After the dust settled from a Brooklyn Nets season that saw Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving traded, the million-dollar question quickly reared its head:
Do the Nets go star-hunting again this summer?
If the answer is yes, Damian Lillard could be at the forefront of the conversation. Following his appearance at Barclays Center for Game 3 between the Nets and 76ers, there have been rumblings among league executives that both Lillard and Brooklyn could be interested in a trade. The appearance was noteworthy given the Portland star's known affinity for Mikal Bridges, who was asked Sunday if he knew Lillard would be in attendance:
“I know people,” Bridges replied with a smile.
Dame in the building for Sixers-Nets ⌚️#NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/Pgh8xVsNoY
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Cam Johnson said he knows Bridges and Lillard “are close.” The seven-time All-Star has not been shy about his affection for the Nets forward in recent years. Lillard recently named Bridges and Devin Booker when asked which NBA players he is a fan of during an ESPN interview. He also called Bridges “his favorite small forward in the league” during a 2021 interview with Yahoo Sports:
“If you look at Phoenix, they don’t have a bunch of stars. They got people who are really good at what they do and understand their roles,” he said. “Chris Paul and Devin Booker are All-Stars, but Deandre Ayton is a quality center, Jae Crowder is an experienced, quality stretch-four man that’s tough, Cam Johnson is nice and Mikal Bridges is my favorite small forward in the league. You just look at how that team is put together… That’s what my vision is.”
It's a vision that could come to fruition in Brooklyn if Nets General Manager Sean Marks gets aggressive this offseason. Bridges and Johnson, along with breakout center Nic Claxton, veteran wings Royce O'Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith, and an established guard in Spencer Dinwiddie present a similar roster archetype. Following the trades of James Harden, Durant, and Irving, the Nets are stocked with 11 first-round picks over the next seven years, the fourth-most in the league.
While Marks said it's too soon to call his team a contender, he left the door open for an offseason deal that pushes Brooklyn closer to that status:
“It would be way too soon to call that. I think we need to let the dust settle, but we've always been prepared,” he said Sunday at HSS Training Center. “My group has always been prepared to debate and discuss everything so that when things do come across the table you're not surprised by it. I think in this day and age we've all seen players demand trade players behind the scenes ask for this, teams change whether it's ownership groups or front offices and next thing you know they pivot. So we just have to be ready for whatever comes our way.”
“If we can make a change that we can compete, we'll be strategic about it. Because I don't think we want to put ourselves in a place where we're costing the future for right now either. I think we got a bright pathway and right now I'm enjoying that.”
Lillard had the best statistical season of his career this year, averaging 32.2 points and 7.3 assists per game on 46/37/91 shooting splits. After falling out of the play-in, Portland shut the guard down in the final weeks of the season, a move that allowed them to secure the fifth-best odds in this year’s lottery.
It's easy to see why Lillard would be high on the idea of playing with Bridges. The Nets forward was one of the league's top performers since stepping into an expanded role with Brooklyn, averaging 27.7 points on 47/38/88 shooting splits over 30 games. In addition to his blossoming scoring capabilities, Bridges offers as a lockdown defender and elite catch-and-shoot option, a dream compliment for a high-usage superstar.
45 points (career-high)
A career night for Mikal Bridges 🔥
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When projecting his ceiling, Bridges' breakout has drawn Khris Middleton comparisons, a player who was the number two option on a championship team in 2021.
“I think Mikal's proven to a lot of people that his role can continue to get better and better and bigger and bigger. So I think I would be pretty silly to be up here and limit him and say he cannot be something,” Marks said. “I think that a few people have had their eyes opened to what he can do.”
“I think we saw it a little bit in Phoenix when Devin Booker was out, he carried a considerable load for them. And then we saw this year where he came in and immediately was a crowd favorite. You could get behind him. It’s just the way he played, how he played and he didn’t shy away from those moments either. So I would definitely not limit him and say he could only be this for us.”
Brooklyn will be one of several teams in the Lillard conversation should Portland decide to finally turn the page. With a stockpile of draft picks and one of Lillard's favorite players turning heads around the league, the Nets won't be gun-shy if the right deal presents itself:
“It goes back to how we build. Do we build quick and expedite this thing?” Because a player comes around that we know ‘Hey this player or players would fit within a group and give us an opportunity to really get back in and be contenders again.' That could happen,” Marks said. “At the same time, I don't think we're in any hurry. We're not going to be pushed to make changes just for the sake of making changes. I think will do our due diligence and give this group at least some time to build and come together.”