True to the vision they articulated when they arrived to rebuild the Nets, general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson on Monday said they aren’t looking for any quick fixes for their NBA-worst 20-62 team but are focused on building for the long term.
Marks declined to identify specific needs at positions or areas of improvement that might be targeted and said the Nets will explore not only the NBA restricted and unrestricted free-agent market but also Europe and other foreign leagues. The Nets are projected to have $25 million of salary-cap space, but when asked about targeting elite unrestricted free agents as a means of improving quickly, he sounded a strong note of caution.
“If you go after one of the top-tier guys, you obviously would hope to get him, but does that really make you better?” Marks asked. “Does it get you to 30 wins, 35 wins? The objective here is for us to be in the playoffs.
“But you don’t want to go and sign free agents, and next thing you know, your payroll is capped out and you’re a 25-win team. So we’re going to have to build this strategically, have patience with it . . . We’re going to have a big-picture view on this looking down the road.”
A season of travails, many of them injury-related, ended with positive vibes that accompanied an 11-13 finish after a 9-49 start. Improvement came when point guard Jeremy Lin and center Brook Lopez showed they could play well together.
Lopez was regarded by many as a likely trade chip Marks might use to add draft picks, but the general manager appreciated how his 7-foot center added three-point shooting to fit Atkinson’s spread offense. “Brook, in both of our minds, is one of the most elite centers in the league,” Marks said. “Does he fit with Kenny’s system? I think we’ve seen it does work. As we’ve seen, Jeremy and Brook make other people better.”
Marks was especially pleased by the coaching staff’s job in fostering a culture that promotes closeness and a strong work ethic. Speaking of the players, Marks said, “They’re socializing together, they eat together, the conversations that are had around the water cooler, so to speak. Those guys are cheering on their teammates, and it’s real. They’re holding each other accountable. That’s pretty rare.”
If there is one area that Marks and Atkinson want to upgrade, it’s the three-point shooting. The Nets ranked fourth in the NBA in three-point shots attempted but only 26th in three-point accuracy (.338), meaning there were too many empty possessions.
“Kenny and I talked about our shooting a lot,” Marks said. “Obviously, we value the three-point shot. I am right there with him on that. It will be taking the right shot, but it will be having the right personnel to take those shots. We will certainly look to address that.”
Although they won’t have their guaranteed top-four pick in the draft because it was traded to Boston by the previous regime, Marks acquired the 22nd pick from Washington at the trade deadline to go with the Celtics’ 27th pick. Asked if he might try to package those to move up or take a young European to stash overseas for a year, he said anything is possible.
“I like having two picks,” Marks said. “I think it just gives us another swing at it. We’ll stay creative and stay as strategic as we can.”
Marks said he and Atkinson are about to make a European trip and will meet with owner Mikhail Prokhorov and scout prospects. Reports have linked the Nets to CSKA Moscow point guard Milos Teodosic.
“Look, he is a terrific player, but there are a lot of guys out there,” Marks said. “Last time I was in Europe, I probably saw eight different teams. [Assistant GM] Trajan Langdon is heading out again, and he is going to see 10 different teams. It would be pretty irresponsible of me to say, ‘We’ve got one guy in mind.’ ”
Whatever decisions Marks and Atkinson make in the draft and free agency will have a major impact on the group of backups with non-guaranteed contracts they developed into significant contributors, including Spencer Dinwiddie, Sean Kilpatrick, K.J. McDaniels, Joe Harris, Quincy Acy and Archie Goodwin.
“Those guys came in here and really took advantage of the opportunity they had,” Marks said. “They all proved they are NBA players. I will steal one of Kenny’s phrases that he is intrigued by a lot of them.”
As much of a struggle as his rookie head-coaching season was, Atkinson said it helped not only the players but his own growth. “I kind of like the process, and looking back on it, having to fight through some tough times,” Atkinson said. “I think that’s going to make us better in the long run, but I know it’s a day-to-day thing and every day counts this offseason.”