Kenny Atkinson: the Nets Coach Of the Past, Present, and Future

It’s a new challenge.”

Those were the words of Kenny Atkinson, when used to describe the impending 2019-2020 season for the Brooklyn Nets.

Atkinson is right. The Nets, by acquiring Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, shifted rapidly from rebuilding mode into win now mode. With that comes a new challenge for Atkinson – proving that he is the coach best suited to guide the Nets to a NBA championship.

Atkinson, to date, has done an excellent job as Nets coach. He aced the Nets rebuilding phase.

There are a few things a team should desire from a coach during a rebuild.

First, instill a modern vision for how the team will play offense and defense when it is ready to contend, to lay a foundation for success. Second, achieve buy in and competitive spirit from your players, despite losing. Third, successfully develop young talent.

Atkinson was excellent during the Nets rebuild, and checked each box.

The modern vision? Atkinson successfully installed a modern system immediately, designed to generate as many layups and threes as possible, while surrendering as few of these shots as possible on defense. Even though the Nets went 48-116 over Atkinson’s first two seasons (understandable given the talent level), you saw a clear intent for how the Nets wanted to play, in the present and more importantly the future.

The Nets were top five across both seasons in percent of shots attempted from three, while their opponents were bottom nine in that category. Brook Lopez took 387 threes after taking 31 in his first 8 seasons. Their power forwards, players including Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker, and Quincy Acy, did not waste away in the midrange or posting up, but were put in the Draymond Green or Durant role – the floor spacer who can run a fast break and initiate offense. They used Jarrett Allen like a modern rim runner.

As a result, even though the Nets were losing, they ran a smart, modern offense, a la teams like the Warriors and Celtics – they simply lacked the talent to attain similar results. Exposure to playing that style will help the Nets holdover young players, like Caris LeVert, Allen, and Joe Harris, as they step into the future – and run a modern offense WITH the requisite talent to win.

Keeping morale and competitiveness up? Check. Despite the losing, the Nets played hard almost every night during their rebuild. It was a common refrain from opponents to hear that the Nets played the right way and competed hard, and that as a result they were a tough out.

Atkinson attained effort because players sense his dedication. He is known for executing drills with his players so that they know he invests sweat equity with them. He defends his players publicly. Players know he has their best interests at heart. At Media Day in 2019, Durant and multiple players referenced Atkinson as a reason they signed with the Nets.

Lastly, develop players? Check. It is well chronicled that D’Angelo Russell, LeVert, Allen, Harris, and Rodions Kurucs took strides under Atkinson, and that even veterans like Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll revived their careers under him.

Part of that development came from Atkinson’s modern system. Despite many public calls for not letting bad shooters take threes and the Like, Atkinson understood that empowering players to explore skills they struggle with bolsters development. You never know what a player can do if you do not try when they are young. Not every player grew under Atkinson, but he succeeded much more than he failed.

So What About the Future?

Atkinson’s work during the Nets rebuild earned him a contract extension, to see his efforts through. However, as the Nets shift into a win now phase, Atkinson, to succeed in that phase, will need to display that he has a different set of attributes.

The bet here? That Atkinson passes the coming tests with flying colors.

With that said, the tests are coming, and constitute new territory for Atkinson as a head coach. On a simplistic level, how well Atkinson fares will determine whether he is the Nets Doug Collins or Mark Jackson (the guy who gets you to a point, but is let go to find “the guy”), or the Nets Phil Jackson or Steve Kerr (“the guy”).

The tests that Atkinson must pass to be “the guy”?

First, that he can effectively manage the egos of superstars. Second, that despite his accurate beliefs concerning analytics, that he is willing to adapt and deviate from them as necessary. Third, that deep in the playoffs, he is able to make sound adjustments on the fly. And fourth, that despite a shift in priorities to veterans, that he can continue to develop young players.

Encouraging signals as to each test are abound, but only time will tell how Atkinson fares.

Managing superstar egos will be critical to the next phase of Atkinson’s tenure. Irving will dominate the ball until Durant’s return, but Durant’s return will cut into his touches. At times, one of Durant or Irving will get less credit for the Nets’ wins than is commensurate with their superstardom. At times, Atkinson will call plays at the end of the game. Durant and Irving, as is typical for superstars, will disagree. They will want to break those plays to call their own number, or simply will call their own number.

None of this is bad. Superstars are tough to manage, no matter who or where. It is incumbent on the coach to simultaneously enforce that the coach runs the show, while simultaneously getting along with the superstar and providing some freedom.

The best coaches can do this at playoff time. Ty Lue famously yelled at LeBron at halftime of game 7 of the 2016 Finals. The relationship was strong enough that Lue empowered LeBron to be his best, but still had control. – Eric Spoelstra had a similar relationship with LeBron, evolving, per Pat Riley, from LeBron once wanting him fired, to Spoelstra successfully helping LeBron, Wade, and Bosh thrive and work together despite sacrifices in their touches. Steve Kerr is another example. Despite Durant’s reported tension with Kerr, and Durant’s distance from teammates, Kerr managed tough personalities to perfection.

I believe Atkinson is up to the challenge. The Durant Irving friendship will help. But when the honeymoon period wears off, Atkinson will be tested.

The second test? Whether Atkinson, despite his correct love for analytics, will be adaptable when the eye test requires deviation. Yes, an offense (and defense) must be built around sound analytic principles as a foundation. But when the playoffs come, good defenses know that the offense wants layups and threes, and those defenses have days to gameplan to limit shots in those areas. That marginalizes the impact of analytics, and makes adaptability from a coach more valuable.

