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

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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.”

The Playoffs: What Would They Mean?

Sitting at 40-40, the Nets are presented with a very simple playoff scenario. Win one of their last two games, and they make the playoffs.  They can make the playoffs as well if they lose both games, although that would require all sorts of help, from a variety of other teams.

Clearly, the Nets are THIS close to a playoff berth.

It begs the question. What does it all mean?

It means a lot.

In life, it is good to have short term goals and long term goals.  You need long term goals because, at the end of a particular cycle, you need something to aspire to (whether the cycle is your life, the next five years, or otherwise).  And it is true that the Nets, playoffs or not, have not yet accomplished Sean Marks’ long term goal.  Marks long term goal? Building a sustainable championship contender in Brooklyn.  The type of team that makes the playoffs without doubt and, when folks bring up title contenders, is typically mentioned by all or by many.  Certainly, the Nets are not quite there yet.  They would agree with that.  And I suspect you, the reader, would too. It is, for this reason, that I would not declare the Nets rebuild, as a whole, a success – the picture has not yet been painted.

However, in life, you also need short term goals.  If all you have are long term goals, reaching them can become overwhelming.  You may, for example, want sufficient bank account funds to retire at 65.  That is an overwhelming goal at say, 25, if you do not have short term goals along the way to keep you on task.  Maybe your short term goal is smaller – you just want enough money to eat a dinner out this month.

Making the playoffs? That would be an excellent short term goal for these Nets.

It should be noted that, playoffs or not, the Nets have substantially improved this season – and have done so without mortgaging future flexibility.  In fact, with adding draft selections, a slew of one year signings, and unloading Mozgov, the Nets actually improved by 12-14 wins this year (two games left), while accruing MORE future flexibility than they had entering the offseason. Forget mortgaging the future – the Nets firmed up their future this past summer, yet improved on the court. That makes for a tremendously successful season — this short term snapshot of the rebuild, IS a success.

Nevertheless, making the playoffs — while not required to cement what I just said, would be important for many reasons.

For starters, one’s perception of their standing is in some ways more important than their standing. D’Angelo Russell had a great year. Caris LeVert had a very good one, when healthy. You can go on down the line. The Nets should all should hold their heads high, feel good about where they are headed, and use that as motivation for doing more.  But doing that will certainly be easier for them if they make the playoffs.  They will all feel much better about where they are as a core — even if they should feel that way regardless.  Making the playoffs provides validation — partially internal, and partially external.

The benefits to the roster go further than that.  There is no experience quite like playoff basketball.  My own experience, as an athlete but not a professional, is certainly not identical, but I draw from it.  I recall, as a junior tennis player, playing well in local tournaments, and then making national tournaments against better competition. I was ranked between 100-200 in the country, playing other players in that range.  I felt good about where I was. I felt confident.

But what happened in nationals? I played players ranked top 50 in the country. Top 20. Top 10. The competition ratcheted up – from pretty good, to the best of the best.

It was a great experience for me.  That I earned making these events motivated me to do more.  What also motivated me?  The humbling experience of getting beat by these much better players.  Losing to players like that, seeing the difference in level, was in some ways a wake up call; I saw that, THAT is what it’s like, against the best of the best.  That motivated me when I got back home to work harder – work smarter – to get better.

That’s an experience I want for Russell. For LeVert. For Dinwiddie and Allen, and the rest. I want D’Angelo to see what it’s like when a playoff defense schemes for him over the course of two weeks. I want LeVert to see what happens when teams go under every screen and bait him to shoot threes. That certainly motivated LeBron to improve his jumper after the 2007 finals. I want that experience, for this group. I want them, after a series against Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Boston, to see what the gap between pretty good and great is — and to be motivated by that.

Another benefit?  If the Nets build a perennial contender, they already have some playoff experience and are not starting from scratch in that regard (like say, Denver is this year).

The playoffs also mean Kenny being tested as a coach in a good way.  Coaching in the regular season, with games against different opponents coming a mile a minute, is mostly about sticking to your principles (we force midrange jumpers, we ice the pick and roll, etc).  Coaching in the playoffs is a different beast – you tailor schemes to your opponent and adjust to the opponent as a series goes on, much more than you do in the regular season. When opponents solve D’Angelo, go under on LeVert, and etc, how does Kenny adjust? When his first adjustment is countered, what’s the next adjustment? Atkinson has shown that, for purposes of a rebuild, he is a quality coach.  But to be a great coach, you have to win at the highest levels (50+ win seasons, playoff series wins, etc).  How does Kenny handle the higher stakes moments?  If we make the playoffs, we get to start learning about that (we likely do not get answers this year, not with the talent gap the Nets would face in the playoffs).

