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New-era Nets free from expectation

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

This Thursday, the Brooklyn Nets will get their 2016-17 campaign rolling with their first preseason game. As they approach this new-era season, they do so with a rookie head coach, a rookie general manager, a 21-win baseline and a roster with a grand total of one All-Star game appearance.

In other words, what they won’t have is a set of high expectations.

Being free of pressure isn’t a bad thing for this Nets team, whose rebuilding project is going to be characterized by a slow burn. Without a clear road to star talent or the quick-fix assets like early lottery picks. This is going to take some time, and it behooves everyone around the franchise on Flatbush to embrace that reality.

“This season won’t be measured entirely by wins and losses,” said incoming GM Sean Marks in his preseason presser. “It’ll be measured by the progress that’s made throughout the season and the buy-in from our players.”

That might sound like a familiar euphemism to anybody who has followed a team through this end of the cycle, but it’s also the right approach to take. This isn’t a team that can tank its way to a cure-all draft pick; Brooklyn likely won’t make a lottery selection until 2019 because of outstanding trade debts. Unless a stud falls in their laps or someone internally leaps forward, this is a project that’s going to take a while.

“This is not going to be something that’s turned around in two, three months,” Marks explained further. “We want something that’s done strategically and systematically, that builds a strong foundation.”

For now, that means being focused on improvements, especially on the part of their developing youngsters like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Bojan Bogdanovic and Caris LeVert. That trio of young wings – 21, 26 and 22, respectively — will constitute a large chunk of the perimeter rotation. Those three and Brook Lopez, the team’s lone All-Star (2013), represent the Nets’ best chance at relevance in the medium-term future, whether it’s because they develop as core pieces or as assets that yield something useful to the asset-strapped club.

But Brooklyn made some smart veteran acquisitions, too. Yes, it’s an eclectic mix. No, this isn’t likely a playoff roster. But the Nets did the right thing for a team that has no shot at being great but also no incentive to be really bad: they put some decent–if also flawed–pieces around their young guys.

The club got the meme treatment when a media day photo of mostly lesser-known reserves appeared on Twitter and inspired a thread of clever jokes. But don’t be fooled: those were mostly deep reserves.

The five in that picture are likely the third and fourth point guards, fifth and sixth wings, and third center. Snap a picture of most teams’ third-team subs, and you could probably make similar jokes. The reality is that if you look at the Nets’ likely 8-10 man rotation, they are, at the very least, all NBA-caliber players.

Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez are both rotation-quality point guards with some starting experience. Luis Scola and Randy Foye are thirtysomethings with a combined 36,000 NBA minutes between them, including time both on playoff teams and in rebuilding atmospheres. And Trevor Booker is a young veteran who has spent six seasons playing rotation minutes for Washington and Utah.

Those aren’t major impact players in terms of macro value-added — none of the five have ever posted a year better than Scola’s 5.7 VORP-based wins added (’08-09). But they’re all good-character vets, insurance against a culture that otherwise could erode as losses pile up.

“From day one,” Marks said, “we set out to bring in competitors. Bring in a group of vets that will lead by example when we’re talking to these younger guys.”

Still, it’s dangerous to pin high hopes on a cadre of vets who historically contribute somewhere between one and five wins to their teams, per VORP. This team’s fate in the short term will be determined by their developing youngsters and by what they get out of their lone star.

At his best, Lopez is a 20-and-7 big man who scores efficiently and defends adequately. He’s a traditional big man, one who’d much rather pound from the blocks than pop for a long jumper. In fact, no NBA player finished more possessions with an attempt, drawn foul or turnover from the post as Lopez, and only LaMarcus Aldridge scored more points on post-ups, per the NBA’s play type data.

He’s prolific down there, a bit of a throwback player in an era that has abandoned post play to some degree, but since he can operate from both the high and low posts, he doesn’t kill spacing, and in fact, he draws doubles that benefit spot-up shooters.

He’s a fairly average roll man (47th percentile in points per possession on those plays, although on the third most plays of anybody in the league), and he’s far from gazelle-like in terms of running the floor. That all makes him a bit of a specialist, a post scoring big man in an age where few exist… but he’s damn good at it.

The one fully healthy year Lopez had alongside a top-notch facilitator was his All-Star season. Neither Lin nor Vasquez is going to be mistaken for Deron Williams, but maybe they can replicate just enough of the playmaking necessary to unleash some of Lopez’s inner stardom. That and a surprisingly good year from Bogdanovic, Hollis-Jefferson or LeVert represent Brooklyn’s best chances of winning enough games to catch some people off guard.

In the meantime, Marks and first-year head coach Kenny Atkinson will do their best to get everybody focused on something other than win total.

“The fans and the media and everyone around the Nets will see a team that’s building, improving, competing at a high level every night,” said Atkinson, who brings more than a decade of experience as an assistant overseas and in the NBA, including from across the river with the Knicks. “We’re seeing individual improvement. I think that’s important.”

Spoken like the coach of a team that is blissfully unburdened by expectations.

New-era Nets free from expectation

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