Stated differently? Sometimes the best offense for the Nets now, despite an emphasis on analytics, will be for Durant and Kyrie to execute moves, and counters, to either get theirs in the midrange or find a teammate – analytics be damned. It will be on Atkinson to assess when those times arise. This is where Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey have failed in Houston. The Rockets, despite defenses planning for their analytics based attack, persistently seek forced layups and threes in their devotion to the numbers. Talent gets them to May. But they never see June.

Atkinson’s work with Russell last year was an excellent sign that he is adaptable, in the way the Rockets are not. Despite Atkinson’s lack of love for midrange jumpers, he empowered Russell to shoot from that zone last season because, in a planned jump year, that was best for Russell.

Atkinson was not abandoning analytics as a foundation. Rather, he was displaying his understanding that sometimes, you must adapt to your roster, and the circumstances you face, to be successful.

This brings us to the third test – Atkinson must prove that he is capable of making sound adjustments on the fly, deep in the playoffs. During the rebuild, this was not expected – installing a foundation was more important, and he lacked the talent to make many adjustments anyway. Now, however, Atkinson must show that during a playoff series, he can be counted on to make critical adjustments to advance.

In 2015, for example, Kerr turned a then 2-1 Grizzlies series by shifting his defense to stop guarding Tony Allen, and use his cover as a free safety.

Atkinson must show that he can make such adjustments at money time. His work in the past, randomly instituting zones or box and one defenses, and empowering Russell in the midrange, are strong initial signs.

And finally, Atkinson must continue his work developing players. Sure, in win now mode, there is a shift away from player development and towards maximizing wins. However, development still matters to contenders. The Spurs extended their window because they never stopped developing talent around Duncan Parker and Ginobili. The Raptors do not win the 2019 championship if they do not help Pascal Siakam, picked 27 in 2016, develop into a force.

Atkinson will look to find his Siakam. It is why the roster is stacked with young players like Musa, Pinson, Ellenson, and Claxton. Not all of them will pan out – but you hope gems are found here and there.

Kenny Atkinson aced the Nets rebuild. He earned the right to prove that he can become one of the NBA’s elite playoff coaches.

And I believe he will do just that, although time will tell.

Time to grab the popcorn and watch it all unfold.

Nets Rebuild A Raging Success: What Did We Learn?

Kevin Durant! Kyrie Irving!   Sean Marks brought a top 15 player in NBA history, and one of the premier players of his generation, to the Brooklyn Nets.  The rebuild is officially complete.

So what did we learn?  The beauty of rebuilding projects is that, with each new one that succeeds, a retrospective can reveal things we did not know about team building.  A new wrinkle that teams explore.  A new strategy.  And, in some cases, ripple effects on the league.  The 2008-2010 Miami Heat rebuild, for example, was revolutionary: before that, we did not see teams attempt to lure superstars through a personal relationship developed with them by an in house player.  Now, this is commonplace.

So, when it comes to the Nets, what did we learn?  And, what ripple affects might their rebuild have on the rest of the league?

Let’s dive in.

LESSON 1: EARLY ON, ACQUIRE AS MANY YOUNG PLAYERS AS POSSIBLE.

At the beginning of the rebuild, Marks acquired as many young players as he could get his hands on, despite limited resources.  Obviously, some performed better than others: D’Angelo Russell, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and Rodions Kurucs played well.  Archie Goodwin, KJ McDaniels, Anthony Bennett, and Justin Hamilton were not as good.  The Nets were creative in adding these players, whether it was eating a bad contract to take on Russell, scouring the G League for Dinwiddie, or the like.

This strategy also entailed the swings Marks took on restricted free agents, in Allen Crabbe, Tyler Johnson, Donatas Motiejunas, and Otto Porter.  The idea was clear — we will do anything we can to add young talent.

Clearly, not every young piece panned out.  But no GM hits on every chance on a young player that he takes.  The idea was volume: if you invest in as many young players as you can, some will hit; stick with the hits and move on from the misses.  The result here?  The young core we saw in 2018-2019.

 

LESSON 2: CAP SPACE IS NOT JUST A WAY TO SIGN FREE AGENTS, AND A GM MUST UNDERSTAND HOW MUCH HIS CAP SPACE IS WORTH:

This was obviously a signature of the rebuild.  Russell was acquired by eating dead money, in the form of Timofey Mozgov.  Even Allen quietly was obtained with dead money — Bojan Bogdanovic was not fetching a first rounder himself, but the Nets got a first rounder for him (which became Allen), by eating Andrew Nicholson’s deal.  The salary dump to eat DeMarre Carroll’s (at the time) dead money yielded Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa.  And the Nets obtained a 2020 second round pick, and a 2019 first round pick (which pick was dealt for a 2020 first round pick, and 2019 second round pick, which became Jaylen Hands) by eating Kenneth Faried’s dead money.

The strategy was clear: we know (circa 2016, 2017, and 2018) that we are not a free agent destination due to our record and rebuilding stage.  So rather than sign C class free agents, why not use our salary cap space as a vehicle to add young players and draft picks, by taking on contracts other teams do not want.

Of course, the most effective use of cap space by Marks was in 2019.  But it should be noted that he used his cap space well in his previous three summers.

 

LESSON 3: BE PATIENT AND WAIT FOR THE RIGHT DEAL.

Throughout the rebuild, Marks patiently waited for the right opportunity to strike on deals.  By finding the most desperate teams, you secure the best prices.

The Mozgov trade with Charlotte, and the Carroll acquisition, were stark examples of this.  With Mozgov, Marks did not rush to move him.  Instead, he bid his time and found the perfect suitor: a team in the unique position of being able to add Mozgov, yet simultaneously avoid the luxury tax through the acquisition (since the Hornets, by dumping Dwight Howard, evaded the tax).  Because the deal benefitted the Hornets by getting them out of the tax, the Nets had leverage to pay a lower price in picks for offloading Mozgov than the market rate would normally be.  Carroll, similarly, was secured from a Raptors team desperate to save money off the luxury tax, and to offload Carroll.  That resulted in the Nets gaining more for Carroll in pick compensation than they may have in a similar money dump around the league.

