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.

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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.

3 Games in, Where does the Nets Rebuild Stand?

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).
Other Observations:

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.