The Nets are in possibly the most difficult spot of any NBA team. New general manager Sean Marks has to establish a winning culture with a 21-win team and no draft picks. Marks wowed Nets management with his vision for building in Brooklyn, and this offseason represents Marks’s first big test.
Here’s our primer on what the Nets have, what they don’t, and what they need to do.
1) Wing talent. The Nets have two solid building blocks in Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, and two intriguing rookie prospects in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough.
But the team lacks talent elsewhere. The Nets ranked 29th out of the 30 teams in backcourt points per game, according to HoopsStats.com, and struggled to get production out of the point guard spot.
“Right now, definitely a good PG and an elite scoring wing,” Young said. “I think those are the aspects of the game that we need.”
2) Depth everywhere. The Nets had a serious depth problem this season: there would often be games where the team competed in the first quarter of a game, then fell apart in the second after going to their bench. The team’s bench had the worst net rating of any NBA bench this season, meaning that no team’s bench was outscored more frequently or efficiently.
The Nets were barely able to compete with Lopez and Young gobbling up possessions on offense this season: when they were off the floor the team was an abject disaster at both ends.
3) A defined staff. Marks quickly hired Kenny Atkinson, a longtime and well-regarded NBA assistant, as the team’s head coach over the weekend. In the past two weeks, assistant general manager Frank Zanin, longtime trainer Tim Walsh, and PR head Gary Sussman have since left the team, and more changes are rumored to be on the horizon. It’s not clear yet who will join Atkinson on the Nets bench, or how the Nets might fill the hole left by Walsh’s departure.
With Marks prioritizing a change in culture, getting the right people on board sooner rather than later is a top priority, especially if they want to attract free agents this offseason.
Depending on what happens with various options and offers, as well as the league’s final cap number (currently projected at $92 million), the Nets project to have between $33 million and $45.3 million in cap room. It should end up somewhere in the middle: buying out Jack (and saving $5.8 million) is all but a formality, and it’s not yet clear which players will exercise their options or receive qualifying offers. (The nuts and bolts of the roster’s cap situation is below.)
No matter what, the Nets will be able to offer a maximum contract to one player this offseason, and still have room to fill out the rest of their roster. They could theoretically create room to sign two max players if they trade Brook Lopez, or trade Thaddeus Young, buy out Jarrett Jack, and make another small move.
Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, Bojan Bogdanovic, Sean Kilpatrick. Bogdanovic and Kilpatrick have guarantees only through next year; that’s technically also true for both McCullough and Hollis-Jefferson, but they both have two team options the Nets will exercise.
Lopez is signed through the 2017-18 season at about $20 million per year, while Young is signed through 2018-19 at about $12 million per season. Kilpatrick only has a guarantee through next season, but has a no-trade clause through June 19.
Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, Thomas Robinson. Ellington has a player option for just over $1.5 million next season, Larkin has an option for $1.5 million, and Robinson has an option for just over $1 million. None of them had made a decision as of Thursday regarding the option. Robinson has until June 15th to exercise his option, Larkin & Ellington have until June 29.
Ellington says: “That’s obviously something I’m going to sit down with my agent and talk about and discuss, but we haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Larkin says: “I want to get with a team that sees me as a part of the future, that will let me come in and grow, not just be here for a year, be a spot player here, wants to commit to me, wants to see me grow over years. It’s hard playing for four coaches in three years, and trying to find a consistent coaching staff that wants you to do the same thing. And I mean that’s tough for a young guy.
“…You want to be a starter on a playoff team, win championships, but I don’t think I deserve that yet. I haven’t played well enough to be handed that. So just got to keep working. If they would like to bring me back as a backup, I mean that’s fine as well, as long as I’m in the NBA playing consistent minutes and obviously you want to be on a playoff team. And what they’re building here, I feel like I fit in well. So we’ll see what happens.”
Robinson says: “I’m completely clueless right now what’s going to happen over the next couple weeks, or months, until this process comes to an end. But hopefully it hurries up and gets over with quick, because I don’t want to be worrying about that all summer, I just want to hurry up and get things stable and get back in the gym.”
