Through three games, the Brooklyn Nets stand at 1-2, after suffering a close defeat in Detroit a thrilling win at home against New York, and a blowout loss in Indiana. Those three games have revealed some positives and negatives, on both the micro (individual based, small picture), and macro (global, big picture) levels.
Micro Level Positives: Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs
LeVert has been awesome to start the season. He has the prototypical skill set for the modern game. He has the length and frame to guard multiple positions, the vision to run PNRs, the court sense to make timely cuts, the strength to finish inside, the first step to get by people, and clean enough form to shoot well from range. Prior to this year, while he showed flashes of talent, he was not an effective player — the Nets were simply worse when he played, and his vast skills did not translate into production. Through three games, he has shown signs that he will make the leap this year, from piece with potential, to a strong NBA starter. He has to show, of course, that he can sustain this. But if he can, he is a keeper.
Allen has not taken quite the same leap, but he has improved markedly. He is a more consistent rim protecting presence than in the past. In addition, he is more effective finishing inside as a roll man in the PNR. Importantly, he is not just dunking, but hitting the in between hook shots and floaters that good defenses force when they take dunks away in the pick and roll; those shots separate serviceable bigs from good ones. Lastly, while still getting pushed around by thicker bigs like Enes Kanter, Allen has handled them better in the early going. Keeping them in the 17-10 area as opposed to the 27-18 area makes a difference.
Kurucs is obviously raw, and it must be noted that he is not yet an effective NBA player. However, being an effective player should not be expected this early in his career. Kurucs has shown the ability to hit the 3 and put the ball on the floor. In addition, he plays with the type of reckless abandon this roster needs more of. As Richard Jefferson said during one of the early games (I forget which one), there is a difference between wanting to win and HATING to lose. Kurucs hates to lose. You can see that passion in every move he makes. It causes games to change; effort is a skill. He has been a sweet little surprise early on.
Micro Level Negatives: D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe
The bottom line for Russell and Crabbe is much is expected of them. The Nets believe in Russell. That’s why they traded a haul for him. That’s why, per the great Netsdaily, one Nets official labeled him potentially “transformative”. Russell is here to be the lead piece of this team. He made the Nets worse during his minutes last year (even during his individually hot 12 game start). Same this year, and he is averaging 11 6 and 4 on 35% shooting. Most concerningly, he has not shown the ability to get by his man. The best point guards torch their man and give defenses headaches as a result, as scorers and passers. Russell is not doing that; and also cannot finish inside. The Nets have been better with the ball in the hands of Dinwiddie and LeVert.
As for Crabbe, the Nets made a big sacrifice for him as well. Sure, he was acquired for Nicholson, who was a waste of roster space. But one cannot simply subtract Nicholson’s deal from Crabbe’s to assess the salary difference, since Nicholson was stretchable. Plus, the Nets could have acquired a different long term deal, or rented the space for assets. Instead, they chose Crabbe. After a foot injury in camp last year culminated in a very poor year shooting the ball, he had a foot injury in camp this year and has begun the year shooting poorly. Crabbe needs to play a lot better to validate the Nets’ investment and ensure their cap space was used well.
Macro Level, Positive: Sean Marks has done as much as could be expected with the roster he inherited … so far.
Marks inherited a dumpster fire. However, despite some possible misses (Russell, Crabbe, choosing Whitehead over Ferrell), not all moves work out — no matter who the GM is — and Marks has done about as much as could have been hoped for over the last 2.5 years. Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen are two potentially strong starters for the next decade, are still cheap, and are hard to find type youth. They were acquired for two expensive, decent, dime a dozen middle aged starters (Thad and Bojan). Kurucs looks like he could provide first round pick value, as a second rounder. He and Musa were essentially acquired for free, for out of the league Justin Hamilton. Dinwiddie and Harris were scrap heap guys ANYONE could have acquired, and have provided low end starter to strong reserve value. The Nets have also added several picks moving forward, particularly the Nuggets’ first next year, and a Knicks second that could fall around 35.
Not bad for where Marks started.
Macro Level, Negative: The Path to a Star Must be Traveled, but is Murky
Having praised Marks for his work to date, many GM’s – even Billy King – do a good job of trimming the fat from a prior regime, and setting their regime up with the theoretical ability to build a contender. But many do not take that next step of building a contender.
In this regard – the most important aspect of the job – the jury is out on Marks. “They are not bad for what he inherited,” and “they play hard” can only last for so long.
The Nets need, at least, one top 20 player and two top 30 players, in order to contend. None of their players are close to that level; countless preseason player ranking columns did not rank a Net in the top 85 (and while numerical ranks are subjective, if everyone in the know says you lack a top 85 player , you definitely have nothing close to a star).
