LeBron Became a Laker: Does That Free Agency Strategy Help the Nets?

For anyone who follows me, you know I believe “big markets” do not dictate free agency.

The reasoning is simple.  The classic paradigm of stars choose big markets in free agency was as follows.  Big cities mean greater exposure, which mean larger shoe deals, endorsement profiles, and the like.  And in the 1990’s, that genuinely made sense.  However, the proliferation of the internet and social media has eroded those differences.  With streaming, tweeting, and a constant lens on athletes online, everyone gets exposure, everywhere, all the time.  Remember the concept of a “Friday at 5 news dump”?  It is no longer viable — news spreads constantly.  With that exposure comes marketing opportunities — a large city is not necessary for that.  Russell Westbrook and Paul George are huge product advertisers; Damian Lillard had the league’s largest shoe deal at one point; and LeBron James became a billionaire without playing outside Cleveland or Miami (his last contract put him over the edge, but Cleveland could have and would have offered the same $).

In response to this, when LeBron James left Cleveland on July 8, 2010, he started a new era — gone were the days of market size affecting star moves.  Rather, guys decided to go wherever they could team up with other stars, in order to win.  In two consecutive free agent moves, LeBron chose Miami and Cleveland.  Sure, Miami was bigger than Cleveland.  But LeBron ignored LA, NY, and Chicago to go there to be with Wade and Bosh — the decision was transparently a basketball one, to maximize the chance of winning.  And certainly, he did not go to Cleveland to be in a big city — but they did have Kyrie Irving and the draft’s top pick to go get Kevin Love.

Other stars followed suit. Sure, Paul George, Kevin Love, and LaMarcus Aldridge forced their ways out of Indiana, Minnesota, and Portland.  But they committed their primes to Oklahoma, Cleveland, and San Antonio — the reasons were not market based, but roster based.

Paul Millsap? He chose Denver!

Kevin Durant.  Sure, Oakland is bigger than Oklahoma.  But Durant would not even MEET with Los Angeles and New York, before committing.  His decision was nakedly about joining a better team to win more, not markets.

Gordon Hayward? He limited his free agent meetings to Boston and Miami, two very successful franchises, and chose a loaded Celtics team.  If he was deciding based on markets, he would have actually met with bigger cities.

Chris Paul? He wanted out of New Orleans because they were a NBA owned disaster. Sure, he wound up in Los Angeles, but the goal was to win and he chose to be there because they had Blake Griffin – star number two.  He eventually left Los Angeles, thinking he could win more in Houston — you do not leave LA if the goal is being in a big market.

Dwight Howard? He left Orlando because he felt he needed star 2.  When he was shuttled against his will to Los Angeles, he was miserable, and eventually forced his way out, to be with James Harden. Another naked basketball decision.

Carmelo Anthony, surely, chose New York.  But the reasons he left Denver were well chronicled.  He signed a five year deal when LeBron Wade and Bosh only went three years.  He came to regret it when the big 3 formed, and was resolute in forming his own with Amare.

With all of this evidence, the lack of big market meaning in these decisions has been clear. 

In 2018, LeBron did something that just might be a little different — he went to the Lakers.  Surely, the “easy” logic — rooted in 1990’s themes — is he went to the big city.  But dig even a little below the surface, and you find a different tale.

Every project LeBron is working on either started when he was in Cleveland, or was in the works then.  LeBron starred in Trainwreck in 2015, as a Cav. He became a billionaire without Los Angeles.  Some note the convenience of shooting movies.  But here’s the thing. LeBron had a summer house there and would go out there in the summer to get that stuff done.  As Maverick Carter told Rich Eisen last year, he does not have the time to shoot movies during the regular season anyway — he can only do that in the summer because of his basketball commitments.  So he gained nothing, market wise, by moving to LA.

There have been plenty of murmurs — through sources to media and from LeBron himself – implying his wife and kids prefer LA.

And there is another thing — the possible birth of a new free agency tenet: being somewhere well you can build (or continue building) your legacy (and legacies, it should be noted, do not require a large market – LeBron was in GOAT conversations as a Cav, Durant likely becomes a top 20 guy ever in OKC, and plenty of all time greats played in small markets).

