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Fixing the Brooklyn Nets

Moke Hamilton looks at what the Nets should do this summer to turn things around.

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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.

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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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