Just one year ago, the “Brook-Lin” marriage between Nets franchise center Brook Lopez and free-agent point guard Jeremy Lin seemed like a fortuitous pairing that would benefit the Nets even more on the court than in the marketing department. But injuries sidelined Lin for more than half the season, and though the two of them proved successful in the final quarter of the season, Lopez had greater value as the trade chip who was dealt Tuesday to acquire young Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell.
The trade came as no surprise because it fit the rebuilding plans of general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson to develop a young core group for the future. But it was a tough pill to swallow for Lopez, who still hasn’t commented publicly, and for Lin, who shared his thoughts on the Nets’ shifting landscape in a wide-ranging interview with Newsday.
Admitting his emotions were raw when Marks and Atkinson informed him of the deal, Lin said: “I guess it was just missing Brook, and I felt like we were figuring out ways to work together. So it would have been a cool opportunity to see what we could do this upcoming season, but that’s obviously not the direction we’re going in right now.
“We had a good relationship, and it’ll be tough, it’ll be disappointing. I feel like there was definitely some stuff that was kind of unfinished. But again, we all understand the business, and we’re super-thankful for the time that we did have together. Definitely wish we could keep playing, but that’s not going to be the case.”
LEADERSHIP ROLE FOR LIN
Lin has spoken to Lopez since the trade but didn’t want to characterize the big man’s emotions about leaving the franchise he led for nine seasons, except to say, “I think he enjoyed a lot of his teammates that he’s had on this past team.”
Now the leadership role Lin shared with Lopez last season falls more squarely on his shoulders. But the addition of the 21-year-old Russell, the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft, creates a situation that might be complicated.
On the one hand, Marks said he expects Lin to be a good influence on Russell, who showed some immaturity at times with the Lakers. On the other hand, Russell could be viewed as the Nets’ point guard of the future though he lost that job with the Lakers and shifted to shooting guard.
Lin said his leadership style won’t change, although he might have added responsibility. He understands the questions about Russell but also believes in his talent and upside.
“I think at the end of the day, he’s a really good kid,” Lin said of Russell. “He has a good heart, and he’s a tremendous basketball player. Once he meets our team and gets in our locker room, I’m pretty sure it will be a seamless transition. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from him as well, and hopefully he learns from me. What we want to do is create that family atmosphere where we’re kind of pushing each other, keeping each other accountable, helping each other.”
Free agency could alter the Nets’ roster makeup dramatically, but for the moment, Lin agreed the emphasis is on a “guard-heavy” offense. As for sharing backcourt responsibilities with Russell, Lin noted that Atkinson’s offense allows several players to bring the ball upcourt and initiate the attack, including wing Caris LeVert and forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Trevor Booker.
Describing how he and Russell will fit, Lin said: “Kenny’s going to be making these decisions. I do know that we’ll be playing together for a lot of the time. I guess, on paper, I’m the point guard and I’ll make a lot of the point guard plays, which I’ve spoken to Kenny about and that’s obviously going to be the case. That’s what they brought me here for.
“But I think I’m going to learn how to make [Russell’s] life easier and vice versa, and I think we’re going to be able to play off each other and complement each other. I think having two dynamic, downhill players, one on each side — he’s a lefty, I’m a righty — presents some problems for the defense.
“One of the names that isn’t being mentioned enough is Sean Kilpatrick, who is great downhill as well. I think D’Angelo, Caris, Sean and I will probably be doing a lot and you can throw in Spencer [Dinwiddie] and Isaiah [Whitehead], too.”
LIFE AFTER LOPEZ
Figuring out how to replace all-time franchise scoring leader Lopez is a major concern. Russell brings a high-end offensive game, but Lin said making up for the loss of Lopez’s inside presence will have to get done by committee.
“We’re going to miss that one-on-one, back-to-the-basket presence, just to be able to score when you really need a bucket,” Lin said of Lopez. “But if we can play together, I think we’re going to end up with good shots, and having a lot of guys who are capable of scoring, hopefully, the impact of the loss of Brook will be dispersed a little bit. Otherwise, we’re really going to be in trouble.”
As part of the Lopez deal, the Nets also acquired 7-1 center Timofey Mozgov, who plays in the paint and lacks the three-point ability Lopez showed last season. He will be challenged by first-round draft pick Jarrett Allen, a 6-10 freshman center out of Texas whom Lin knows because they have the same agent.
“I know a little bit about him and I’ve spoken to him and his family,” Lin said. “I’m definitely going to take care of him. I think he’s going to be pretty good. We’re definitely excited about having him.”
No doubt, more roster changes are on the horizon when free agency opens Saturday. At the end of last season, Lin said he sensed significant interest in the Nets from free agents he knows, and if anything, that has only increased.
“I’ve had multiple conversations, and they are players that are really good players who are interested in coming,” Lin said. “People can tell we play the right way and we try to do things the right way. You can ask anybody, and that’s what everyone is hearing.
“People understand that when they come here, it’s not a toxic environment, it’s not a toxic culture. I think that’s what gets people excited . . . I think if we play well this year and we get a couple other proven players that can come in and make a strong impact right away, I think you’re looking at a team that has potential to be kind of a dark horse in the East.”
In the aftermath of the Lopez trade, the big question that must be asked is how Lin views his own future with the Nets. He turns 29 in August and is in his prime, but he has only two years left on his contract and could be in the same position as Lopez a year from now in terms of trade value.
Lin hesitated when the question was posed, saying: “I mean, that’s probably a question that’s more for the organization. But if you ask me, yeah, I hope we have a breakout year as a team and we continue to build from there. I would love that.”