By joining Los Angeles, LeBron adds a new chapter to his legacy.  He has the hometown kid chapter, all wrapped up.  Once he brought a title home to a since starving since 1964, against all odds as a heavy underdog, he achieved something he really could never top in Cleveland. Just like, once he won two in Miami to prove the first was no fluke, there was nothing left to prove there. Now, LeBron, by playing for a storied franchise, gets to add another element to his legacy: being apart of a classic franchise (in the same vein that a player like Derek Jeter does earn legacy points for being a Yankee).

We could be seeing signs of this new trend — legacy plays — due to what is happening with Durant in Golden State.  Durant went to Golden State for validation — people did not respect what he brought to the table in the same way LeBron and Curry were respected in 2016.  He wanted to win, and earn that respect.

He won, all right — two titles, and two finals MVP’s. But much unlike LeBron, Durant did not receive the validation he sought.  He is blasted, by fans, media, and former players, for the decision he made to join Golden State.  Those stains wore off by this point in LeBron’s Miami tenure — but they did not for Durant.

Yes, part of that is what he joined in Golden State was 73-9 without him. But part of that has to do with the new “microwave” culture of quick takes that we live in today (as Avery Johnson used to say). Everything is dissected.  And unlike in the past, when rings were seen as the measure to evaluate players, suddenly titles, today, are weighed.  Being the guy, carrying a team and putting up numbers, has transplated winning as what drives positive perceptions of players.

That’s why Russell Westbrook is so popular since Durant left.  In the old days, the talk would be he has not won a playoff series — today, the talk is triple doubles.  In that same past, the talk would have been that Durant is a champion.  Now, he is criticized for how he won his championships.

And with that, we have seen a wandering eye from Durant.  His massive blowout with Draymond Green? The smoke around Golden State? The threat of Durant leaving no longer seems driven by folks wanting them to fail — it seems real.

LeBron’s move to LA may have been a legacy play.  If Durant leaves Golden State, it most likely will be one.  He will be seeking to validate that he can win, without a ready made situation like the one in Oakland in 2016.  Surely, nobody can claim it would be a basketball decision to leave the Warriors. And with the Warriors moving into San Francisco — a new arena in the heart of Silicon Valley — even if he goes to LA or New York, it would be hard to claim that the move is driven by the need to be in a big market.  He would be leaving a mega market — and near assured titles in said market.

Durant would be leaving to attain something he cannot in Golden State — the validation that he does not need that collection of players to get the job done.

If there is a new free agency push, in response to backlash, to make legacy plays over the precise best winning situation — that COULD help the Nets. Under the paradigm that has existed from 2010-2018, the Nets, if it continues, would be very very hard pressed in 2019, and perhaps even 2020, to get big free agents.  With due respect to the roster as constructed, if players are electing to team up with other stars, the Nets do not offer that to free agents — especially if they remain on track for 50 losses.

But if free agents DO start making legacy plays, suddenly the Nets could be back int he saddle. With the wreckage that was left behind by Billy King, the Nets, truly, have had a herculean climb, in their endeavor back to relevance.  This is truly the type of situation where, if a star wins big, it could be huge for his legacy.  The talk would be “the Nets were a rudderless mess, dead to rights after the Billy King trade … until that guy came along.”

Do I believe this is likely? Unfortunately, I do not. I do believe stars are more likely to continue the 2010-2018 trend of choosing the beast readymade situation to win.

But with that said, we must adjust when we learn new information.

LeBron’s move to LA could be, may be, the start of free agents making legacy plays. 

And it would be quite the legacy play to win a championship with these Brooklyn Nets.

 

 

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Are the Nets rebuilding through the middle? And can it work?

Nets fans, almost universally, are looking forward to the summer of 2019. With Sean Marks finally unshackled from the limits imposed on him by the Nets-Celtics trade of 2013 (made before his tenure), the summer will represent his first opportunity to truly remake the Nets in his image.

