On the day LeBron James announced his decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers, 14 NBA franchises let out a sigh of relief. The Eastern Conference was finally free of his tyranny. Now comes the chaos and work of filling the void his absence created. And chaos is a ladder.
For now, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are the two favorites to own the conference for the next 5-10 seasons. After years of high draft picks, both organizations are hitting their stride just as the conference opens up. The Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, and Washington Wizards intrigue with one or two stars and the hopes of internal development.
Then, somewhere in the middle of the bottom tier of the Eastern Conference between the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, and Orlando Magic are the Brooklyn Nets.
With one more year until their own draft picks return to their grips, along with the potential cap space to land two max contract free agents, the canvas is finally blank in Brooklyn. The fire set by Billy King and the previous regime has finally cleared, revealing fertile soil.
Beyond the blank slate the Nets are afforded next summer, there’s a ton of internal reasons to value the way this organization is run, how they’re put together, and their potential to attract big-name talent.
In Sean Marks We Trust
Perhaps no general manager has been praised more without winning a playoff series than Sean Marks. What he’s been able to do while digging the Nets out of the hole he inherited has been nothing short of remarkable.
When he took over for King, the Nets were without first-round picks and marketable players after the disastrous Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Joe Johnson trades.
Marks has made it through purgatory maximizing every asset, shrewdly signing second-chance youngers, hiring the right coach, trading for valuable draft picks, and leveraging every veteran at his disposal in a positive way.
Brooklyn enters next summer with their own draft pick and a top-12 protected selection incoming from the Denver Nuggets. He’s swindled some high-value second-rounders from the Knicks in 2019 and Atlanta in 2020 without protection and assembled a myriad of young, versatile wings and forwards tailor-made for the modern NBA. Of the eight players signed beyond next summer, the oldest is 27-year-old Shabazz Napier.
Marks and company have drafted well and scoured the league for interesting reclamation projects.
Young Talent in Place
Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell both stand over 6-foot-5 and and have yet to hit their 25th birthday. Dinwiddie was solid last season, hitting a career-high 32.6 percent from deep while dishing 6.6 dimes per game. Russell, for all his frustrations and disappointments since being drafted second overall in the 2015 Draft by the Lakers, has a ton of upside and could be primed for a big campaign.
Both guards will have the opportunity to showcase themselves as legitimate starting options next season before they hit free agency in 2019. Should the Nets court a big-name talent at another position, Brooklyn owns the Bird rights to both. Marks could dry up most of his $65 million free agency budget and sign both.
Jarrett Allen, a 2017 first-round pick, looks like a steal. Cut from the same cloth as the Houston Rockets’ Clint Capela, Allen is long and hyper-athletic, does a good job moving his feet on the perimeter, and is the perfect screen-and-dunk big man to anchor the middle of the floor.
Coaches and teammates rave about his personality and work ethic and this summer he’s even been sampling a three-point stroke and a Euro step, hoping to earn the green light to stretch to the corner three-point line next season. While rebounding is still a focus, there aren’t a ton of big men in the Eastern Conference with ceilings as high as his. This season could be a crucial step forward.
On the wings, Joe Harris, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Caris Levert are all coming off career years with unique roles to fill on winning teams. Whether it’s insane three-point shooting, raw athleticism with defensive chops, or playmaking and size on the wing, all three project to be fantastic supplemental pieces.
Though the youth in Brooklyn hasn’t produced a star player (Russell is their best on-the-roster hope) that was never an expectation given the bare cupboard. The roster is ripe with role players who do things the right way and have grown internally thanks to one of the Nets best assets, head coach Kenny Atkinson.
Coaching and the Perfect Modern System
Few coaches walk into a more difficult situation than Atkinson did two years ago. Little talent, little expectation, and few hopes of turning the corner in the time most coaches lose job security.
Mirroring Marks’ role running the team, perhaps no coach has done more with less than Atkinson, who has the Nets playing the right style of basketball.
When coach and front office exist in harmony, the team acquires and develops players whose strengths mesh and place them with a staff that knows how to get the best out of them. That’s the dynamic in Brooklyn, where Atkinson is adept at leveraging his roster’s strengths and placing them in positions to succeed.
Atkinson doesn’t get enough credit for modernizing the Nets’ approach. Brooklyn bombards opponents with three-pointers, play up-tempo, and have some of the best spacing in the league despite a lack of perimeter shooting threats.
NBA analyst Jared Dubin did a study on advanced offensive and defensive metrics measuring shot selection and its effectiveness and Brooklyn stood out in a highly positive way:
Working on something for preseason and this stuck out to me re: the Nets.
Like the early Process Sixers, they're doing things the right way but just don't have the talent yet to make it work. They pass/drive/catch-shoot a lot, don't pull up often. Force opponents into opposite. pic.twitter.com/mkT36tYgin
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) August 16, 2018
The Nets are constantly attacking the basket, averaging more than 49 drives to the rim per games, and were in the top three in percentage of shots coming off catch-and-shoot looks. Those two metrics are highly correlated and, as they get better talent, the accuracy of those shots will rise.
More important is Brooklyn’s defensive profile, where Atkinson shows an ability to build functioning schemes regardless of roster composition. Last year, the Nets forced teams into the most pull-up jumpers and allowed the fewest catch-and-shoot three-pointers. His teams demonstrate an insane ability to chase shooters off the line, then scramble to recover and help at the rim. Synergy Sports also ranked the Nets as the second-best transition defense in the league, giving up a mere 1.04 points per possession.
Like the offense, the defensive efficiency numbers should catch up to the profile as the talent increases.
Building in Brooklyn
From an organizational standpoint, what’s not to like about Brooklyn? Ownership has proven the willingness to spend, the front office has its act together, and perhaps no team invest more directly into taking care of and developing the players on its roster.
Plug-and-play infrastructure is already in place to make immediate gains with the addition of a star player or two, and it’s in place in New York, one of the league’s most desirable markets.
The Golden State Warriors exist in their current form because a perfect confluence of events, from the deep pockets of ownership to a massive tax spike at the perfect time. The rest of the NBA still exists in an environment that struggles to sustain rosters with two-to-three max players.
Oklahoma City’s premature dismantling of the Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden core was done purely because the type of roster is almost inevitably sustainable. LeBron James’ Miami Heat struggled to maintain its supporting cast’s talent level. Even the Rockets balked at price of keeping key players from last year’s Western Conference Finals roster intact.
Boston will have decisions to make in the near future between its All-Star veterans and burgeoning young players. Kyrie Irving is criminally underpaid at only $21.3 million—less than Harrison Barnes and Danilo Gallinari—and seems like a certainty to opt out. Horford will be 33 at the end of next season, will have one final large payday in front of him, and possesses the one set of skills no one else on the Celtics’ roster can duplicate.
If the Celtics re-sign both to max contracts, they’ll be paying more than $96 million to just those two and Gordon Hayward while totaling over $140 million salary for the team.
In Philadelphia, the Sixers are closing in on a set roster—where infinite potential reaches its definite ceiling—and are currently managing it without a general manager.
It seems inevitable an elite player or two will shake free from their current teams as organizations work to avoid massive luxury tax penalties; or find their superstar disgruntled. And players like Irving, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kemba Walker all grew up in the shadows of New York city.
These Nets are the antithesis of the team that first moved to Brooklyn. They love their youth and won’t cut corners to back to winning; but they’re also set to return to it with just a master stroke or two.
With one or two fortunate bounces via the draft, trades, or free agency, the Nets could vault to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Sean Marks has done a remarkable job of finding value with almost no resources. With a fully restored war chest now at his disposal, there might not be a better franchise to buy low on.