Starting their third season under the management team headed by general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets finally have something to play for. Making another step forward from the 28-win plateau they reached last season is part of it, but the larger goal for many players is to secure long-term deals and prove they should be keepers next summer when the Nets have more than $60 million in salary cap space.
Key starters D’Angelo Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are eligible for contract extensions before the regular season begins, but Marks made it clear at the team’s preseason news conference on Tuesday that he’s in a wait-and-see mode as those two approach restricted free agency next summer. Spencer Dinwiddie, who had a breakout season a year ago but likely will come off the bench this season, also will be eligible for a contract extension until June 30.
When asked about an extension for Russell, the Nets’ most marketable star, Marks spoke only in general terms. “We’ve got several guys that could be up for extensions,” Marks said. “We have had conversations with them and their agents, and they know where they stand. This year will create a competitive environment for everybody. We’ll see how it falls.”
Pressed regarding whether any contract talks are close or if he’s content to let things play out, Marks said, “I think we would probably let it ride out. But things change in this business pretty quickly. We can adjust as we go.”
Coming off their eight-win improvement last season, the Nets added veteran free agents who give Atkinson a much deeper well of talent, including forwards Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried, who should improve the Nets rebounding and defense and Shabazz Napier, who can play either guard spot. All three are in the final guaranteed year of their deals, as are Dinwiddie and newcomers Jared Dudley and Treveon Graham.
Marks admitted some concern about how players handle the pressure of competing for future contracts but said, “It’s the whole staff’s job to support these guys and their families, and we’re going to manage that as the year goes regardless of whether there’s extensions during the year, at the end of the year or however it plays out.”
Wins and losses have not been as important as the development process the past two seasons, but Atkinson said that will change as the Nets try to make themselves as attractive as possible to marquee free agents next summer.
“That’s the theme,” Atkinson said. “I think we need to take another big step forward. I think our guys are excited about it. We put in a lot of work during the offseason, we’ve had some good additions to the team and we’re looking to make another step forward.”
Atkinson acknowledged the Nets also must close out games better than in the past even though they earned a reputation for being a tough out. “It’s great when people say you play hard and play together, but I also think a lot of times it puts a chip on your shoulder,” Atkinson said. “That’s one of the humps we’ve got to get over. Just playing hard isn’t enough. We can play smarter, we can execute better. That’s a challenge for us this season.”
There should be no shortage of motivation for a group of players who know they are fighting for their futures. “We’ve maintained flexibility for a couple of years now,” Marks said. “That’s going to be important moving ahead. However the roster is built, we’re going to make sure that a year from now, two years from now, we’ve still got the flexibility to . . . improve that roster from there. Big picture view that’s how we’re looking at it.”