Nets fans – like all fans – have different thoughts on how to do that. And quite candidly, if it were me, I would humbly suggest that the Nets tank, sell parts off for as many picks as possible, and launch a Sam Hinkie like rebuild in 2019.

Some, of course, think the Nets are doing just that. I believe they are not. They tried to add Otto Porter for $106 million, added Allen Crabbe for $75 million, and added D’Angelo Russell two years before free agency rather than more cost controlled assets in the Brook Lopez trade. To me, these sort of win now talent adds are simply not the work or a organization out to lose.

What do I think the Nets are doing? Rebuilding through the middle.

So, what is rebuilding through the middle? And can Markinson pull it off?

Rebuilding through the middle is making the decision that, rather than tank, steps to 50+ wins can be taken from the 30-40 win region. We saw the Rockets do it before getting James Harden. We are seeing the Pacers, and Clippers (these aren’t star laden title contenders), attempt it right now.

So let’s talk more about rebuilding through the middle. Why do it, what are the rules, and can the Nets succeed at it?

Why do it?

Many reasons. On a simple level, with the NBA changing the odds that the worst teams earn the top draft picks, or the point of tanking, the expected value of tanking has gone down. While the odds of getting a top pick are still greater if you are awful, the extent to which the odds are greater has decreased significantly.

Second, and more complex, is star movement in free agency – building through the middle opens that door, while tanking closes it. Whether it was LeBron and Bosh to Miami (and LBJ to Cleveland), George to Oklahoma and Russ staying in OKC, Aldridge to San Antonio, David West to Indiana, Love ok-ing a deal to and extending with Cleveland, Millsap to Denver, Durant to Oakland at the expense of LA and New York, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard deliberately leaving LA, and Hayward choosing a loaded Boston team, we have seen a theme in free agency since LeBron’s 2010 foray — stars and big time players want to win, and are putting that over “the big city” in free agency.

With this being the case, if you want to be a factor in free agency, it is imperative that your team is good enough, in the present, for free agents to say, “they have something good going on and I can be that missing piece.” That simply will NOT happen if you tank – stars don’t want to join 55+ loss franchises. While fans drool about what prospects will be at the next level, stars have seen hyped prospects flame out at all levels of their journeys – they do not see them the way fans do, but as unprovens not to gamble their primes on.

Third, and even more complex than that, is star movement in trades – the “star demands trade” market enhances the value of building through the middle, while decreasing the value of tanking.

How is that? Owners have responded to stars leaving in free agency by dealing them to try to get something. And stars – both to get where they want to be sooner, and to ensure they can get a supermax with their new team (only your incumbent can give you one), are starting to force trades more and more often.

How does this benefit builders through the middle? Because when a star demands a deal, he has leverage to control the destination. This helps builders through the middle – teams who are decent and have a core for the star to join – and hurts tankers.

Builders through the middle have even another edge in star trades – more varied trade assets. When teams trade stars, the common school of thought is “get picks and kids.” But these trades often do not proceed by the common school of thought. Rather, every team dealing a star has a different priority. Some want picks to rebuild. Some want players to remain competitive. Some want young veterans to say they got good young players. Accordingly, the best way to trade for a star is NOT to have just a stash of picks, but to have all types of assets – if you have every type of asset and friendly contract you maximize your chances of having the package teams want. This includes those mid sized, team friendly, Robert Covington like contracts as talented filler in deals. If you have nothing but your core kids and bad contracts you took on to get those kids, you lack this type of asset.

The fourth reason, yet again relates to star movement. The old school NBA featured a lot of big time players staying where they were drafted. As a result, you saw a lot of long playoff and title contention windows – once you got to that 50 win level, your players stayed put, and you won for a while.

Star movement, however, is shortening title windows. LeBron gave the Heat and Cavs four years each. Durant might only give Golden State three. While Indy had George for 7 years, take away is uber young development and injury and that comes to more like five years. As a result of all this movement, the windows to contend are shrinking as players move around.

With contention windows shrinking, we simply might see less long scale tanking projects. It’s one thing to take 4-5 years to build a core you will have for a decade. But if the payoff is only 3-5 years long, can you take 5 years to build up to it?