 

LESSON 4: ESTABLISH A STYLE OF PLAY TO SPEED UP PROGRESS IN THE FUTURE:

Early in the Nets rebuild, Kenny Atkinson was not shy about installing a three pointer heavy offense, built around a lot of ball movement and pick and roll.  The Nets, in the first year of the rebuild and parts of the second, lacked the personnel to actually win that way.  To be candid, they probably win more games each year if Atkinson, instead, ran an offense geared to the strengths of those rosters.  Many fans voiced concern about that.

Atkinson did not do that, and the Nets are better off for it.  By installing his motion offense in year one, Atkinson laid the groundwork for the 42-40 season he oversaw in year three, and for next year’s team.  When it came playoff push time last year, the Nets holdover players like Russell, Dinwiddie, and LeVert did not need time to adjust to a new system.  Rather, because Atkinson installed the system in year one, they knew how to play in the system and were ready to go, rather than learning a new system.  If Atkinson installed a system in years one and two geared to those previous rosters, maybe the 20 and 28 win Nets would have been a tick better.  But the 42 win Nets — and the 2019-20 Nets — would be worse off for it.

 

LESSON 5: LET SUNK COSTS SINK.

When Marks did not spend money on veteran upgrades in the summer of 2016 or summer of 2017, he received a substantial amount of flack from various corners of the Nets fanbase.  The frustration came from the Boston trade.  The premise?  “We need to win.  The pick is going to Boston.  If we do not win, we will be giving a lottery pick to Boston. That is embarrassing.”

Marks was wise to treat the fanbase well, but at the same time, ignore that frustration and treat the Boston trade like it never existed.  The idea was an economic principle: Marks did not fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy.  The sunk cost fallacy occurs when in business, a person refuses to concede that a failed investment will not work, but keeps pouring money into the investment to try to revive it.  The usual result: the failed investment continues not to work, and the person only falls deeper in a hole.  The smarter approach is to accept that the sunk cost failed, let it sink, and move on.

As to the Nets?  Marks could have chased wins in 2016 and 2017, in an attempt to justify the 2013 Boston trade by winning games, and thus avoiding a high pick going to the Celtics.  He could have “microwaved” a 45 win team, as Zach Lowe has said on ESPN.  That would have meant signing a bunch of C class free agents the past few years.  If the Nets did that, they would not have the solid young talent they currently have, and would likely be heading into 2019-2020 with the 10 pick, and a bunch of vets.  Hello 35-45 wins and no hope.  Essentially, Marks would have hurt the future by trying to right the past.  Accepting that the Boston trade was a failure was infinitely smarter.

Which goes to another point.

 

LESSON 6: REBUILDS REQUIRE CONTROVERSIAL, UNPOPULAR DECISIONS, AND AT TIMES, EMBARRASSMENT.  BUT YOU MUST MAKE THOSE TOUGH DECISIONS. 

The worst thing any franchise can do is cave to public pressure for certain moves to be made.  At the end of the day, all fans really want, is to win.  Goodwill earned with popular, but bad, decisions, is fleeting. Goodwill earned with good decisions – even if those decisions are unpopular when made – is lasting.

It was not popular when Marks largely eschewed free agency in 2016 and 2017.  It is forgotten today, but it was not popular when Marks traded Thaddeus Young for a late first, then took LeVert, a player mocked in the second round.  Nor was it popular to deal Bogdanovic for a draft pick.  Or, for many, to deal Brook Lopez for Russell – that decision was polarizing, if not outright unpopular.  And lastly, Marks’ hoarding of assets at the 2019 deadline instead of getting a 4, was met with much scrutiny (that too, was the right decision – assets are at a premium, and all an Anthony Tolliver would have done last year was maybe get the Nets 1-2 regular season wins, followed by the same first round loss they experienced).

Something tells me that Marks has been forgiven.

 

LESSON 7: INSTILL A CULTURE, AND DO NOT FORGET ABOUT THE VETERANS

This is an area where yours truly must offer a big mea culpa.  During much of the Nets rebuild, I panned the Nets for much of their public emphasis of the importance of building a culture.  I dismissed it, at times as a cover for a lack of talent, and at times as a marketing technique to divert the Nets fanbase from the team’s record.

Boy, was I wrong on this one.  You learn something from every rebuild.  And this is an area where Marks taught me a lot.

The Nets, it cannot be disputed, have built a quality culture that players want to be a part of.  At the micro level, you can tell that players on the team, like Dinwiddie and Harris, want to return to work every day.  At a macro level, we know about the vast wealth of resources provided to players, be it medical professionals, performance training, the coaching staff, and the like.

However, culture goes further than that.

For starters, look at Durant and Irving.  They could have committed to other teams, but they chose the Nets.  This happened because both players believe the Nets can take them where they want to go: to a championship.  I do not have the audio, but Dwyane Wade was on the Woj pod within the last year or so.  He discussed that the Heatles chose Miami, because they felt other suitors were not strong enough to bring them what they wanted.  Sure, the Heatles chose one another – but they also chose the Heat culture.  KD and Kyrie chose one another, too – but they also chose the Nets culture.

The culture work of most importance?  That, despite this being a rebuild before June 2019, Marks and Kenny Atkinson never forgot about the veterans.

