If the men’s basketball competition at the Tokyo Olympics is any indication, Nets fans can look forward to a thrilling season. Hours after agreeing to a four-year contract extension worth $192 million, Nets superstar Kevin Durant scored 29 points to carry the U.S. to its gold medal win over France, and then Nets free-agent acquisition Patty Mills scored 42 points and added nine assists to lead Australia to it first basketball medal ever in a bronze medal win over Slovenia.
Following the medal ceremony, Durant and Mills even celebrated together. Now, the question is whether they can carry that kind of performance over to the coming NBA season when they will team with Kyrie Irving, James Harden and a new cast assembled by general manager Sean Marks in free agency and the draft.
Durant’s Olympic performance won him widespread recognition as the greatest player in the game as he carried a U.S. team that suffered a shocking loss to France in its opening Olympic game. Thanks to the contract extension, Durant is assured of playing the next five seasons at Barclays Center and likely finishing his career as a Net.
Before training camp begins in September, it’s quite likely Irving and Harden also will sign contract extensions that assure the Nets will be NBA title contenders for as long as the Big 3 play together. Some fans likely were disappointed to see Spencer Dinwiddie leave via a sign-and-trade deal to join the Wizards, who gave him a three-year contract worth $62 million that simply would have been too costly for the Nets to absorb at a time when owner Joe Tsai is facing a salary and luxury tax bill projected to total $297 million.
But Marks once again did a stellar job in putting together a powerful contender. His big move was using the taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Mills to a two-year deal worth $12 million that cost far more because of the luxury tax. But Mills, who turns 33 on Wednesday, is worth it.
He provides instant offense off the bench and averaged 10.8 points with the Spurs last season while shooting 37.5% from three-point range and 50.0% on two-point shots. His 42-point bronze medal performance underlined the impact he might have with the Nets when he is on the floor with any of the Big 3 or NBA three-point percentage leader Joe Harris. That is the definition of firepower.
In addition to Mills, Nets GM Marks also used free agency to strengthen the Nets’ bench and toughness with fifth-year wing man DeAndre’ Bembry and 12-year veteran power forward James Johnson, who replaces Jeff Green, who left the Nets for a two-year deal worth $10 million with the Nuggets.
Marks also managed to keep two of the Nets’ own free agents when Blake Griffin, who figures to start at center as he did in the playoffs, agreed to return for the veterans’ minimum while versatile guard Bruce Brown accepted his one-year qualifying offer worth $4.7 million. The Nets also added point guard depth by acquiring third-year vet Jevon Carter as part of a draft night trade that sent Landry Shamet to the Suns for the No. 29 overall pick that was used on North Carolina center Day’Ron Sharpe two picks after the Nets chose LSU shooting guard Cam Thomas with their own first-round pick.
If there is one mystery, it revolves around the role backup center DeAndre Jordan will play. It was reported the Nets tried to unload the final two years of his deal worth $20 million last week because he fell out of the rotation and did not play in the playoffs, but they were unsuccessful.
For now, the center position is manned by Griffin, Nic Claxton, Jordan and Sharpe. The lineup at power forward includes Durant, Johnson, second-year man Reggie Perry and second-round pick JaiQuan Gray. At small forward, the Nets have Harris, Brown, second-round pick Kessler Edwards and holdover Alize Johnson. Irving figures to be backed up at shooting guard by Carter and Thomas, while the point guard lineup is Harden, Mills and second-round pick Marcus Zegarowski.
Not everyone will be included in the final roster, but it’s a balanced lineup that has star power, great shooting and veteran toughness off the bench. One big question might be rebounding, but Griffin and Claxton certainly have shown how effective they can be on defense.
Of course, the Eastern Conference figures to be even stronger with the Bucks and Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo defending their title, the 76ers adding the muscle of Andre Drummond to back up All-Star center Joel Embiid and veteran point guard Kyle Lowry joining All-Stars Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler with the Heat. The Lakers are the obvious Western Conference favorite after Russell Westbrook joined LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
But after the Tokyo Olympics, there is no doubt the Nets’ cast starts with the No. 1 player in the world.