Ok, so that tells us WHAT rebuilding through the middle entails. But what are the rules of making it successful?

Rule 1: you need to win some.

This is the main key to building through the middle. If you are winning 25-35 games a year, your core likely is not good enough to attract star talent via this method.

Rule 2: you need to be flexible.

This is where the Miami Heat have failed. Rebuilding through the middle can work if you have the flexibility to add big talent to the roster. If you’re capped out with mediocre, however, you will be “stuck in the middle.” But you’re not stuck in the middle if you have cap space and movable contracts to chase stars.

So, we know what it is and we know the rules. Can the Nets pull it off?

Frankly, I believe they will need to win more. At 8-12, they are on pace to win 32.8 games this year. I do not believe their core, at the moment, is quite good enough to lure free agents, and render the Nets a trade destination. One concern I have: they need to pick it up, but per ESPN Rankings they have had the fourth easiest schedule as of Thanksgiving (a figure the 7-11 Wolves would not boost much).

This Nets core needs to prove me wrong to succeed. It needs to fight to the wire for a playoff spot, to show big names that it is attractive. That will require better basketball than the first 20 games revealed.

If it DOES work in 2019, money allocation will be key. Obviously, if the Nets sign a superstar, they will contend immediately. If they don’t, however, they need to retain the flexibility to add a superstar in 2020. With due respect to say, Tobias Harris, he makes the Nets BETTER, but not a contender, as a Kevin Durant would.

Let’s play with some numbers. Assume the Nets were to sign Harris this summer to a 4 year $100 million deal, extend Russell at 4/$60, and extend Dinwiddie at 4/$40, They could conceivably enter the summer of 2020 with between $29-$39 million in cap space, depending on their decision on Joe Harris’ cap hold, as follows (assuming a $116 million cap)

PG: Russell ($14,464,286), Dinwiddie ($9,642,857)

SG: 2019 first ($5,098,560), 2019 NYK second (1,581,500, assuming a “Kurucs” like deal)

SF: Musa ($2,002,800), 2019 DEN first ($2,495,520),

PF: Harris ($24,107,143), Kurucs ($1,780,152),

C: Allen ($3,909,902)

Cap holds of import: LeVert ($7,877,154), 2020 first rounder ($4,143,000 if slotted at 12), J. Harris ($9,966,667)

Of course, so much of this relies on a measure of guesswork as to who they keep from this year, the cap going forward as set by the league, and nailing the Harris signing.

With that said, the Nets are in a position where if they fail to add a superstar, they can add very good players, and still enter 2020 with a ton of cap room.

In light of all this, I believe Marks and Atkinson deserve to keep their jobs for a little while longer. They have set the Nets up, asset and player development wise, such that they are in position to make some potential large strikes. Whether by building through the middle – or by tanking. The Nets contracts are movable enough that, if Marks wants to tank, he has an escape hatch.

With that said, if the Nets, after the summer of 2020, still have not added a big time player, by the draft free agency or trade, then that set up will have gone for naught. That would mean that Marks, while capable of setting the table, is not capable of making Thanksgiving dinner.

So, are the Nets rebuilding through the middle? And is Marks the man to execute the plan?

Let’s cross our fingers.

The LeVert Injury: what now?

Caris LeVert’s injury was brutal. There is no other way to put it.

The initial reaction, unfortunately, is that this is a crusher. LeVert was just starting to break through. And he is such a good, kind person. You can see it when he speaks, in his interviews, his work with children and the like. He embodies what the Nets want to be. Good at basketball. Confident but not cocky. Unfailingly kind. This injury stinks. And it could not have happened to a better person, at a worse time.

In addition, the Nets must grapple with the very real possibility that LeVert does not come back the same from this injury. There is precedent for significant injuries derailing careers. This would obviously be a blow – he is the best player the Nets have, by a long shot.

Lastly, it must be noted that this injury is a crusher for the fanbase. A large contingent of Nets fans have stood by this team through so much, really ever since Jason Kidd forced a trade in 2008. 12-70. Lost final New Jersey years. All the promise in Brooklyn derailed by Deron Williams’ ankle. All the lost draft picks. All the jokes. And just when things finally start to be looking up, this happens. It stinks.