The question then becomes: how can Marks get that player? The problem he faces, is that the path he charts makes that question tough to answer.
Can the Nets use their cap space to sign that player? Stars typically sign with teams on which there is a star in house, or at least the outlines of a contender. The Nets went 28-54 last year, and started 1-2 this year — nearly 0-3 — with Russell looking subpar. Nothing in their star indicates they will win appreciably more this year, and what do the Nets have that lures a star? State of the art facilities and culture are not bad, but they do not lure free agents. The Nets are not going to lose 50 games and attract megastars.
Can the Nets trade for the star? That requires winning a bidding war with assets. Unless the player in return is Durant or Kawhi (among impending FA’s), is it worth gutting what Marks has done to date (LeVert, Allen, etc), for a player who is not likely to make the Nets a contender, given the Nets could lose 50+ games again with this roster? Where does trading the farm for Jimmy Butler then paying him get you?
The draft? The best shot at a star is picking in the top 5. The Nets picked 8 last year, and made it a point this summer to upgrade the roster, not strip it bare. You do not add Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier, and the like, if you are trying to lose. You deal some of the talent for picks (like the rumored Dinwiddie for Cavs first deal that Brooklyn apparently turned down per Zach Lowe on a podcast). It is hard to see the Nets having the chance to draft a transformative star, because they likely will not pick high enough.
The last option is internal development. But the best prospects, LeVert and Allen, project at best to be very good players, not elite stars. There is no shame in that. LeVert and Allen could hypothetically have Iguodala and Gobert level careers yet miss the mark. As for Russell, at some point a player must be judged by his on court production, and not where he was drafted. Do we call LeVert and Allen late firsts and say this means they are not real prospects? That cuts both ways. It is truly difficult to see Russell becoming a franchise player, given how poorly he is producing early in year 4.
With all of this difficulty, the lack of cost controlled youth only complicates thing further. Aside from LeVert, Allen, Kurucs, and Musa, the roster is essentially filled with vets, and youth about to be PAID. If the Nets let pieces like Russell, Dinwiddie, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson walk, then the work of the past 2.5 years has essentially come undone. If they extend them, they are essentially locking into this core and blowing their future flexibility on it.
That path would chart the Nets as too bad to pick top 5, but not good enough to challenge the best teams in the east — AKA no man’s land. With all due respect, how is a LeVert-Allen-Russell-Dinwiddie-RHJ core beating teams led by Giannis, Kyrie, Kawhi, or Ben Simmons? That may sound harsh, but those are the players the Nets must take down in order to contend. The idea of “good for where they were” is ok for now. Is it ok in 2020-2021 if this core is still toiling around, on longer term deals? If mediocre was ok, Billy King could still be here. Marks was brought in to bring sustainable title contention to Brooklyn – not something less.
For these reasons, there is a legitimate rationale to begin a firesale, and to tank, rather than paying this core and settling for its ceiling. If the Nets stock as many picks as possible around LeVert, Allen, Kurucs, and Musa, they would have the real potential of building an elite core — having their own Giannis Kyrie Kawhie or Simmons. Imagine RJ Barrett, the Nuggets mid first, the Knicks mid second, LeVert, Allen, Kurucs, and Musa next year? Around that young, far from free agency and thus cheap and flexible group, you could legitimately start seeing the outlines of the next great Nets team. Why throw that away to win a few more games in the short term? After all, Marks drafts well — let him draft more!
Just because the Nets developed their other players and they fit their culture, does not mean the Nets HAVE to build around them. If they instead turn them into assets, they capitalized on their development. The 2014-2015 Celtics, after all, were full of culture fitting players Brad Stevens developed. That did not stop Boston from jettisoning the entire team in favor of better players (except for Marcus Smart).
RHJ missed three games because of the birth of his first child. That is a once in a lifetime moment that must be soaked in. Good on him missing these games and good on the Nets being more than understanding.
Jared Dudley is not a good player. But he is a serviceable veteran who can provide fifteen or so decent minutes because he can make threes, he forces teams to guard him to the arc which opens driving lanes for the kids, and his headiness helps defensively. The hatred for him on Twitter is weird.
Injuries are mounting under Marks which is a concern, because the goal of the performance team is to attract free agents through prehab, the reduction of injuries by stopping them before they start. If that is a goal, it stands to reason that excessive injuries reflect that the goal is not being accomplished. Jeremy Lin. D’Angelo Russell. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s long lasting adductor injury. Shabazz Napier this training camp. Allen Crabbe. The list goes on and on. The Nets are losing a lot of games to injury, and when guys are out, it typically lasts a long time. Something is not working according to plan with respect to the performance team.