Predictions: Ellington and Robinson opt out, while Larkin opts in.
Jarrett Jack: The Nets have until June 30th to exercise a team option on Jack. If they decline it, Jack earns a buyout of $500,000. Prediction: Jack gets bought out, but may re-sign at a smaller figure for a backup/mentor role.
Sergey Karasev: The Nets declined Karasev’s fourth-year option (worth a little under $2.5 million), meaning that they can’t sign him to a deal above that number. Prediction: The Nets let Karasev walk, and he plays overseas.
Henry Sims: Sims signed on for the last month of the season and played some decent minutes when the team shut down Lopez & Young. Prediction: The Nets let Sims walk.
Donald Sloan: Sloan said on his Instagram page that he wants to return to Brooklyn. Prediction: Sloan hits the free agent market.
Note about qualifying offers: the Nets are not required to tender a qualifying offer. They can merely let the contract run out and the player becomes a free agent. If they make a qualifying offer, the player becomes a restricted free agent. The player can also sign the qualifying offer, a one-year contract, and become an unrestricted free agent next year.
Willie Reed: Reed’s up-and-down rookie year ended with Reed away from the team for personal reasons for the last few games. Prediction: The Nets decline to tender Reed a qualifying offer, making him a free agent.
Markel Brown: Oddly enough, Brown is the second-longest tenured Nets player (tied with Bojan Bogdanovic), and improved his shooting & passing from his first to second year. Because he’s been with the team for two years, the Nets own his Early Bird rights, which allows them to go over the cap to re-sign him should he command more than the minimum but less than the league average salary. Prediction: The Nets re-sign Brown to a multi-year contract near the minimum.
Andrea Bargnani, Deron Williams. Bargnani and Williams occupied the same locker at Barclays Center, and now both occupy space on next year’s Nets cap sheet. Williams’s stretched contract adds about $5.5 million to the Nets’ cap, while Bargnani’s buyout adds $323,599, according to Basketball Insiders.
The Nets do not own a first-round pick. They currently own the 55th pick in the draft (25th of the second round), after swapping down from 33rd with the Los Angeles Clippers. The swap was a part of the team’s trade for Reggie Evans in 2012.
This offseason is a crucial one for Brooklyn, and will allow Marks to make his first major impact on the organization’s future. But it’s a very tough sell. The team lacks quality players, have no control over their draft destiny until 2019, and as a result don’t project to seriously contend any time soon.
That’s not to say the Nets have nothing. They do have Lopez and Young, a brand new practice facility that overlooks Manhattan, and the cultural cachet of Brooklyn. That’s worth something. But it’s not an appealing situation for quality free agents, who will have their pick of teams this season: with the salary cap spiking, about 25 teams project to have max-level cap room, most of them with better long-term situations for a free agent.
That means Marks might have to get creative. Trading Brook Lopez or Thaddeus Young could give the Nets some added flexibility in building their roster, especially if another team with cap room misses out on a free agent. That’s further discussed in the video below.
If Marks can’t convince a top-quality player to come to Brooklyn, it might behoove the Nets to use their cap room to sign four or five decent players just to bolster their overall talent level, rather than throwing an enormous deal at a borderline All-Star and filling out with minimum contracts. The Nets have no incentive to tank with their pick going to Boston, so getting a bunch of NBA-quality players is a start back towards relevance.
The Portland Trail Blazers provide a nice blueprint for this model: they lost four of their five starters and were expected to tank the season. But they filled out their roster with solid, unspectacular talent, acquiring Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson, and Noah Vonleh, winning 44 games and making the playoffs.
The obvious caveat: the Trail Blazers already had Damian Lillard, and C.J. McCollum turned in a breakout year. If the Nets went that route, they might not win 44 games. But they’d win more than 21.
Those are just a couple of options. There are many, some that are out of Brooklyn’s control. But the lowest nadir of the rebuild is behind them. We’ll know far more about this team’s future by mid-July than we have since they began their teardown in the 2014 offseason.