With all of this said, in situations like this, you HAVE to try to squeeze out the positives: there is no other way. Positive thinking brings positive results.

So: what positives can the Nets take from this? Please note: the overwhelming arc here is that this is a sad, sad day. Still, you have to TRY to take some positives from this to move forward as an organization. Here are some.

1: LeVert can come back the same or better:

A bad injury does not automatically end or derail a career. Look at Paul George. He’s basically the same guy as he was before his brutal achilles injury. Look at Brook Lopez for that matter. He probably came back better after each foot surgery than the one before it. There are plenty of examples of guys rallying from brutal injuries, no worse for the wear. If that happens, we will look back on today as a moment, while brutal, that made LeVert stronger, and did not compromise this rebuild.

2: a higher draft pick:

This one is easy: the Nets should stumble into a high pick pretty easily without LeVert. If he comes back the same, the Nets will reap the simultaneous benefits of his growth and the obtaining of a better blue chip to pair with him.

3: more evaluation time for other pieces:

With LeVert out, other players necessarily will take on bigger roles, providing the Nets with an enhanced ability to evaluate the entire roster.

The biggest part of this: D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie. With LeVert out, both players will necessarily have much larger roles, providing a significant opportunity for additional evaluation of both, given their upcoming free agencies.

The Nets have clearly made LeVert “the guy” late in games. That obviously changed now: Russell and Dinwiddie will see more responsibility in these clutch situations. Kenny will not be in a position to leave either on the bench.

One thing is for sure: whether the Nets proceed forward with neither, both, or one of the players, the inability of either player to stick in Brooklyn will not be attributable to their not getting a chance to prove themselves.

Often, the toughest thing about young free agents is the lack of information on what the player is. With their roles now being huge, the Nets will garner plenty of info on DLO and Spencer. They will run the team plenty in big spots and the coaching staff will get to see what they have.

4: less likely they make a reckless mid season deal:

This one is a little more of a reach but the Nets were headed for a mid 30’s win year. The worst thing they could’ve done was make a big picture sacrifice for a win now move to declare they made the playoffs as a free agency pitch. Now, a move like this appears less likely.

The LeVert Game and the Butler Trade: What Did We Learn About the Nets?

Nets fans are riding high right now.

Bar none, their win over the Nuggets, to improve to 6-6 (the latest in a season they have been .500 since 2013-2014), was the Nets best win of the Markinson era.

This season has always been about evaluating the young players Sean Marks put in place.  And if those players are no better than they were last year, then the Nets would need to strongly consider tanking; free agents are not attracted to 54 loss franchises.

But over 12 games, the Nets look better than that.  They’re 6-6, with the net rating data of a 40-45 win team.  And, most importantly, Caris LeVert’s breakout looks more real every game, as the sample size grows.

The LeVert Breakthrough Can Change Everything

LeVert’s breakthrough, if he can sustain it, is the type of event that can change the trajectory of a rebuild.  The Jazz, for example, were in a spot, losing Gordon Hayward, were it appeared rebuilding made sense.  Enter Donovan Mitchell, and the calculus is different.

On the young season, LeVert has been nothing short of excellent.  The numbers, which are eye popping, say what they say. But it goes beyond that.  When he faced off against Devin Booker, an elite player at his position, he outplayed him.  The same goes for Gary Harris.  And in both matchups, he relished that challenge: he wanted to show that he is better than top players at his position.  The way he stared Booker down after blocking his shot?  The way he went AT Harris, on his game winner? He wanted their heads on a stake.  Sure, the NBA is less positional now, but players still evaluate themselves by how good they are compared to other players at their position. It’s human nature.

The beauty of it all? LeVert was not, as many young players do gunning for his numbers and forcing up bad shots to prove that he is better than his counterparts at his position. He did it within the offense.

And he succeeded.  LeVert torched Booker all night, the standout play being when he stuffed Booker’s shot in an isolation dribble drive situation — one of the toughest plays to make defensively. And despite Harris defending excellently on LeVert’s game winning drive, it did not matter.  LeVert got to his spot, and that was that: it was over for Harris and the Nuggets.