Luis Scola. Jared Dudley. Mozgov.  Carroll. Ed Davis.  Throughout his tenure, Marks has made it a point to acquire high character veterans with strong reputations, to provide his young players with teachers to show them how to be pros.  But Atkinson did not stop there.  Rather than write their vets off as the products of salary dumps or roster filler, Atkinson carefully thought about how he could maximize each on the court.  Carroll, Dudley, and Davis all helped the Nets make the 2019 playoffs; Scola and Mozgov had nothing left, but it was not for Kenny’s lack of trying.

This had a big impact on the Nets organization.  Often in a rebuild, veterans, and young players not deemed priorities, get disregarded, and leave with bad things to say.  The Nets, on the other hand, invested in everyone, from Russell and LeVert down to Greivis Vasquez and Bennett.

This is a small league.  Players talk.  Agents talk.  Through all of the turnover under Marks, only three departed players have had anything negative to say about their experience: Lin, Faried, and Mozgov. That matters.  And I suspect the reason so many players left happy, is because their development was never dismissed as unnecessary or unimportant.

 

LESSON 8: DO SMALL THINGS FOR PLAYERS THAT ARE OF LITTLE COST TO YOU

Last year, the Nets signed Tahjere McCall to a ten day contract despite having no real interest in him on the roster.  They did this to provide him with service time and money he would not otherwise have received.  This summer, the Nets accommodated a sign and trade with the Spurs concerning Carroll, to facilitate the Spurs and Marcus Morris agreeing to a contract.  These are not the only examples of the Nets doing small, altruistic things for players that do not really cost them much.

Do these little favors pay dividends?  Maybe, maybe not.  But they cannot hurt.  And that is why you do them.

 

LESSON 9: FIND YOUR MOMENT, AND SEIZE IT

I do not believe that in 2016, Marks planned a star free agent chase for 2019.  The pacts he gave to Porter, Johnson, Crabbe, and Motiejunas went into the 2020s.  If he were planning in 2016, or even the summer of 2017, for the summer of 2019, he would not have done that. He was thinking the build would be slower.

I think Marks’ decision to fast track to 2019, came at the end of the 2017-2018 season, when the Nets, carried by younger players, went near .500 over the final quarter of the season.  I think that run got Marks to believe that if his young players developed, and if that development was bolstered by replacing the lower fringe veterans around them with decent NBA players, that a playoff run, or “jump year,” as Kenny called it, was possible.  The Nets then worked to maximize talent in the roster, but with expiring contracts, so that they had cap room in 2019.

Culture plays in here, too.  It is easier to get the veteran buy in the Nets got when you have a reputation as a franchise that takes care of all of its players, including your vets, as I described above.

Without a doubt, Marks took a risk with his plan.  Marks eschewed a top five pick in the 2019 draft, and the chance to launch a rebuild with higher end young talent in the summer of 2019, to take a shot in free agency.  That risk was magnified by dealing a net of three draft picks (two firsts and a second), to unload Crabbe and Mozgov.  If Marks struck out, the Nets would have been in no mans land, with a 42 win roster, no high end pick, multiple picks out the door, and no high end import to take the next step.  They could have responded by tearing it down, but the rebuild would be delayed to 2020, not 2019.  Or they could have tried to build a contender around Russell, but that would have required him to take a leap from very good player to superstardom – I personally believe the chance of that level of leap from him, is less than 50%.

These are all concerns I pondered, privately and publicly.

Alas, Marks, indisputably, played his hand correctly.  He identified his moment to grab superstars, and he seized it.

The best GM’s earn their titles, by showing that their methods are not only prudent, but can result in the acquisition of elite talent, the building of the league’s top 5-10 teams.  Marks got the Nets there in three years.  He deserves every word of praise he gets.

 

RIPPLE EFFECTS — THE NBA LANDSCAPE: WILL WE SEE MORE OF AN APPETITE FOR GOING ALL IN, AND LESS OF AN APPETITE FOR LONG REBUILDS?

Nobody knows what affect this summer’s moves will have on the NBA, long term.  But we can certainly speculate.

After the Celtics trade, the NBA responded to the Nets’ plight by being very resistant to dealing first round picks.  Simply, teams wanted to avoid the same situation.  However, the Nets rebuild took just three years, and their playoff drought was only four years.  Projections of a decade long rebuild were way off the mark.

This could have ripple effects.

First, teams may be more willing than before to go all in, like the Nets did.  Surely, the decline of the Warriors is the biggest contributor to teams like the Clippers and Rockets going all in this summer (the Lakers are just the Lakers).  But seeing a team go all in and fail spectacularly, yet quickly pick the pieces up, surely offers a secondary reason: “even if this goes belly up, we can just dig out like Brooklyn did.”

A second ripple effect?  Owners seeing a rebuild expected to last this long, be this quick, may be more reluctant to greenlight 5-8 year rebuilding projects.  Again, the Nets would be a secondary reason.  The first reason would be that stars have been moving from roster to roster, every 2-4 years.  If the purpose of a rebuild is to get stars, can owners be sold on 5-8 year rebuilding projects, for a 2-4 year window?  Alas, the Nets offer another reason to speed the timeline: “They dealt every pick for five years and rebuilt in three, why should my rebuild take 7 years?”

 

Maybe the Nets rebuild will be discussed ten years from now.  Maybe it won’t.

But hey.  Either way, we got Kyrie and KD. Enjoy it!

 

 

Pain In The Progress, By Tyler Minks (@minkstyler)

Pain in the ProgressThe date is Dec 18, 2018 in Brooklyn, NY at Barclays Center with 26 seconds remaining in the game and the current score: Lakers 107, Nets 110. D’Angelo Russell, with his usual smooth swagger as he dribbles the ball between his legs glancing up at the shot clock. These moments right here are what D’Angelo Russell plays for. Russell knows what is about to happen, along with the nine other players on the court. As a few more seconds tick off the clock, Russell pulls up for a smooth 3 point shot without any hesitation…..BANG! D’ANGELO RUSSELL WITH THE DAGGER!

