After a turbulent ride over the past year and a half, the Brooklyn Nets hope their upcoming season is about renewal and establishing a foundation. With just four holdovers from the roster that started their forgettable 2015-16 campaign, a brand new team is looking to establish a brand new identity.
They aren’t expected to win a ton of games, but that doesn’t mean the Nets won’t be interesting this year for a lot of different reasons. Here’s our TFB season preview.
2015-16 in review
The last 15 months of Brooklyn basketball were tumult, change and a whole lot of losing. The hope in Kings County is that the resulting identity change is enough to bring winning basketball back to the borough over the long term.
The Nets spent the 2015-16 season dismantling most of their on-court core and basketball management structure. The first domino in their year-long purge fell in July 2015, when erstwhile All-Star Deron Williams gave back an eye-popping $15.5 million in salary to buy his free agency and eventually sign in Dallas.
Williams will have made $15 million from the Mavs over those two seasons, essentially recouping the buyout money. Still, watching a player surrender (at least initially) that amount of money was startling. Teammate Joe Johnson was shocked enough to famously utter that fall, “It’s not that bad here.”
Famous last words, it turns out. A few months later, Johnson would take his own buyout, coughing up $3 million in February so he could join the Miami Heat as a bench scorer. Around the same time, the Nets gave up on reclamation projection Andrea Bargnani.
Their year of turnover wasn’t limited to the playing floor, either. The Nets dismissed bench boss Lionel Hollins and reassigned GM Billy King. An era was obviously ending in Brooklyn, without a new one to replace it just yet.
Amid the shakeup, the remaining Nets didn’t have much of a chance. Too much uncertainty, too little talent and an ambiguous sense of identity led to a 21-win season, the worst by far of the franchise’s four years in Brooklyn and the fifth-worse winning percentage in club history.
To make matters worse, injuries robbed them of the chance to turn their down year into an opportunity to develop youngsters like prized rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. A broken ankle cost the defensive-minded wing 50 games, and Chris McCullough’s ACL rehabilitation from his Syracuse days kept him out until February.
Not that there weren’t bright spots. Brook Lopez, finally healthy and back to being a full-time starter, had maybe his best individual season ever: 20.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists. Thaddeus Young took a step forward with a 15-and-9 campaign, and Bojan Bogdanovic looked more comfortable while scoring 11 a game on 38% from downtown. Sean Kilpatrick, an undrafted combo guard who had been waived by four teams, averaged 13.8 points after a mid-season call-up.
Just as importantly, they started to signal a path forward with the February hire of Sean Marks and King’s successor. Marks is a bright, humble executive who has been part of the Spurs’ brain trust since he ended his playing career in 2011. Marks purportedly brings both patience and purpose to his new role, along with a dedication to the Popovichian principles that have made many from the Spurs’ management tree successful.
With Marks at the helm and a new basketball vision beginning to take shape, the Nets weren’t nearly done with the roster overhaul, either.
The Nets’ offseason
The first order of business for the Nets once the forgettable 2015-16 campaign was in the rear view mirror was to get a head coach in place. Kenny Atkinson, a longtime Hawks and Knicks assistant, comes from that same basketball philosophy as Marks and is a believer in unselfish, democratic offenses with a lot of player and ball movement.
Then it was up to Marks to find Atkinson the tools to operationalize that vision, so the roster reconstruction continued.
Brooklyn started by waiving guard Jarrett Jack, who had started each of his 32 games last season. They also let Donald Sloan and Shane Larkin walk, committing themselves to replenishing the point guard rotation from outside the clubhouse.
Needing to regenerate draft assets, they traded another starter. They cashed in on Young’s nice season to wrangle Indiana’s first-rounder and used it to draft guard Caris LeVert. The Michigan product could be a dark horse to have a real impact as a rookie, with a pro-ready skill set after four years with a top-tier program. But Brooklyn will have to wait for the payoff as he continues to rehab a bad wheel. The Nets also scored a Pacers second rounder in the deal, which will be conveyed sometime between 2017 and 2023.
Of Brooklyn’s top 11 scorers from last season, only Lopez and Bogie remain. And that’s not a bad thing given the overall talent level of their ’15-16 roster. But all that movement left a void that the Nets needed to fill in an aggressive free agent period.
Jeremy Lin is a borderline starter, but he’s a smart and capable facilitator who’s already showing some positive signs in the preseason. Presumed starters Trevor Booker and Randy Foye also joined the squad as free agents. Journeymen Greivis Vasquez and Luis Scola signed from Milwaukee and Toronto, respectively, to bolster the veteran rotation.
That so many veterans with options chose to sit down and listen to Marks’ and Atkinson’s pitch is a good sign of the pair’s brand. To be clear, they didn’t add All-Stars, but they got several guys with real résumés to choose Brooklyn, and they did so without any blatant overpays. Lin will make low-end starter money, and the other four signed for seven-figure salaries that are appropriate to their expected roles.
A few low-risk gambles helped them round out the roster, like $3 million for Justin Hamilton, a stretch big with some NBA and overseas experience, or the veteran’s minimum for Anthony Bennett, a beleaguered former No. 1 overall pick. On draft night, they paid $3 million to Utah to move from the 55th pick to the 42nd to select Coney Island native Isaiah Whitehead. Of their minimum-salary pickups this summer, the one who appears most likely to earn a rotation role is shooter Joe Harris.
The big question: How good can their young guys be?
Lin was a nice pickup, Lopez a fringe star and the vets are solid. But whether it relates to longer-term prospects or even just being better than expected in 2016-17, a lot rests on the Nets’ youth.
In particular, Hollis-Jefferson and LeVert might represent the Nets’ best chances at an accelerated timeline. Given that Boston has the right to Brooklyn’s picks in the next two drafts, star-level help isn’t going to come from the outside until these Nets play their way to respectability. And that means
Bogie might also have some upside left, but let’s not forget that he’s already 28. McCullough is a hyper and skilled forward who will get better, but in the short term, he’ll likely spend time in the D-League.
The reality is: this team does have a ceiling. Even if players hit the top of their realistic ranges and the group congeals nicely, Brooklyn will find itself at a talent deficit many nights over the course of the season.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t surprise people. They have 10+ guys who would make the rotation of an average NBA squad, and they know who they want to be on both sides of the ball. They also have no incentive to lose because of their pick situation, so toward the end of the year when other teams are packing it in, they could poach some wins as they search for momentum.
If veteran savvy helps them hold court more often than not, they could claw into the mid-30s.
Barring injury, this team will be better than last year’s. But wins are a zero-sum commodity in the NBA. With fewer teams full-on tanking, where are the Nets going to find games lying around?
Marks has already stated that he’s not measuring success this year based on win totals. That could be because he realizes that, in the worst case scenario, the Nets could improve qualitatively and yet still stagnate in the low to mid-20s for wins.