LeVert’s confidence is also seething through the TV screen every night.  He expected to make that shot over Harris.  He had shooters.  He was doubleteamed.  But he didn’t care. He believed if he got to his spot, and got a little separation, that he was going to score.  That shows that he has tremendous confidence in his game.

If LeVert can sustain his breakout, if the Nets can sustain their winning, and if the Nets’ other young players continue to improve (D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Joe Harris all improved as well – their contributions cannot be overlooked)everything can change for the Nets.

The best free agents, the best disgruntled stars seeking trades, want to play places where they believe they can win.  Coming off 54 losses, the Nets had little to pitch star talent.  But if LeVert’s breakout is real, and if this team wins 40-45 games, suddenly the pitch is totally different.  Suddenly the Nets can sell “we have LeVert.  We have a good core.  We are becoming a winner.  Marks has added talent and Kenny has developed players, without assets. … Imagine what we can do, TOGETHER.”

That is one hell of a pitch.  And if the Nets can turn a 12 game sample into an 82 game season, they will be able to make it.  Players like LeVert allow you to turn corners like this: they are that good.

The Jimmy Butler Trade: Any Lessons for the Nets?

There are multiple Nets takeaways from the Sixers adding Jimmy Butler (I will not dive into how the trade affects Philly and Minnesota, except to provide Nets context).

For starters, it should be noted that the Nets cannot be faulted for not becoming involved.  Covington and Saric are valuable win now role players with nice upside, and given their trade value, the Nets likely could not beat the Philly offer, unless they parted with LeVert.

Secondly, Philly’s use of Covington as a trade chip is instructive on Dinwiddie’s value as a piece the Nets may want to keep this summer.  Yes, Dinwiddie is not a star, or a potential one.  But quality role players on good contracts do not clog your cap, and can become strong trade assets over the life of a contract — just like Covington.  With stars leaving so frequently, teams are beginning to deal stars before they hit the market.  In addition, the free agency market is a total crapshoot: the Sixers entered it with the pitch of “play with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, they won 52 games without you,” and came away empty handed.  With that, it is necessary for teams to remain flexible for trades, not just with cap space, if they want stars.

Being flexible for trades requires assets.  It also requires having valuable pieces on mid size contracts in order to match salaries in deals.  Suppose the Sixers did not have Covington: how do they do this deal, other than by parting with Redick (whose shooting they need desperately around this non shooting big three)?  If all you have are stars on max deals, and role players around them on tiny deals, that makes it impossible to add big targets in trades — you need players on contracts in that $8-$16 million range, to match incoming and outgoing money.  And to get big targets, those players better be worth that money — look how Miami struggled in the Butler talks with Josh Richardson off the table, due to their middling contracts being invested in dead weight, not talent.

Suppose Dinwiddie gets a 4 year, $40 million Nets extension.  He will fit well with the roster, whether to help rebuilding by facilitating for young players, or to boost a win now effort with his talent.  And because he is productive, he will be extremely movable on such a contract … just like Covington.  If Dinwiddie is back on a reasonable deal next to Harris on a fair deal, suddenly, the Nets can start aggregating packages for stars because they can offer teams a mix of picks, young players, and/or veteran players on reasonable contracts.  That type of versatility is key — with many teams trading stars, they all, inevitably, differ in the type of return they prefer (be it a collection of kids, win now veterans, or the like).  You want to construct a team that can meet all of those potential needs.

 

A NOTE ON D’ANGELO RUSSELL’S IMPROVEMENT SINCE KENNY BENCHED HIM

I love the way Kenny handled DLO’s benching after the loss to Houston (forget the hot hand commentary: he benched DLO — and that’s ok!).  Kenny was asked about if he benched DLO, and was essentially invited to criticize him publicly.  Instead, Kenny gave DLO a vote of confidence.

Since then, Russell, over three games (three wins), has averaged 20, 5, and 3 on 46% shooting — quietly his best stretch of the season.  Kenny’s choice to pump DLO up, rather than put him down, has worked.

