The day was June 23, 2016.
The Nets were coming off a moribund 21-61 season. Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, two sturdy veterans who bought in and contributed to past playoff runs, were fan favorites.
Kenny Atkinson, prior, was interviewed and asked about Young. He said, Thad Young was “my guy,” and Sean Marks expressed a preference to retain him.
But then on June 23, the Nets traded him. The draft pick was used on Caris LeVert. It may seem silly now, but at the time, the trade was perceived negatively by Nets fans, and mixed at best. A fan favorite was traded for a first round pick. The pick was used on a player mocked lower in most mock drafts.
Fast forward four years, and LeVert is now the fan favorite. As fans, you ultimately support the team, are resilient, and move on from tough organizational decisions.
In every way, LeVert has earned the title of fan favorite. He has overcome injuries, adversity. He is a tireless worker. He seems like a genuine, good person. He supports strong social causes. He has improved immensely since his rookie year. He shows happiness when his teammates succeed, even on nights when he is not a participant in the success, or was hurt. He has accepted a variety of different roles. He is even a friend of Kevin Durant, although it should be noted he was a fan favorite regardless of KD.
Dealing LeVert would be a tough pill. You can say similar things about why it would be a difficult pill to deal any of the younger Nets who have been here since year one or two under Marks, but LeVert takes the cake.
Still, whether it is LeVert or any of the other Nets, the Nets should trade anyone, if they benefit on the court. No matter how popular, or deservingly beloved, the player. That is because the ultimate goal is a title – that matters more than keeping any player.
Certainly, Sean Marks thinks this way. He let D’Angelo Russell and Kenny Atkinson go, despite all they did for Brooklyn. It was not because of anything they did wrong. It was because Marks felt replacing them with different people (Kyrie and TBD, respectively), increased the probability of a title for Brooklyn.
NBA history tells us that three high level star teams are dominant, and win titles. Whether it’s the KD Warriors, the Heatles, or some of the old school Lakers and Celtics teams, if you had an elite superstar, and two more bonafide stars, you will likely win a title.
The Nets are the only franchise in the NBA that has the ability to enter next season with three such players. If a Bradley Beal like player is available, the Nets should jump on it. Would that require dealing LeVert? Yes, it would. But it would significantly increase the Nets’ title odds. Losing LeVert would hurt, but fans are resilient. When they see Beal (or Jrue Holiday, or Donovan Mitchell) in black and white, they’ll move on just fine.
Can the Nets win a title, as is? Yes, they can. KD and Kyrie, with the roster depth in place, can carry the Nets past the rest of the NBA. But that does not mean the Nets should be content with the roster.
Look no further than KD’s last team. The Warriors went 67-15, and dominated the NBA en route to their first title (the Grizzlies and Cavs series were not as close as six games would reflect, and a healthy Kyrie and Love would not have mattered, but that is a story for another day). The Warriors followed that up with the only 73-9 season ever, and likely win a second title if Draymond Green keeps his foot away from LeBron’s groin. The Warriors easily could have said “we will not disrupt this continuity to blow the roster up.” Instead, they relinquished two starters, and multiple rotation players, to add KD. You could argue the Warriors do not win a second title without that move – instead they won a second and third.
This Nets team, while talented, has holes. To win a title, the Nets need to go through Giannis, LeBron, Kawhi, and George. Or perhaps Tatum, Simmons, and Luka. That is going to require high level perimeter defense on guards, wings, and stretch fours. The Nets menu of options to throw at these players defensively is, quite candidly, weak.
There’s Jarrett Allen. But if he is your primary cover on ballhandlers, he is unavailable as a rim protector behind your primary cover. There’s KD; he can do it. But off a ruptured Achilles, do you want him to be your primary in that spot? After that, the options are bleak. LeVert has tools but has never put it together as a defender. Dinwiddie and Prince, same thing. Harris is too limited. The Nets simply have to improve their two way wing corps to win a title. Sure, they have the taxpayer midlevel of around $6 million per season, and minimum exceptions. But those are avenues to add reserves to shore up your depth, not high level options to start and finish games.
The LeVert Dinwiddie combo becomes the area of the roster to touch, first and foremost, in order to add anything of consequence. Both have significant value as a secondary playmaker to take pressure off Kyrie and KD, and help run the offense – this must be noted. In seeing the Lakers struggle in the Bubble, you can see the value in having that. However, there are diminishing returns with having two such players. The Nets cannot play all three together, and at times not even two of them together, because the fit is awkward; they all need the ball. This led to countless closing lineups for the Nets (dating back to DLO) where they had to bench one or two of their three lead players, and play lesser players like Temple, Chandler, Dudley, Prince, and Kurucs at the wing positions so that the parts fit.
Dealing one of LeVert or Dinwiddie to get a high quality wing who can play next to Kyrie and KD, or a true third star, is smart business. Turn those duplicative, cannot play together skills, into players who can play together and address weaknesses.
Allen is another trade piece in a similar vein. Unless your center is one of the league’s few stars (think Jokic, AD, Bam; do not think Capela), there is not much value in an expensive rim runner (which Allen will be soon) because many centers can fill the role. Note how the Lakers use Dwight and McGee. As a result, it simply makes sense to package Allen, for a star or for wing help that fits. Once again, smart business, albeit a hit to the heart.
The above captures what the Nets’ plan should be this summer. Plan B: turn players at positions where you can afford to become weaker (you do not need two secondary creators and two rim runners), into high level two way wings at the 2-4 spots who can shore up this significant roster weakness. In my opinion, if this means one of LeVert or Dinwiddie are moved (I would not deal both of them to achieve this plan), then that is what the Nets should do.
Plan A: get a true third star (LeVert and Dinwiddie are very good, top 50-75 players who help support your best players; stars are bonafide top 20 players who carry franchises and ARE those lead players). Become so talent heavy at the top of the roster, so tough to guard at full force, that this talent overcomes your weaknesses. If this means both LeVert and Dinwiddie must be moved, then that will need to occur.
All of this, admittedly, is tough to reconcile with fandom at times. It has gotten easier as an adult, but you still feel it. LeVert, for all the reasons I offer above, embodies everything these current Nets stand for. It hurts to see players like that leave. Dinwiddie grew from bit player to elite sixth man as a Net. Allen has been a good Net too and represented the borough well, taking underprivileged children shopping on Thanksgiving to help feed families and teach math and budgeting, supporting strong social causes, and being a genuine good person.
Still, if moving any or all of them is best for the Nets in pursing a title, then the Nets need to do it. That may sound like a tough pill but as fans, we are resilient. We also want a title more than we love any player.
As a result, when the new additions come, we will love them, and move on from the players who departed.
Just as we got over Thaddeus Young and appreciated Caris LeVert all those years ago.