focus on drafting the most talented players available. The college prospect pool at this point will vary, but Kentucky’s Wenyen Gabriel makes sense in terms of overall talent and fit with the team.
He’s a guy who came in as a top high school recruit and struggled during his freshman season with the Wildcats. This year, and especially as of late, he’s shown major improvements as a shooter and defender at the four. He’ll need to put on some weight to match up pound-for-pound with a lot of professional bigs, but the potential is there.
Focus Area: Free Agency
As it stands, the Nets are projected to have up to $15.9 million in cap space. It’s not much, but it’s enough to bring in another player who can grow with their core. The only players with contracts expiring will be Jahlil Okafor, Dante Cunningham, Quincy Acy, and Harris.
Marks will have to decide on June 29 whether or not to extend a qualifying offer to Nik Stauskas. The day after that is when Isaiah Whitehead’s $1.2 million salary guarantees for 2018-19, so he’d have to be waived before then to nullify it.
Halloween of this year is when Dinwiddie’s $250 thousand guarantees and is the deadline for Brooklyn to opt-in or opt-out on LeVert. Hollis-Jefferson’s extension deadline comes before the first day of the season. Those three decisions should be rather easy for the organization.
Looking at potential free agent adds, there aren’t too many enticing names out there you’d want to bring in to interrupt the good things going on with a young team. Maybe glance at some up-and-coming players that can help your toughness and rebounding problems.
An energetic presence like Richaun Holmes is a thought if the Philadelphia 76ers decline his team option. A budding star such as Montrezl Harrell could be an intriguing thought, though if the Los Angeles Clippers were smart, they’d match any offer, as he’s a restricted free agent. Even a reunion with Trevor Booker might not be a bad idea.
Regardless of what they do this offseason, Brooklyn is in a prime position to keep getting better. They no doubt have the correct personnel in place, from roster decisions to basketball decisions. If they stay on the path they are on, the Nets will be back in the hunt for the postseason in no time.
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