It was at this moment, I had an overwhelming feeling that D’Angelo Russell was finally becoming what we had all hoped for. That Russell had overcame the external doubt if he could reach his potential, or the negative press associated with him. Russell was showing he is winner, a team player, and on his way to becoming a star. Since the trade that brought Russell to the Brooklyn Nets, I have always hoped Russell would become the star player that the Nets have lacked since Jason Kidd was the point guard for the franchise. I can’t pinpoint why this play against the Lakers felt particularly special, maybe due to it being against the exact team who sent him to Brooklyn, maybe because Lebron James was on the other side, or the iconic “ICE IN MY VEINS” celebration that followed. I can’t necessarily put my finger on it. But it was in this moment that I felt that D’Angelo might be “turning the corner”.

 

As a Nets fan, you build accustom to getting your hopes up and building excitement, only to have it all come crashing down in your face. Have you by chance heard of the trade with Celtics? If not, go look it up… Dark times my friends, dark times. I say this, because even after having such confidence in Russell after this game, I could not help but remain skeptical with concerns of this game just being an outlier and could not be held consistently. I needed MORE to believe in. Need more to believe in? Checkmate, welcome to January 2019:

 

January 14th: 34 points (7 – 3pt FGM) | 7 assist | 5 rebounds

January 18th: 40 points (8 – 3pt FGM) | 7assist

 

D’Angelo started the first month of 2019 averaging 24 points and 7 assists on 45.5% shooting and 39.3% from 3 point territory. Now, NOWWW I was believing. I was now full out drinking the D’Angelo Russell Kool-Aid. I was all in for everything D’Angelo Russell. All Star game? He better be there. Most Improved Award? Deserving to be in the conversation. I started going into every game just waiting to see what quarter it would be that Russell would get hot from three and just set the court on fire for that quarter. More often, he were not disappointed in this regard. The cherry on top of it all was the 28 point comeback against the Sacramento Kings. There was no game winner from Russell (thank you Rondae), but we did get to witness a 44 point performance with Russell leading the way. That game alone was special and shown the toughness of the Brooklyn Nets as a whole.

 

So now that we are all reminiscing on the season the Brooklyn Nets had, and specifically D’Angelo Russell, I do this to remind all of us Nets fans of how special of a season we just got to witness this franchise have. This past season was everything a fan would hope for when their team is trying to climb their way out of being a franchise laughing stock. Every quarter that Russell had an explosive quarter. Dinwiddie lit it up off the bench, Joe Harris became one of the best 3 point shooters in the league, Jarrett Allen continued to grow. And finally, Caris Levert rounded back out to full form towards the end of the season.  The league was put on notice.

 

And now….here we are. Free Agency is right within reach. The rumors are flying mad with names such as Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, and even tricklings of Kristaps Porzingis possibly taking meetings with the Nets organization. No one really knows what is going to happen this summer. Even Coach Kenny Atkinson himself has admitted there will be a very different roster next season. And at the height of it all, is a large possibility the Nets enter next season without the player who was a focal point of such a turnaround season: D’Angelo Russell.

 

In the world of Twitter, the Brooklyn Nets fanbase is in mass disarray at the though of the Nets letting Russell go this summer. How could we let go the player who lead this team’s turnaround and embodied everything Brooklyn has been building? With rumors that Brooklyn is being heavily favored for Kyrie Irving, fans find it hard to wrap their heads around the idea of letting 23 year old Russell go, for 27 year old Irving who has been slammed in Boston for his leadership skills (or lack thereof) with their young team. Fans fear we have Sean Marks making a Billy King-esque move with trying to bring in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant coming off a torn Achilles. I will agree, there is reason to doubt. There is reason to fear these moves. Like I said before, remember the Boston trade? Any big step towards possible contention for Nets fans comes with a side order of anxiety.

 

But remind me, did the Raptors just win a title running back the same squad that had them ranked high in the east year after year? It came out of a tough and highly criticized move in trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. The same Kawhi Leonard who sat out for a season and was criticized for his role as a teammate on the Spurs towards the end of his tenure. Not looking so bad now. And no, that is not to say that is now the new blue print to a championship in this league. But, what we have been shown over and over in this league, that there is so many ways to build a contender in this league. It takes tough decisions. It was a fun and amazing season for the Nets this past year essentially playing with house money when no one expected much from them. Exceeding expectations is fun.

 

But now there are expectations. The Nets are now a playoff team. Big name players are supposed to be considering the Nets as their next team to represent. The Nets are now expected to land a superstar or two. We are in a whole different world than we were 3 seasons ago. A team competing for a championship comes with a whole different level of expectations that the Nets are attempting to steep themselves into.

And with that, comes tough decisions.

And as much as we all loved the season this team just had and all loved to watch Russell and the team as a whole blossom in front of our eyes, when you have championship caliber players knocking on your door, you answer. I think we can all agree that if we lose D’Angelo Russell this summer that it will be a tough blow to the fan base.

But for a franchise trying to enter the championship conversation, you must take the opportunity when it is available. With a summer full of big name free agents considering calling Brooklyn their home, it is safe to say the opportunity is no doubt available now. We have spent quite a few seasons believing and trusting the moves Sean Marks has made (In Marks We Trust, shout out @Flatbushandatlantic), so let’s continue to trust this franchise until proven otherwise. We have heard the world culture used over and over. Why not test it? See if Irving can become a product of his environment, the environment that Marks has preached on building for years now. We can have doubts and be critical. But let’s not go burn down the city and lose our minds…yet.

