Because the guaranteed top-four draft pick they earned with the NBA’s worst record belongs to the Celtics, the quickest way for the Nets to upgrade their talent level in the offseason will be to spend their projected $25 million in salary-cap space. It figures to be a tough sell to top-tier free agents because they are so far from playoff contention, but point guard Jeremy Lin believes the Nets have generated interest and plans to be involved in the recruiting process.
“I’m sure I’ll be involved,” Lin said after a series of meetings with coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks on Thursday during season-ending exit interviews. “Players are asking us questions when we’re playing against them.
“I’m sure when July comes around, I’ll be trying to pitch. I’ll know what the plans are, and I’m sure I’ll be pitching and doing my best to get these guys to come.”
The Nets were unable to even get a sitdown last summer with Kevin Durant when he was on the free-agent market. The best unrestricted free agents this summer, including the Warriors’ Durant and Steph Curry and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, are expected to re-sign with their current teams. But Lin is convinced that the Nets made a good impression on potential recruits with their playing style and with reports of the family-first atmosphere Marks and Atkinson have created within the organization.
“I honestly don’t think it’s going to be that hard of a sell,” Lin said. “First of all, it’s Brooklyn, it’s New York. Second of all, everyone can tell this culture is completely different. There’s a freshness, a different vibe, and I think what we did after the All-Star break [finishing 11-13 after a 9-49 start] will help.
“But also, players just want to be treated the right way, and I know that there’s definitely a lot of interest. Players are asking about us because they saw the way that Kenny coached. They saw how hard these guys played night in and night out, how unselfish we played.
“Like, they want to be a part of that. So there’s already been a lot of interest. People are already asking questions, whether it’s to me or Brook [Lopez] or other players. I don’t think it’s going to be as difficult.”
The Nets clearly were at their best when Lin and Lopez were on the floor together, recording a 13-17 record in those games. But the nature of the season afforded an opportunity for Atkinson to develop his young core players.
First-round rookie Caris LeVert earned a permanent place in the starting lineup in February, and the Nets had an 11-15 record with him at small forward. Second-year player Rondae Hollis-Jefferson moved from small forward to power forward and was 15-35 as a starter. Second-round rookie Isaiah Whitehead proved he can play both guard positions and was especially effective as a shooting guard and physical defender on the second unit.
“If you look at the team when we were really successful, we had guys like Rondae and Caris and Zay,” Lopez said. “They were bringing energy, doing their thing. They were scoring the ball, sharing the ball, making huge plays. A lot of that doesn’t have to do with experience. It’s going out there and playing hard, and those guys definitely did.”
Hollis-Jefferson, who is 6-7, 214 pounds, recorded eight double-doubles and took justifiable pride in moving to power forward and defending much bigger players. “I feel like I’ve grown a lot just in terms of my aggressiveness,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It kind of made me come out with a different approach, and I feel that will be my approach for the rest of my career.”
LeVert shot only 29.8 percent from three-point range before March but improved dramatically from March 1 to the end of the season. He hit 35.0 percent of his three-point attempts and averaged 9.8 points in the final 24 games.
“For him to show that amount of confidence and for my teammates to show that amount of confidence in me was huge,” LeVert said of Atkinson’s decision to make him a starter. “It’s definitely refreshing to see that you belong in this league and that you’re doing a part, especially at a younger age.”
Beyond the success of the Nets’ young draft picks, Marks and Atkinson did well in identifying and developing reclamation projects from the D-League and other organizations. Atkinson named backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who was signed out of the D-League, as one of the season’s biggest surprises.
“The experience you gain and being able to play consistently just brings a certain level of confidence and calm that you don’t necessarily have when you play once every five games,” said Dinwiddie, who averaged 22.6 minutes per game. “I obviously did enough to stick for this season. I believe I am an elite talent, and I hope they do, too.”
Marks obtained forward K.J. McDaniels from Houston at the trade deadline for mere cash considerations, and he scored in double figures in six of his last 10 appearances, shot 51.0 percent from the field and showed defensive prowess.
Like Dinwiddie, McDaniels hopes he has found his NBA home with the Nets. “I feel like I definitely could stick here,” he said. “I love Brooklyn and I love the facility and the organization. The fans have shown a lot of love, and Brooklyn is a great place to be.”
That’s the message Lin and the Nets hope to sell this summer.
Here is how the Nets’ roster breaks down going into the offseason:
Core players – Jeremy Lin, Brook Lopez, Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Isaiah Whitehead.
Veterans under guaranteed contracts – Trevor Booker, Justin Hamilton, Andrew Nicholson.
Unrestricted free agent – Randy Foye.
Non-guaranteed players on roster bubble – Sean Kilpatrick, Spencer Dinwiddie, K.J. McDaniels, Joe Harris, Quincy Acy, Archie Goodwin.