Too often as fans, we expect coaches to get angry at their players.  We want them to “light a fire under them,” and we feel that if they criticize them, publicly and privately, that will make them play harder and better.  It does not really work like that.  Coaching is part schemes, part game management, and part managing personalities.  It is necessary for coaches to read their players, and understand what, in a given moment, they need to mentally get over the hump. Sometimes, yes, players need tough love.  But sometimes players struggle with their confidence despite the best intentions.  Those players need a pick me up, not a coach yelling at them and only making them more down (not to mention: the idea of coaches yelling at players to get them to try is overrated anyway; elite athletes should want it regardless of what a coach says, and a coach can’t make someone who does not care, care).

DLO’s poor play had nothing to do with effort — his confidence was wavering.  Kenny spotted that, and rather than hurt his confidence further (he shot 12/39 over 3 games; did he really need to be TOLD he was playing poorly in order to know?), he gave him a pick me up: “you’re my guy, and I believe in you.”

DLO has responded well over three games to the positive reinforcement.

 

QUICK HITTERS

–Kenny Atkinson is coaching a Nets team still in the rebuilding phase.  All of his players are developing and improving (except Allen Crabbe). And he has kept morale up despite a lot of losing.  He is doing exactly what the Nets hired him to do.  Is he not “the guy” in deep playoff runs due to rotations and the like? The Nets are not in a phase where rotations really matter, so we do not know that yet. For now, there is no reason to dismiss him.

–The criticism of Kenny for having Russell out on the LeVert game winner is bizarre.  Knowing this was a last shot situation, he chose to go with his go to scorer, his three best shooters on paper with respect to gravity and who teams cover, and one secondary playmaker.  So Kenny subbed Allen out for Crabbe (not Napier, as he did not play all game — how could he suddenly come in there), and chose Dinwiddie over Russell. Hard to blame him; Dinwiddie has been a steadier hand for a longer time period than Russell. Plus, IT WORKED!

–Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s role going forward is in serious doubt.  Since he cannot shoot (hitting 10 footers is a largely meaningless skill), teams literally do not guard him on the floor, and his defender simply stands in the paint, clogging the ability of LeVert, DLO, and Spencer to drive.  That hurts the team.  And his defense, where he struggles guarding bigger players, does not come close to making up for it.

–the Jared Dudley hate is bizarre. Unlike RHJ, since he can shoot 3’s and teams guard him like he can shoot 3’s (that gravity, the defense focusing on you, matters more than the 3’s themselves), his mere presence on the floor opens it up for the Nets guards to drive into the lane.  And he is a heady presence defensively, who gets beat by bigger 4’s without being overwhelmed.  Combine that with the competition at his position (a second round pick, a player who just recovered from surgery, and RHJ), and he’s clearly earned his starting role.  It just seems like fans are still worked up over his comments about the Nets six years ago so they project that onto him.  Let it go. It was six years ago, nobody relevant to the comments is here anymore, and he has publicly stated that his feelings have changed.

–Allen Crabbe has got to get it together.  While he tries in non shooting areas to make an impact, he is limited outside of his shot — without hitting 3’s consistently he is not a rotation player.  He needs to start knocking 3’s down with regularity.

 

 

Now we learn what Marks and Prokhorov are made of.

When the Nets fired Billy King and eventually hired Sean Marks, the signal was one for a new day. Gone were the days of reckless acquisitions, and chasing short term thrills and splashes over sustainability. The new goal, it was posited, was not to make waves in a new city, beat the Knicks, or sell tickets. It was to create a team that could win year in and year out in sustainable fashion.

In this regard, it must be noted that Marks has done an acceptable job to date. Getting pieces as good as Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen for Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, and cap space? Getting Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris for nothing? To say Marks has not done some good as GM is to be blind.

In noting the good one needs to note the bad, surely. All that cap room on Allen Crabbe? Dealing Lopez, a first, and eating a deal as bad as Mozgov’s just for D’Angelo Russell? Those substantial investments have not worked out however one slices them. That said, even if Russell and Crabbe never improve, both moves, while bad, were not crippling. The Nets did not nuke their future ability to rebuild or give up substantial assets in the deals. Kyle Kuzma stings and is better than Russel, but while he is a good young player, his reliance on scoring, the franchise he plays for, and his age capping his ceiling, all conspire to make him overrated.