The playoffs also xould mean a lot in free agency and the summer. Sure, the Nets would only win 1-2 more games as a playoff team, than a lottery team. In theory, that should not mean much to free agents; and maybe it will not. But players are not following the Nets as closely as we all are. Seeing them on a playoff stage against the best of the best being feisty, perhaps losing but making it a pain for their opponent, could move the needle with big time free agents.  It certainly moved the needle for Al Horford when he saw how hard the 2016 Celtics fought in a first round loss. It definitely moved the needle for David West when he saw how scrappy the 2011 Pacers were in another first round loss.

And last, but certainly not least, the playoffs mean a lot to the Nets fanbase – the fans deserve a playoff run.  For nearly a decade now, the Nets have been snakebitten, in more ways than one.  Bottoming out in 2010 did not culminate in winning the lottery. Deron Williams fell off in a way no reasonable person could have foreseen.  The Nets top three protected a lottery selection to acquire Gerald Wallace.  Right on the cusp of retaining the pick, the ping pong balls fell the wrong way.  The Boston trade? All risks accounted for, the risks manifested in a more severe manner than any objective person anticipated.  The 2016-2017 goal of Jeremy Lin stabilizing the Nets?  His hamstring did not comply.  The 2017-2018 goal of a Lin-Russell tandem? Russell played 48 games and had knee surgery. Lin played three QUARTERS. Even this season, after a fun Caris LeVert start, nearly appeared completely ruined because of a horrific looking leg injury in the fourteenth game of the season.

I probably missed some examples of how snakebitten the Nets have been.  But through it all, a loyal set of fans – completely blameless in the series of unfortunate events – has stuck with the team.  Enduring year after year in the hopes of better days.

The fans deserve a playoff berth.  All of them. All of us.

Yes, the playoffs as a low seed is not the ultimate goal for Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson.

But it is an excellent short term goal and would help this rebuild moving forward, on many levels.

 

Rapid reaction: trade deadline

The trade deadline has come and gone, with the Nets doing very little. They traded $110,000 in cash to Toronto for their 2021 second rounder, and Greg Monroe, whom they immediately waived. In addition, since they needed to open a roster spot to add Monroe before making the deal, they waived Mitch Creek to do just that, leaving them with one roster spot as of now.

As for the trade itself, the reasoning was simple. The Nets only had $243,000 in cash to trade until June 30, and instead of sitting on it, bought a pick. The money does not count against the cap, so instead of Prokhorov saving money for himself, it gets invested in the team. Can’t complain about that. Monroe does not fit what the Nets are doing and waiving him made sense. The nets prefer playing rim running 5’s who defend well, next to stretch 4’s. Monroe does neither. For Toronto, rather than cutting Monroe for buyout candidates and paying his salary, they save money by shifting that burden to Brooklyn – with the price being the pick.

The pick, it must be noted, could have real value if Leonard leaves this summer, as that could spiral Toronto into a rebuild. Rodions Kurucs was picked 40 – every asset matters.

With that said, it is fair to say the Nets did very little at the deadline – their roster is the same minus Mitch Creek, and if the resign him, which they could, their roster will be identical.

Without a doubt, the Nets could have upgraded their 4 position, or upgraded in general, if so inclined. The Pelicans did not get a first for Mirotic. The Bulls got Otto Porter for Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker. A young big in Skal Labissiere was dealt cheaply. James Ennis was moved for virtually nothing. Even the price for Marc Gasol was not exacting.

When you consider the low market price for these pieces, the Nets, if they wanted to, could have been involved. They were not.

Should they have been? You can argue this both ways, and that is the million dollar question that will be answered this summer. I do tend to agree with the Nets approach. But you can make the strong argument that they should have made an upgrade, and you might wind up right after the summer.

