They’ve tried to make it all about big names. Deron Williams’s face was plastered on billboards, subways, and bus stops. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett stared you down when you entered Barclays Center. But they ended up with just one second-round appearance in three years, which cost the team hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, luxury tax, and eventually, buyout costs.
The cost of securing those players — and pushing the team’s salary cap to never-before-seen brinks — has also been scraping the barrel to fill out their roster with minimum or near-minimum players. The Nets have never had more than the taxpayer mid-level exception to sign new players since their move to Brooklyn, and that means picking up unproven journeyman, aging veterans, flameouts trying to find their foothold in the league: nomads who might not earn another contract if they don’t make their mark.
And that’s the weird part: those guys have been the most fun to root for. Reggie Evans had the offensive skills of a blindfolded duck, but the crowd might not have ever cheered louder than when he beat Hack-A-Reggie by nailing two free throws. Shaun Livingston was probably on his last minimum contract until he put up the best season of his career, helping the 10-21 Nets turn in their most exciting three months in Brooklyn. Andray Blatche turned the court into his own personal jester’s stage for two seasons, and parlayed it into — what else? — Filipino citizenship and a lucrative deal in China. These guys were captivating NBA journeymen, nomads that stepped into town and made us want to watch.
Re-upping Brook Lopez & Thaddeus Young — a foregone conclusion if there ever was one in free agency — meant the Nets needed to go digging in the rough once more. Out came four players who project to get significant minutes on the bench, who have bounced around the NBA (some despite high expectations), and who need to find their NBA footing.
When I say bounced, I mean bounced. Two of the four have averaged at least one new team per season, and one is just one team behind. Two were former top-five picks. Have the Nets found any diamonds in the rough? Scroll through to learn some more.
Robinson’s case is unique among the four: he’s always wanted to be in Brooklyn. Before the 2012 draft, Robinson said his ideal team was “New Jersey,” right before the team moved to Brooklyn. (In retrospect, funny how Tyshawn Taylor said he wanted to go to the Lakers!) The feeling was mutual: the Nets, who would keep their pick only if it landed in the top three, had Robinson ranked third on their board. But they lost their pick to the Trail Blazers, Robinson went fifth to the Sacramento Kings, and he began an uncomfortable journey around the NBA: making pit stops in Houston, Portland, and Philadelphia, all before turning 24.
The Nets claimed him off waivers in February, and it seemed like they’d finally gotten their man. Even Robinson himself tweeted (since deleted) about having finally gotten to Brooklyn. But the 76ers put in a last-second claim on Robinson’s rights, and because they had higher “waiver priority,” picked him up for the last two months of the season. Robinson would have to wait a little longer.
The Nets are Robinson’s fifth team in four seasons — sixth if you count the Denver Nuggets, who traded for him and immediately waived him this past year. When introduced to the Nets this year, Robinson said he felt like he’d finally landed in his NBA home.
Of course, Robinson’s only available because things haven’t worked out as planned. In a league that increasingly values a power forward that can shoot three-pointers, Robinson looks uncomfortable taking shots outside of the paint. Though he’s tried stretching out to at least the free throw line, he does most of his damage inside: 66 percent of his shot attempts last season came in the restricted area, and he shoots just over 26 percent from outside the paint, per NBA.com. He lacks a go-to post move, and has yet to find his offensive niche beyond put-backs and dump-offs.
But his energy is infectious. As Kevin Pelton once noted:
I would consider playing Thomas Robinson exclusively in home games. His energy is so valuable to the crowd.
If things go well, he might remind you of former Nets forward Reggie Evans, with more scoring and less beard. Robinson averaged an insane 15 rebounds per 36 minutes in his limited time with the 76ers last season, and there’s a lot of minutes available for a player that can control the glass next to Brook Lopez (9.2 rebounds per 36 minutes last season) and Thaddeus Young (6.1 boards per 36).
As for Robinson himself, you can gather what he thinks about his odds from his Twitter account. Robinson often talks about the grind and the focus it takes to stick in the NBA, and how he thinks he can beat the odds.
There’s a lot of minutes behind Jarrett Jack, and a lot of need for speed and athleticism in Brooklyn. Larkin fits the bill for both.
