Less than a week before training camp opens Tuesday, the first green shoot of hope for the future of the Nets sprouted when it was reported that Timberwolves All-Star forward Jimmy Butler requested a trade and listed the Nets as one of three preferred destinations. Butler’s status in Minnesota remains unsettled for now, but from the Nets’ perspective, it was the first concrete sign they can be a player in the 2019 free-agent market.
How attractive they are will depend not only on their projected $65 million in salary-cap space but also whether their performance in the coming season shows the building blocks are in place and they are progressing toward serious playoff contention. The Nets made an eight-game improvement to a 28-54 record in their second season under coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks, and their development process has shown unmistakable gains.
They have four “core” players who are 24 years old or younger in D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, and three other key players in the 25-27 range in Allen Crabbe, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris. Marks added to the veteran leadership of DeMarre Carroll by sprinkling in seasoned free agents such as Ed Davis, Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham, Jared Dudley and Alan Williams and traded for veteran power forward Kenneth Faried to add depth and toughness.
The result is a greater sense of identity and direction than in the first two years of the Marks-Atkinson regime.
"Going into year three, it’s just having familiarity with the players,” Atkinson said recently. “That breeds a trust and a camaraderie. We’re more together as a group, as a staff and throughout the organization. All those things together breed confidence.”
It inevitably will take time to blend the newcomers into the mix, but Davis and Faried, in particular, can improve the Nets’ weakness on defense and rebounding.
“We’ve kind of stayed at the same level defense-wise over the first two seasons,” Atkinson said. “I’d really like to take a jump and improve that area. I think we were 30th in the league in creating turnovers.”
For Marks, the next major step the Nets must take is learning how to close out tight games. In games that either reached overtime or were decided by eight points or fewer, the Nets were 18-26 last season and only 1-5 in such games that went to overtime.
“I would say guys going through the process of losing close games and having the ball in their hands at certain moments of a game [is an area of improvement],” Marks said. “We’ve seen it different times, different scenarios. You learn with experience. So those guys have gone through that. We’re all growing, and the players look forward to getting out there and having those opportunities again.”
Atkinson identified his team’s frequent slow starts as a major contributing factor to all the close end-game results. “A big area of improvement is not getting into big holes early,” Atkinson said. “There are plenty of games where we expended a lot of energy getting back into games.”
The departure of LeBron James from Cleveland to the Lakers creates more opportunity for teams to move up in the Eastern Conference, but Marks cautioned that the Nets aren’t getting ahead of themselves. “It doesn’t really impact our expectations,” Marks said. “We’re going to focus in-house. It’s about developing the group of 17 guys with the two-way guys. If they develop and do what we think they’re capable of doing, then we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”
If the Nets can make another leap forward to the fringe of playoff contention, they should be in play for the big free-agent chips in 2019.
1. Can D’Angelo Russell establish his leadership? — By all accounts, D’Angelo Russell made significant offseason strength gains and the Jeremy Lin trade cleared the way for the 22-year-old point guard to establish firm control and assert leadership. He benefits from second season under coach Kenny Atkinson.
2. How will veterans Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried impact frontcourt? — Ed Davis was a key glue guy in Portland and might mentor starting center Jarrett Allen, as well as provide a strong backup presence. Faried is a great rebounder and energy guy, but recent arrest for marijuana possession was a rocky start with Nets.
3. How will Nets sort out backcourt congestion? — Signing of free agent Shabazz Napier gave Nets third quality point guard with Russell and backup Spencer Dinwiddie. But backcourt is crowded with starter Allen Crabbe and backups Joe Harris and Caris LeVert. Trade possibilities abound.