Nets center Nic Claxton looks on in the second half...

Nets center Nic Claxton looks on in the second half of an NBA game against the Hawks at Barclays Center on March 31. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Nets’ 2023-24 season started Wednesday without national attention. It won’t have pundits talking about players seeking trade requests or championship dreams.

The drama might fade, but there’s still something gnawing inside the Nets’ locker room beyond Ben Simmons looking to return to his All-Star form. For most of the team, there are goals at stake beyond the team eyeing the playoffs.

Seven players on the Nets’ 15-person roster are on expiring or one-year contracts. Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Smith Jr. both signed one-year minimum deals and Nic Claxton is at the end of a two-year extension.

Claxton could command a nine-figure contract this summer as one of the top young defensive centers in the league.

“If you even look individually, you can look at us as a unit, a lot of us have something to play for,” Claxton said at shootaround Wednesday. “A lot of us have a lot that we want to prove to the league, prove to ourselves. It’s a hungry, younger group, and we’re all a lot of fresh faces, so I think all of us coming together, it’ll be a great blend.”

It also makes for a different tension heading into the Nets' season. As the team tries to create an identity under coach Jacque Vaughn, it means blending in their own goals for a team with an uncertain future.

In addition to Walker, Smith and Claxton, the Nets have decisions to make on Spencer Dinwiddie and Royce O’Neale, both free agents after this season. At 30, both are two of the team’s oldest players and Dinwiddie will make $20.3 million this season.

Dinwiddie wasn’t worried about himself, but noted that age is another motivating factor adding some edge around the team.

“Everybody talks about being 30 [years old], but half our core is 28-30, whatever you want to call it,” said Dinwiddie. “Which in basketball range puts you in your prime, right? You only got to 33 to do this at a high level, right? So, in that respect, I think everybody’s got something to prove.”

Nobody on the Nets is 28 yet, but Simmons, Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges are 27. Smith, who’s entering his seventh season, turns 26 in November. Walker, a six-year veteran, turns 25 in December. Those are ages where players are seeking both stability and defined roles.

Age aside, there’s personal challenges for everyone. Cam Johnson? Validating his new four-year extension. Cam Thomas is eligible for a rookie extension after this season. Smith? Looking to continue his transformation from lottery pick to defensive specialist.

Claxton wants more respect for his defense so he’s aiming for his first All-Defensive team. The Nets also don’t have a draft pick this season so there’s incentive to reach the playoffs, a tougher challenge in a stronger Eastern Conference.

Besides Simmons, Mikal Bridges could be in All-Star conversations if he builds on last season. Day’Ron Sharpe has to make strides as a rebounder and defender in his third season.

It adds more challenges in Vaughn’s first full season, but he isn’t concerned. He's embraced players chasing their goals instead of seeing it as a problem.

“Usually, dudes who are competitive have some sort of chip that they've created or that exists, so I don't mind it,” Vaughn said. “Hopefully, I can tap into that and use that throughout the course of the year in the way I coach them and the expectations that I have for the group.”

It creates different stakes for this new season. They might not be championship-related but it’s fueling the Nets differently as they aim to prove something to a league overlooking them without contender credentials.

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