If this all backfires in a year or two, I will grab the pitch forks with you. But for the time being, let’s take in the moment that in such a short time this team has went from franchise laughing stock to now in the conversation with Kyrie Irving and possibly Kevin freakin Durant. It was a fun breakout year for this young team, but it’s time we all saddle up and prepare for the attempt of making the next step: Championship Contender. We didn’t mortgage our entire future to get here, so I would say we are in a much more comfortable position this time around.

 

It would hurt to see D’Angelo Russell leave Brooklyn this summer. But, with pain comes growth. See you all on the other side of Free Agency.

 

 

  • Tyler Minks

@MinksTyler

Crabbe Traded: A Huge Risk, A Potential Huge Reward, and a Pivotal Organizational Moment

It is a common refrain that teams do not make deals during the NBA Finals.  A refrain myself, and many others, have expressed.

Not the Nets and Hawks!

The terms of “the trade” have been reported by Adrian Wojnarowski, and supplemented by Zach Lowe.  They are as follows:

-Hawks get: Allen Crabbe, Nets 2019 first rounder at 17, and Nets 2020 first rounder, lottery protected.  If the pick falls in the lottery, the protection rolls into 2021, and then into 2022. If it rolls as far as 2023, then the pick becomes two second rounders

-Nets get: Taurean Prince, Hawks 2021 second round pick

 

Purely in a vacuum (meaning, just the parts of the deal), the Nets, of course, do not “win” the trade. Two first round picks – one in the middle of the first round, and another likely to fall in the 17-25 range, are worth more than Taurean Prince to a team not contending for a championship (which is where the Nets are, as of today).

Alas, to state the obvious, the Nets did not make this deal in a vacuum.  They made it to pursue the top free agents on the market. Before this trade, the Nets, if they renounced every free agent except D’Angelo Russell, had $30.3 million in cap space.  The number now? $47.3 million, with Crabbe’s salary, and the cap hold for the 17th pick, being replaced by Prince’s salary, and one additional incomplete roster charge added to the mix (2 pieces in, 1 piece out).

At $47.3 million in space, the Nets have sufficient cap room to sign Kevin Durant ($38,150,000 is his max), or any other max free agent (the max for the others is $32,700,000).  If the Nets were to renounce Russell, they would have $68.3 million in room, — in excess of the $65.4 million needed to sign two max players not including Durant, although just shy of the $70.85 million necessary to sign Durant and a second max player.  Nevertheless, with a gap that tiny, the Durant/”second max” scenario could easily be achieved by dumping a smaller piece.

The million dollar question? Will this trade work out for the Nets? That depends on one thing: do they connect on their max targets, or not.

As I wrote on Netsdaily.com, I was opposed to trading Crabbe before July 1.  My concern?  That he would be traded at a loss, that the trade would only become a win (albeit a massive one) if the Nets connected in free agency in July, and that, with a deal being done in June, whether the Nets would indeed connect in July would be uncertain at the time of the deal.

I still hold this concern because, as I stated, this trade is a negative in a vacuum, and only converted into a positive through a major free agency or trade haul for a star.

Sean Marks, certainly, has taken a big risk here.  If the Nets do not connect in free agency, they will, combining the Timofey Mozgov deal with this one (that was a similar money dump for 2019 space) have traded two first round picks, and two second round picks, for nothing except Prince, and the ability to sign additional role players in 2019.  With a weak 2020 free agency class, the Nets will have effectively boxed themselves into the middle of the standings, barring a superstar leap from Russell or Caris LeVert, or a superstar acquisition with a non lottery pick.

That would be a deserved black eye on Marks’ resume.  And that Marks chose to acquire Crabbe would magnify said black eye (Andrew Nicholson, if stretched this year, would make close to what Prince will in 2019-2020 — Marks’ Crabbe acquisition is what necessitated this deal with Atlanta in the interests of max cap space.  Mozgov was acquired as the price to get Russell, so Marks cannot be criticized for acquiring him).

As a result, if the Nets strike out on all the big summer catches, then the Nets will have had a bad summer.  A bad summer that would genuinely call into question whether the Nets should have pursued a rebuild through the middle, or whether loading up on high end draft assets these three years and tanking in 2019, with their pick, was wiser.  There is no way around that.

With that said, there is more to the deal — if the Nets connect, rather than strike out, then they will have had a PHENOMENAL summer.  A summer that could transform the franchise into a powerhouse.  A summer that could make this Nets rebuild an example for teams to follow, for years to come.

To start that analysis, it should be noted that Marks has taken steps, at the outset, to mitigate the damage if the Nets strike out.  For starters, Marks paid a lower price to get rid of Crabbe than I suspected.  My sense of the situation was that a young asset or two would be relinquished, with nothing in return except cap space.  The Nets, in lottery protecting the 2020 pick being conveyed, ensured that they would not lose a lottery pick, or established young player, in dealing Crabbe.  I worried that they could lose just that.  While Mozgov was dealt for less, the Nets’ eating Dwight Howard got Charlotte under the tax, which caused a decrease in asset price and made the asset price, in a sense, incomparable.  No such deal was available this go round.

In addition, and as another positive, the Nets gain Prince — as opposed to dealing for a piece like JR Smith only to cut him moments later.  Prince can play.  He has been somewhat up and down in his career, but has shown some flashes of being a strong wing.  He has shot over 38.5% from 3 over the past two seasons.  He has shown he can play good defense, in spurts.  He is rangy.  He got better as the season progressed, fitting in as a valuable piece around Trae Young.  To date, Prince has not shown he can be a consistently reliable playoff rotation player.  But he has all the tools to be that player – the type of rangy, athletic wing who can shoot the 3 and guard multiple positions on the other end.  Teams need as many of those players as they can grab in the modern NBA. If he puts it together, he can be a very valuable role player for the Nets.  Kenny Atkinson has specialized at taking talents like Prince, and molding them into what he needs.  There is genuine hope that Prince can become a critical cog for the Nets — long term.

