The NBA trade deadline is Thursday, and now that the Nets are a legitimate playoff contender in the Eastern Conference, they have been portrayed by some as active buyers.
When Pelicans star Anthony Davis announced his intention to seek a trade and when Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis briefly became available before being traded to the Mavericks, the Nets were identified as one of the teams interested in pursuing them.
As a practical matter, the Nets are not likely to be involved in any blockbuster deals at the deadline. Two of their most valuable assets, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie, are recovering from long-term injuries. Allen Crabbe could be available in a salary dump, but he also is injured, and general manager Sean Marks generally is involved in dumps to acquire draft picks, not the other way around.
In the bigger picture, Marks’ long-range plan has been focused on player development under coach Kenny Atkinson, the acquisition of draft picks and clearing salary-cap space for the 2019 free-agent market in July.
In the long run, it makes more sense for the Nets to hold on to young players they have developed and then try to use their cap space to attract a quality free agent.
They are projected to have approximately $54 million in cap space, but that could shrink closer to $30 million because of the cap hold on newly minted All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell. It’s fair to assume that likely targets are Kawhi Leonard and Tobias Harris, either of whom would give them the stretch power forward they crave.
At the same time, Marks and his staff must determine if there are scenarios in which they might part with valuable players they have developed, including Russell, LeVert, Dinwiddie, Crabbe, Jarrett Allen, Rodions Kurucs, Joe Harris and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
How difficult would it be to part with any of them after so much sweat equity has been invested and the Nets finally are seeing dividends?
“We’ll cross that bridge if it ever comes,” Atkinson said last week. “I know my goal is to coach the guys in that locker room and help them get to their maximum potential. I’ve always preached continuity. It’s helped that we’ve had a lot of the same base guys in our system. I really like that. I think that’s part of team growth.
“I do understand the other side of the business, too . . . Sure, I think it would be hard, but I do think Sean has to look out for the long-term health of the organization and continue being smart about our future.”
Atkinson stressed that his primary focus is on this season, but he and Marks frequently discuss what the Nets need from the coach’s perspective.
“I think there’s a character, I think there’s a system-fit, a roster-fit, all that,” Atkinson said. “I think he knows my sentiment on every player on the team. We talk about that all the time. Very clear.”
As much as the Nets’ organization preaches family and a collective approach to team-building success, the players understand that change happens in the NBA.
“It’s the business,” forward Ed Davis said. “As a GM, your job is to make the team better by any means, whether it’s by trades, free agency or through the draft. If they make a trade, it’s for the betterment of the franchise.”
Davis said the organizational message about buying into the culture that Marks and Atkinson have established is clear. But he laughed at the notion of “loyalty” on any level of the NBA.
“Ain’t no such thing as loyalty in this business,” he said. “Never heard of it. I mean, there’s no loyalty from the front-office side, there’s not a lot of loyalty from the players’ side, not a lot of loyalty from the ownership side. Coaches get fired, GMs get fired. I don’t like the word ‘loyalty’ in this business because it ain’t real.”
If you don’t believe Davis, just look at the events of the past week in the NBA.
Russell buys in to team aspect
When D’Angelo Russell became the first Net selected for the All-Star team during the Sean Marks-Kenny Atkinson regime, it served as a milestone of organizational progress.
It was shocking that the Lakers gave up on the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft when they traded him after two seasons and faulted him for a lack of leadership. Russell has experienced plenty of bumps in the road with the Nets, but look at him now.
“If you buy in to what we’re doing and take advantage of an opportunity, there’s rewards,” Atkinson said. “It’s great to see that he bought in to our total program from the basketball side to performance side.
“Your teammates, the coaching staff, D’Angelo realizes it’s a real team effort. Our veterans supported him. It’s a D’Angelo story, but a great team story.”
Indeed, Russell expressed his appreciation for all the help he has received within the organization. He said his individual honor is a reflection of the Nets’ overall success.
“From the outside looking in, you see how many players that we have grown just over the time that I’ve been here,” Russell said. “For myself, I can say that I’ve been through so much. I didn’t know how to be a professional. To come around this organization, they nurtured how to be a professional. You’re around it every day. There’s no let-offs. Everybody’s two feet in on being in for everybody else instead of yourself.
“I need that, reassurances and almost that humbling experience just coming to a new organization where they take pride in that. I’m lost for words, but I know how far I’ve come. That speaks for the development of the players we have here. I think that’s going to go a long way in the future.”