With the Knicks last year, Larkin was a dart trying to fit into a triangle. Most of the offense Larkin ran in college with the University of Miami centered around pick-and-rolls, which is a basic tenet of most NBA offenses. But it’s not a staple of Phil Jackson’s famed Triangle offense, and Larkin struggled to make his mark.
@adobk89@MazzESPN couldn't grow in an offense I wasn't comfortable in. All good. No shade. Glad I'm across the river now. Wish them luck.
The Nets will be Larkin’s third team in three seasons — fourth, if you count the Hawks, who selected him and traded him on draft night. He also has an obscure old Nets connection: he was drafted with one of the picks the Nets sent to Atlanta in the Joe Johnson trade.
Larkin’s a bullet. He’s one of the fastest players in the league, and his explosive first step helps get past most defenders when taking the right angle. Watch how quickly he starts moving as soon as he gets the ball — and how he uses some change of speed to get to the basket behind even the second line of defense:
That said, he does struggle with shot selection. His size hurts him when he attacks the paint and there’s already someone lurking to defend, and his confidence means that sometimes he’ll take shots he shouldn’t. Part of that might be from playing in an offense that didn’t fit him: he might’ve felt the need to rush shots, if only to prove he belonged. We’ll see.
He’s also not a natural creator, with a career average thus far of 4.5 assists per 36 minutes — not much higher than Joe Johnson’s 3.8 assists per 36 last year. But he was also one of just three point guards last season who finished with more steals than turnovers, joining Celtics rookie Marcus Smart and veteran Pablo Prigioni. His size helps his sneakiness. Plus, his 2.72 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked 14th in the league, a good indicator for his potential in that area.
The first three years of Ellington’s career were stable: he played as a backup shooting guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, hitting 38 percent of his three-pointers. But the next three were anything but.
After four trades and multiple contracts, the Nets are Ellington’s sixth team in seven years — eighth if you count the New York Knicks, who traded for Ellington last July and dealt him to the Sacramento Kings in August, and those Kings, who waived him a month after acquiring him.
Ellington ran a fair amount of pick-and-roll with the hapless Lakers, and wasn’t too bad by the numbers, averaging 0.79 points per possession. He could take some ballhandling duty with the second unit. But his bread-and-butter will most likely be as a spot-up shooter: his career three-point percentage of .382 is higher than anyone else on the Nets roster by a significant margin, save Joe Johnson.
In a league taking more and more three-pointers each year at a better and better clip, a few big games off the bench from Ellington could mean a few crucial extra wins in a weak Eastern conference. He might not have the defensive acumen of former Nets guard Alan Anderson, but he’s got the shooting… and most importantly, the beard.
Bargnani is a bit different from the three guys before him. Ellington, Larkin, and Robinson are all looking to find their NBA footing after things went south; at this point, Bargnani can only hope to prove his doubters wrong. He’s still trying to find his NBA footing, but only after belief in his potential came, went, and then got pile-drived deep into the earth’s core.
There is not a single metric that justifies signing Andrea Bargnani to an NBA contract. He is a seven-foot center who does not defend or rebound at an NBA level. He is a stretch five that has hit well below the league average from three-point range in the last four seasons. It’s hard to tell what’s more laughable, his defensive rating (worst on last year’s lowly Knicks), or theGIFsthatshow it.
Bargnani has never lived up to his billing as a top overall pick in 2006, coming closest during a career-best season in 2010-11, when he averaged 21.5 points per game for the 22-60 Toronto Raptors. But if there’s any silver lining here, it’s this: Bargnani, who did not seem to enjoy rising to expectations, now has less expectations than ever. He’s in Andray Blatche territory. Anything good he does will be a bonus. Anything else? Well, he’s on a minimum deal, with no set rotation spot, and a few young guns (Robinson, Willie Reed, to name two) chomping at the bit for backup big minutes. He has the stability of a minor guaranteed contract and $72 million in career NBA earnings, but the pressure of needing to prove he belongs to stay on the floor.
Is that enough? Well, probably not. Remember, we’re talking about a player who posted the worst on-off court impact on the second-worst team in the NBA, who has struggled to stay healthy in recent years. But anything is possible… right?