Prince, it also must be noted, affects this trade in another positive way.  Yes, if the Nets strike out, it would be preferable to have the first round picks, than to have Prince.  In that instance, as many shots at high end talent as possible beats a non star rotation player.  But if they connect, and are a contender in 2019-2020, having Prince — and all he can provide as a strong defender and 3 point shooter at the wing in the playoffs — beats having the first round picks.

Another mitigating factor here?  The Nets, while depleting their assets a touch, may still trade their 2019 27 pick, the protected portion of their 2020 pick (15-30), and all their future picks, because the Stepien Rule only applies looking ahead.  Their ability to be in play for Anthony Davis and other trade targets (if desired) is only slightly altered by this deal.

The final, and largest, mitigating factor here — that part of becoming a great GM is taking risks, and those risks paying off.  This trade could be a precursor to Sean Marks building a powerhouse in Brooklyn.  Pat Riley took a risk in 2010 throwing assets in Biscayne Bay for a shot at the Heatles.  Danny Ainge took a risk dealing for Ray Allen in the hopes it would get Kevin Garnett to say yes.  Masai Ujiri took a chance on Kawhi Leonard, Sam Presti on Paul George.

If this risk works — if Marks is able to use his newfound cap space to lure a superstar to Brooklyn; or to lure two?  Then Marks immediately puts himself in the conversation for executive of the year.  He steps up from a GM who has shown good qualities and can martial a rebuild, into the rarified air of the best GM’s in the sport.  The GM’s who have constructed title contenders – the Daryl Morey’s, the Ujiri’s, the Presti’s.  It takes this rebuild and makes it not just a fun, feel good story, but a model for how teams should rebuild in the future.

Marks constructing a title contender from ash in four years?  That would make the Nets one of the NBA’s preeminent organizations.

As for the “concern” that the Nets could be looking at a payroll with two max players, LeVert and Prince on extensions, and some combination of Russell, Dinwiddie, Harris, and trade targets on big money deals in 2020? If you want to win big, you have to spend big.  And Mikhail Prokhorov and Joe Tsai have quiet the checkbook.

A rebuild, a GM, an organization, ultimately gets judged on its most significant transactions.  How well you do in your largest moves, the moves that chart your course for years to come, defines whether you are successful or not, and to what degree.  That matters way more than counting individual good and bad moves in a vacuum.

Marks, in mortgaging multiple future assets to open a massive amount of 2019 cap space, has just made, arguably, the biggest move of his Nets tenure.  It could result in the Nets having 2 superstars, and the league’s best role players foaming at the mouth to play for them.  It also, if they strike out, could result in the Nets being stuck in the middle, faced with hoping that a non lottery pick, D’Angelo Russell, or Caris LeVert evolves into a tentpole superstar around which a title contender can be constructed.

How the next 35 days go will define this Nets rebuild, and Marks tenure in Brooklyn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Successful Nets Summer?

No matter what happens during the duration of the Nets’ playoff run, one thing is certain: they will enter the summer with more momentum than any of us imagined. Even four straight losses to the Sixers will result in a playoff appearance and road playoff win – better than the most rosy of projections.

When that offseason comes, what can the Nets do, exactly?  And what would make for a successful summer?

The short answer: they can do a lot, and they probably need to do a lot for the summer to be successful.

It should be noted that there is one popular misconception floated in conversations, and even in articles about the Nets: the premise that the Nets have two max contract slots. In reality, the Nets do not have even one max slot unless they let D’Angelo Russell walk. With Russell, they top out at $30,315,297 in space, assuming Allen Crabbe opts in.  The max is $32,700,000 for a 7-9 year player, or $38,150,000 for a 10 year player.  To open max room, the Nets must unload salary in a trade.

The origin of the misconception: there is a popular belief that if you subtract the salary cap, from the salaries on the roster (plus dead $), that you wind up with the cap space a team has. This belief is not accurate.  Rather, you cannot calculate a team’s cap room without accounting for two critical item: cap holds and incomplete roster charges – and when you do that with the Nets, the numbers are vastly different.

What is a cap hold?  A cap hold is a placeholder on a team’s cap, for each of its free agents, set as a percentage of the player’s prior salary.  There are also cap holds on the salary books for first round picks before they sign, set by the rookie scale.  For example, suppose a team has $10 million in cap space, but one free agent with a $4 million cap hold. In reality, that team has $6 million in space; 10-4.  As for your incomplete roster charges, the players under contract, and the holds on the books, take up a certain number of roster spots.  The incomplete roster charge is a cap charge for each roster spot short of 12 ($897,158 per spot this year).  So, if you have six players signed, and four cap holds on the books, your cap has two incomplete roster charges; 12-2.  

Finally, whether a cap hold remains on the books or not is up to the team.  A cap holds remains on your books, and thus the hold subtracts from your cap space, unless one of three events occur:

1: the player stays and signs a contract: the new contract replaces the hold once the writing is signed (this happens when the writing is signed, but NOT when the verbal is done. So if the cap hold < new contract, it makes sense to have the player sign after your other polayers sign so that you can operate around the smaller hold and have more space to work with – this is what the Nets did with Joe Harris last year).

-2: the player signs elsewhere, or the team renounces the player (more on renouncing later): the hold is now removed from the books

Applying this to the Nets, they have six players under contract (Dinwiddie, LeVert, Harris, Allen, Kurucs, and Musa), and two first round picks (at 17 and 27) — that makes for 8 players on the books.  This means that as a technical matter, if the Nets elected to renounce all of their free agents, and if Crabbe opted out, they would have four incomplete roster charges on their books (12-8=4), at $897,158 per charge. With these twelve pieces on their books (the six players, the two picks, and the four charges), and a $109,000,000 salary cap (projected), the Nets would $68,116,076 in cap space, if they renounce all of their free agents.