So with all of that said, I think Marks can stake a claim to having done a good job for the Nets to date. For what he inherited, he has boosted the Nets position.

It is also helpful that, to date, Mikhail Prokhorov has done well to empower Marks to rebuild, largely by authorizing his strategy and steering clear from meddling.

Notwithstanding the above, the moment of truth comes for Marks and Prokhorov over the next nine months.

Why is that, you ask? Because options make decision making harder.

Let’s start with Prokhorov. When he bought the Nets, he talked big about owning New York and competing for championships. Through Brett Yormark, there was a push to win immediately to brand the Nets as belonging to Brooklyn. The win now direction led to an infamous set of short term win now moves that backfired. Thus, at a minimum, we know Prokhorov has it in him to mandate an irrational win now approach at the price of a future. We have seen it.

Has Prokhorov been this trigger itchy since he hired Marks? No. But, it should be noted, he has not really been able to. The Nets when they hired Marks had no first rounders in the top 28 for three years out, and were a 60 loss franchise. As such, Prokhorov’s options were incredibly limited. Nobody was going to sign with them, and they had no trade assets to go get anyone. There really was no choice in building the roster, other than to do what the Nets have done: hope fringe youth pays off, use cap room to add more youth, and see what happens.

Using a “regular guy” analogy, if you walk into Best Buy with $5.00 and no credit card, you will not spent recklessly – but you also couldn’t if you tried. So on one hand Prokhorov has not meddled to force the irrational, but on the other, he has not had the ability to do that.

Now, however, Marks’ strong moves have opened the door to the ability to be irrational. They have cap space now. They have enough roster talent to at least get in the room with solid free agents. They have the trade assets to get players down that avenue.

Those assets will test Marks and Prokhorov. The roster is not atrocious, and fans would be sold, pretty easily, on additions of B class (non star) free agents like Tobias Harris, or trade targets like Otto Porter. Such assets would make the Nets playoff contenders in the east.

However, such acquisitions would likely box the Nets into a future where they are a 43-39 team with a hoard of players on long term deals eating their flexibility to improve. The contracts these players demand would necessitate this result. That is a bad place to be – and that was not the goal in hiring Marks. Title contention was.

Stated differently, the free agency avenue of team building will not work unless the Nets sign a superstar, but signing a superstar feels unlikely. As such, the Nets are MUCH better off building through the draft.

A decision by the Nets to build through the draft could work wonders. With their pick, Denver’s pick, New York’s second rounder, and LeVert Allen Kurucs and Musa under their control, Marks has set up a huge opportunity for the Nets to come out of the 2019 with a treasure trove of high and medium upside young players who are far from free agency, and the cap room to build that core even further.

And perhaps, Marks punting on Butler is a sign that he knows this roster is not ready to compete – that he needs to get a transcendent star, that the way to get him is on draft night.

Will the Nets make the decision to build this way? That is where the test for Marks and Prokhorov comes into play. With a fan base starving for wins, the public hype that the Nets can score in free agency, and the reality that the Knicks will try their hand at 2019 free agency, it may not sit well with fans to punt on free agency, and Prokhorov may not be able to stomach it. He may see it as surrendering to the Knicks in a sense – an implicit admission that the Nets can’t beat them as a “destination.”

So that is the test for Marks and Prokhorov. Is Marks willing to lengthen this rebuilding process? If he is, is Prokhorov willing to sign off? Signing off on a rebuild when the Nets had no other choice, that was easy. But now, they have other choices, the choice is hard.

If Prokhorov signs off on the continued rebuild from this stage, he deserves immense credit, as does Marks for getting him to realize this path must be taken.

If he doesn’t, however, it shows that he has not really changed.

So, will Prokhorov show that this rebuild is for real? Or, with free agency around the bend, will he fall into old patterns?

The answer to that question will define the next half decade for Nets fans.