The Brooklyn Nets are on a tear, posting the NBA’s best record (11-3) over their last 14 games. After a 1-5 start that saw head coach Steve Nash fired, Brooklyn now sits just a half-game back of Cleveland for third place in the Eastern Conference.
With that, we took some questions from Brooklyn fans in another installment of the Nets Mailbag.
Who are some players the Nets are going to target around the trade deadline and who could they possibly be shopping? -@ESJ2190
The Nets have two main needs that stick out against the better teams in the Eastern Conference. The first is a guard/wing who can challenge scorers at the point of attack. Brooklyn is extremely limited in that area outside of Ben Simmons. Kyrie Irving has never been known for his defense and Seth Curry is also severely undersized. Royce O’Neale has often had his number called, but he struggles guarding quicker ball handers and is better suited in the post. Joe Harris has held his own this season but is not what you would call a reliable go-to defensive option.
Chicago has plummeted to 11-16 and may be without Lonzo Ball for the entire season. Alex Caruso has steadily cemented his reputation as a high-energy defender off the bench during his time with the Bulls. I’d keep an eye on Caruso’s $9 million salary if things continue to go south there.
Brooklyn’s second need is a stretch big to complement Ben Simmons. The Simmons-Claxton pairing has looked better as of late, but it still presents issues during a playoff series when the game slows down and the floor condenses. The Nets have reportedly spoken with Atlanta about a John Collins-Joe Harris swap. I wrote about my issues with that trade in a recent article, detailing Collins’ shoddy 3-point shooting, tweener size and defensive inconsistencies as reasons Brooklyn should look in another direction first.
Similar to Caruso, Nikola Vucevic could be a target for the Nets if Chicago blows it up. Vucevic is a career 34.9 percent shooter from 3-point range and offers some secondary creation as a post scorer. The big man also ranks seventh in the league in rebounding (10.6 per game) and would provide a major boost for a Brooklyn team that ranks near dead last on the glass. The Bulls gave up Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr., and two first-round picks for Vucevic in a trade that looks increasingly bad each day their title hopes fade. It would not be surprising to see Chicago look to recoup some value for the 32-year-old.
Nikola Vucevic had a 25-point, 11-rebound double-double to lead the Chicago Bulls to victory last night against the Washington Wizards! @NikolaVucevic is also 3rd in the NBA in total rebounds (264 total, 11 per game). pic.twitter.com/TUFFZ2HRaW
— BDA Sports INTL (@BDASportsINTL) December 8, 2022
Kyle Kuzma is another intriguing target. Kuzma is on a $13 million expiring contract for a struggling Washington team and offers added size, defensive versatility and three-level scoring. The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging a career-high 21.4 points while grabbing 7.5 rebounds per game. Kuzma offers confident outside shooting and a secondary creator who can attack the rim off the dribble, something the Nets don’t do nearly enough.
Kyle Kuzma from WAY downtown 😱 pic.twitter.com/MoVCifRh7A
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) December 13, 2022
Kelly Olynyk is another big who makes sense for Brooklyn if Utah eventually enters the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. Olynyk is shooting a career-best 44.7 percent from 3-point land and is on a mid-size contract at $12.8 million. The big man could land the Jazz another first-round pick should they look to flip him.
Brooklyn’s pool of trade chips starts with Joe Harris. If the Nets want to land a significant piece, Harris’ $18.6 million salary will be key in getting there salary-wise. Another avenue would be packaging Nic Claxton ($8.5M) and Seth Curry ($8.5M), but the Nets would likely be hesitant to deal Claxton given his defensive versatility and steady improvement on a team-friendly deal. If Brooklyn is looking for a smaller piece such as Olynyk or Kuzma, Curry could be packaged with Cam Thomas and/or Day’Ron Sharpe and a first-round pick. The Nets have their 2023 first or Philadelphia’s 2027 first to use in a potential deal.
What has been the biggest surprise for Brooklyn to this point in the season? -Stephen C
The biggest surprise to me has undoubtedly been Yuta Watanabe. The 28-year-old is having a career year from 3-point range while proving to be one of Brooklyn’s top perimeter defenders. Watanabe has shot 52.1 percent from long distance on 3.0 attempts in his 16 games.
The Japanese product propelled Brooklyn to victory with clutch fourth quarters in two wins earlier this year, scoring nine points on 3-of-3 shooting from 3-land in the fourth quarter at Portland and 12 points on 4-of-5 from deep in the final frame vs. Memphis. There is reason to believe Watanabe’s 3-point shooting will regress to the mean. The forward was a 35.2 career shooter from deep on 1.6 attempts coming into this season.
But what has been extra encouraging about Watanabe is he has made a significant impact even when he struggles with his shooting. Brooklyn’s last two wins are great examples. Watanabe shot 1-of-5 from beyond the arc against Indiana but made two massive plays down the stretch. With 2:40 remaining, he grabbed an offensive rebound off his own missed free throw and kicked to Patty Mills for a triple to give the Nets a four-point lead. On Brooklyn’s next possession, he grabbed another offensive board with one second left on the shot clock and laid it in to extend the lead to six.
Heads up play @wacchi1013! pic.twitter.com/tyQjHQWpvW
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) December 11, 2022
Watanabe shot 1-of-6 on 3-pointers against Washington but still managed to force his imprint on the game. The first-year Net’s activity on defense has been a revelation. He can challenge high-level ball handlers on the perimeter, knows how to position himself off-ball, shows great understanding of when to help or dig on drivers, and is frequently in passing lanes.
All in all, Watanabe’s 3-point shooting, defense and hustle on the boards should keep him a significant part of Brooklyn’s rotation moving forward.
Do you think the roster as currently constructed is capable of beating the Bucks or Celtics in a 7 game series? -@HenrySanchez
Anything is possible when you have Kevin Durant playing at this level surrounded by competent role players, which Brooklyn appears to have this season. However, I think the Nets are still a move or two away from becoming a legitimate threat to Boston or Milwaukee in a seven-game series.
Kyrie Irving has had significant struggles recently against Boston’s rangy defense outside of Game 1 of last year’s playoffs. Further, Brooklyn’s supporting cast struggled in a big way in the last meeting with Boston. Similar to last year’s playoffs, the Nets could benefit from a secondary shot creator to take pressure off Durant and Irving. Seth Curry is likely Brooklyn’s best creator outside of the stars. However, Curry’s lack of size and defensive deficiencies make him difficult to play against bigger teams like Boston or Milwaukee. This was clear in Brooklyn’s last matchup with the Celtics as Curry was quickly played off the floor, picking up four fouls in close to a three-minute span. T.J. Warren continuing his upward trajectory and eventually returning to his old form would go a long way.
But on the subject of the Curry issue, the Nets have three undersized guards — Curry, Patty Mills and Cam Thomas — who cannot survive defensively in a series against Boston or Milwaukee. Both teams boast extremely long and athletic lineups that would relentlessly hunt any of those guards in Brooklyn’s switch-heavy defensive scheme. The Nets should be looking to use some assortment of those players, along with draft compensation, in a package for a shooting big or versatile wing/forward to add size against the Bucks or Celtics.