On one hand, upgrade the roster, and the Nets in theory increase their chances at making the playoffs (that is no guarantee given the brutal upcoming schedule), and not getting destroyed once there (the east’s top 4, on paper, are brutal). In theory, that, in turn, makes the Nets a better sell to big targets this summer. And while you could retort, “wait for the buyout market,” typically, bought out veterans target ring chasing. The Nets do not offer that. They have to hope a bought out veteran looking to win is ok joining a team fighting for a low playoff seed, which is not common.

On the other hand, there is nothing the Nets could have done at the deadline that was going to get them past the top 4 in the east. The Nets, if they make the playoffs, will be a massive round 1 underdog – small upgrade or not. And through 57 games, the Nets have the league’s 18th best net rating – 12th during the 20-6 streak. The data reflects that the Nets are something like a 28-29 or 29-28 team – not far off their 30-27 record.

Nothing the Nets could have added would make them a contender. And at all levels, the cost must be considered.

The Nets could have added small fry type pieces, like say, Anthony Tolliver for a second round pick. Pieces like that are simply not moving the needle. And then there is the asset cost. You lose a second round pick. Using that pick in the draft could breed a higher upside piece, like Kurucs. Keeping that pick keeps in asset in the coffers for a BIG trade in the future – a 2024 second rounder just helped Toronto deal for Marc Gasol. Wouldn’t you rather use many trade chips on a big addition, then burn a few heat and there on small fry types?

The Nets level of player the Nets could have added? Mirotic. Given the optics of first round picks, the way to get him was probably putting their Denver first on the table. But the same principle as to asset wasting applies. If Mirotic leaves in the summer, you just wasted a first rounder on a first round losing noncontender. If he stays, the big salary figure to keep him cuts into their flexibility to add the thing they actually need – a tentpole Star.

Perhaps the Nets could have looked at Gasol or Porter. But at their salary figures, you are killing your flexibility going forward – again for pieces whom I do not believe make the Nets a contender right now. The Gasol deal works for a contender like Toronto – go all in to maximize said contender. The Nets aren’t there yet (nor is Chicago – I dislike the Porter deal for them).

Marks could have even done something like what Sacramento did for Barnes. Using flexibility and assets to get a player who definitely would make the Nets better, and is on their timeline. He chose not to do that.

Still, I like all of this because it harkens back to a comment Zach Lowe made that was critical of the Wizards short term building strategy — http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/25187751/zach-lowe-john-wall-bradley-beal-washington-wizards-nba — he said that sometimes, if you keep making these small B-/C+ additions, the loss of flexibility coalesces into a collective D in the end.

Putting all of this together, it at least appears Marks has big ambitions for this summer. He mentioned the summer of 2019 last summer when recapping his moves. Zach Lowe, in his deadline recap, noted that the Nets are ambitious right now and may have reason to be – clearly, his assessment of their inactivity was that they are maximizing flexibility for the summer. Plenty of tea leaves tend to indicate this. His moves indicate that he has placed collecting cap room and draft picks at a premium.

The Nets deadline can be recapped simply. They passed on good B (Barnes and Porter) C (Mirotic) and D (Tolliver type) level upgrades, because they did not want to mortgage any future flexibility that they can use on an “A” level upgrade. Marks felt fortifying an at best scrappy round 1 loser did not warrant that cost.

All of this means Marks faces a critical summer. For the first time, the Nets actually enter a summer under him with the ability to be a major player. Nobody wants to play for 54+ loss franchises, which effectively required Marks to settle, in each of his three summers, on a combination of money dumps for picks, short term veterans for culture purposes, and swings at RFA’s.

Marks is going to take swings this summer. And the fan base will expect him to connect. The advantage of not hedging against your future with pieces like Barnes and Porter is a clear runway to shoot for better. The disadvantage is that your shot at better might not work out the way you want it to.

If it doesn’t work out the way Marks wants it to, Marks is going to need to get creative. The Nets’ future flexibility will not last forever because his young players – Russell LeVert Allen Dinwiddie Kurucs and Harris – are not going to remain cheap forever. Marks either needs to get a star before those guys get paid, or, in what would be a gut punch, trade those guys for picks and rotate the wheel back to square one.

None of the deadlines for those events are coming in 2019. But they are coming.

For the moment, Marks’ choice to prioritize flexibility at the deadline over any upgrades to the roster is a defensible one.

But the next step – turning that flexibility into a team that can compete for a championship – will be much harder.