This technical matter is causing the language, “two max slots” to get thrown around as it has. But this technical matter is not practical and is incredibly unlikely.

First, Crabbe opting in is highly likely – that alone takes the Nets out of “two max” territory.  Second, there is Russell.  If the Nets renounce him — like the Lakers renounced Julius Randle in 2018 — he becomes an unrestricted free agent and leaves while you pursue other items, as the Nets lose the right to match any offer a suitor makes to him. This is highly unlikely, and thus Russell’s hold MUST be accounted for – how can the Nets possibly renounce him?

The Nets’ cap space when accounting for Crabbe’s figure, the Russell cap hold, and thus two less incomplete roster charges? $30,315,297, or about $2 million outside of 7-9 year experience max contract territory. 

Essentially, the Nets do not have max room if they renounce Russell and Crabbe opts in, and both are likely.  And they only have room for two maxes if they renounce Russell and Crabbe opts out, while both are remote.

So Where do the Nets Go from Here?

With this baseline, the Nets enter the summer with approximately $30.3 million in room, and the 17, 27, and 31 picks in the draft. Which begs the question? What makes for a substantial offseason?  Sean Marks has set the Nets up well such that the foundation from which to build a contender exists. But Marks has not built a contender, not yet – and that is what the best GM’s ultimately do. Build one. That is the next step for Marks. With 42 wins, 3 picks from 17-31 in the draft, near max cap room, and potentially more if they unload bad money, the opportunity is there.

An offseason building a bonafide contender, getting a superstar, would be a smashing success. An offseason leveraging all this flexibility substantially to get a second tier free agent (think a Tobias Harris level player), and push the Nets to the upper 40’s area in wins with significant financial flexibility to add down the road?  That would be a good summer and a success, if not a “smashing” one.  Simply moving the chains, running it back, and being a fringe playoff team again?  That would leave something to be desired.

So how do the Nets leverage their flexibility?  After getting to the $30.3 million figure, the Nets will likely renounce Dudley and Carroll, as their cap holds are $14.295 million and $23,100 respectively.  If you renounce a player, this does not mean that you cannot keep the player.  It merely means that you must use cap room (or a cap exception) to keep the player.  Stated simply, the Nets may want to keep Dudley and Carroll, but not at their cap holds.  As a result, renouncing them, to have cap space instead of their cap holds, is the easy play.

Here is where decision time gets harder.  The Nets would be sitting at $30,315,297 in cap room, with the following holds to decide on: Davis ($5,388,800); Graham ($1,645,357 nonguaranteed July 10 trigger); Napier ($1,845,301 nonguaranteed July 10 trigger); Hollis-Jefferson ($7,411,071); Pinson ($1,443,842.06); Williams ($1,443,842.06).

Davis is interesting because he is worth a contract at his hold figure.  The Nets could basically give him a 2 year, $11 million offer with a player option at that rate.  If he wants more, the Nets would have to dip into cap space because they lack his bird rights.

RHJ at that large of a hold, with such a small role, feels like a candidate to be renounced. Pinson may stay with the Nets, around his hold figure.  Williams may be renounced as if he stays as a two way, his hold disappears (cap space is not needed to sign a two way), whereas it does not appear the Nets would give him a roster spot. With Graham and Napier, the Nets have the luxury of July 10 trigger dates on their guarantees.  If they want both back, or are unsure, they can keep the nonguarantee figures on the 2019-2020 cap (which would come at only minimal cost, as two incomplete roster charges would come off), see how free agency shakes out, and then decide on them.  If they know one or both will not be back, they can cut them up front.

The Nets could decide that they need more space than the $30.3 million they presently have.  If so, they would need to unload a piece to get there.  The obvious one is Crabbe, despite the draft pick cost.  If the Nets are able to convince a max player to sign with them, they likely have to unload Crabbe.  While there are other ways the Nets can open space, those other methods would only open slivers of space, or make little sense.  LeVert is too good to deal for space, and does not even make much.  Would the Nets really deal Dinwiddie or Harris for space?  Both could recoup so much more.  And there is dealing their picks, or cheaper pieces like Allen, Kurucs, or Musa, but the Nets want to develop their youth, not dump it, and the gains cap room wise are tiny.  The last method might not even be a method – if you sign Russell at a year 1 figure below his hold, then you open cap room, as the new deal would replace the hold.  However, Russell signing below his hold might not be possible anymore, and even if it is, the gains cap room wise again would be minimal.

Crabbe. That is the guy to unload, if you need more cap room. 

Crabbe’s mere presence on the Nets roster is not a problem.  The Nets have 15 roster spot, and if one is wasted on them, they can still win games – they did it this year, after all.  But his contract also could impede their efforts to get a player this summer – and would preclude the signing of a max free agent. The Nets must make a judgment call because there is an opportunity cost here.

On one handl, dealing Crabbe will have an asset cost.  You will likely lose a first rounder and second rounder, at the very least.  The benefit?  Relinquishing Crabbe provides the flexibility to add better players in free agency, or possibly by trade as, with more room under the cap, you have the ability to absorb better pieces.

The Nets can deal Crabbe, but the deal is only good if it results in acquiring players WORTH the cost of the outgoing picks.  The deal probably needs to permit them to add a high level starter they want in their core for the long term, in order for it to make sense.

The 2019 summer is an exciting one.  The Nets have not often had significant flexibility to upgrade their roster.  When they have, being a bad team has typically precluded them from doing anything meaningful.

This time, they have both – the flexibility, and the competitive roster.

As Bart Scott once said, “CAN’T WAIT.”