Up until their 4-0 first-round playoff loss to the defending NBA champion Raptors the Nets displayed impressive resilience despite the adversity they faced during the 2019-20 season. But the paradigm changes next season when they add healthy superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to the roster and set their sights on contending for a title.
Amid uncertainty surrounding the NBA in a time of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the path forward for the Nets lacks clarity. Here is a look at five major questions facing general manager Sean Marks:
1. Did Jacque Vaughn earn the head coaching job, or should the Nets search for a high-profile candidate? One day after playoff elimination, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported the Nets will pursue Spurs president and head coach Gregg Popovich even though he is 71 and recently received a three-year extension. Popovich mentored Marks and has coached Durant and Irving with the U.S. Olympic team. If he remains in San Antonio, as expected, other reported candidates include Tyronn Lue, Mark Jackson, Ime Udoka, Jason Kidd and Jeff Van Gundy. But Vaughn connected with players and would provide continuity.
“If you ask anybody who was part of JV’s two games before the [stoppage in March] and then the whole experience [in the restart], they’ll tell you he’s very deserving of the job,” Caris LeVert said. “He’s done a great job winning with less. He brought the group together.”
2. Has Caris LeVert shown he can be the “third star,” or is he a trade chip? Starting with his 51-point game in March at Boston, LeVert took over as the Nets’ go-to guy and averaged 24.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.2 assists and shot 45.7 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from three-point range. He took charge, handled increased defensive attention and made the right plays. He has a strong relationship with Durant, but also has a spotty injury history and some might view him as a trade chip for a third “All-Star.”
Vaughn said the restart was a “great test” for LeVert. “You saw him become much more verbal on the floor, a better recognition of what needed to be done on both ends, an accountability with himself and his teammates,” Vaughn said. “Great growth from him.”
3. Which free agents or trade targets might fit the Nets needs? Marks said the No. 1 priority is to re-sign free agent Joe Harris, who not only is one of the top three-point shooters in the NBA but also has developed an excellent drive game. Forwards Aaron Gordon of the Magic and John Collins of the Hawks, two big men who can stretch the floor from outside, might make logical trade targets. But if Marks looks for a veteran big man who can come off the bench, the Raptors Serge Ibaka or the Clippers’ Marcus Morris would fit. An under-the-radar target might be 11-year veteran Michael Beasley, a 34.9% career three-point shooter who signed with the Nets before the re-start but was unable to join them after testing positive for COVID-19.
4. Which members of the Nets’ supporting cast might be coming or going? Center DeAndre Jordan signed along with Durant and Irving, so, he’s staying. The Nets have a team option on Garrett Temple, but he was a veteran leader who wants to return. Backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie had career-high numbers, but he and third-year center Jarrett Allen could be potential trade bait as easily as LeVert. Forwards Taurean Prince and Rodions Kurucs and swing man Dzanan Musa likely are destined for limited roles, and rookie big man Nic Claxton remains a development project. Swing man Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot might have earned a guaranteed contract, but free-agent guards Tyler Johnson and Chris Chiozza face an uphill battle in a crowded backcourt.
5. Barring major trades or free-agent signings, what might the Nets’ rotation look like? The starting lineup almost certainly would include Jordan, Durant, Harris, LeVert and Irving. The second unit would be Allen, Prince, Luwawu-Cabarrot, Temple and Dinwiddie. Claxton, Kurucs and Musa, likely would round out the bench along with the first-round draft pick. The big question is whether Johnson did enough to earn a contract.