In the space of three seasons under general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets have gone from an NBA-worst 20-62 record in 2016-17 to a 42-40 winning record this season that resulted in a surprising playoff berth as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Atkinson said he believes the Nets are “ahead of schedule” in their rebuilding process.
Marks, Atkinson and members of the coaching staff all have received contract extensions, conveying an air of stability for a franchise that was in shambles when Marks took over after the previous administration traded away a slew of draft picks in the ill-fated 2013 deal with the Celtics for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. But at the 2019 draft in June, Marks will exercise the Nets’ original first-round pick for the first time in his fourth draft.
It’s a rosy picture, but after their first-round playoff elimination by the 76ers in five games, the Nets face some major questions in the offseason.
1. Is Brooklyn now a destination for top-tier free agents?
Veteran Nets forward Jared Dudley, who is in his 12th season and playing for his sixth franchise, loves how the Nets have positioned themselves to attract players, especially with a strong emphasis from Marks and Atkinson on building a family oriented culture. “Players want to play for a stable organization where the owner, general manager and coach are all aboard,” Dudley said. “They want to see young talent, which this team has. Then, financially, people want to get paid. Living in New York has probably been my best experience, just living in the city. It’s bright for the future for Brooklyn.”
2. Which top-tier free agents should the Nets pursue?
Without question, the Nets’ No. 1 need is a power forward who can stretch the floor with three-point shooting, which means they should go after Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Durant might be more inclined to look at the Knicks, while Leonard might prefer to be in Los Angeles with the Clippers. Durant has a good friendship with young Nets guard Caris LeVert, and Leonard is well-acquainted with Marks from their days together with the Spurs. If the Nets miss on those two, small forward Khris Middleton, Dix Hills native Tobias Harris, Nikola Mirotic and possibly even center Nikola Vucevic might be considerations for their projected $30 million salary cap space.
3. Should the Nets offer a max deal to restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell?
Marks gambled in trading for the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft after the Lakers gave up on Russell two years ago. It paid off when he developed into an All-Star under Atkinson. If the Nets renounce Russell, they could clear more than $50 million in cap space to pursue two top-tier free agents. But Russell represents one of those two spots. He knows their system and has bought in, and he’s only 23 with more upside. It’s possible Russell will attract a max offer as a restricted free agent that will set the market for Marks, but maybe the GM can negotiate a team-friendly extension beforehand.
4. Has making the playoffs upped the ante for the Nets’ young core?
Heading into this season, there was no pressure of expectations for a team coming off a 28-win season. That all changes for a core group that currently includes Russell, LeVert, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris with rookies Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa. Assuming the Nets add a top-notch free agent power forward, the expectation then will be to compete for at least the Eastern Conference title if not an NBA championship.
5. What should the Nets do with Allen Crabbe’s contract and free-agent veteran leaders?
At the moment, Crabbe is the highest-paid Net with one year left at $18.5 million, but injuries limited him to 43 games and he only averaged 9.6 points. Crabbe’s .378 three-point percentage still has value in the Nets’ system if he can stay healthy, but he’s overpaid for a bench role. At the same time, veteran leaders DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis and Jared Dudley all will be free agents, and all played major roles in the surprising rise of the young Nets. They might be willing to sign team-friendly deals to stay with a team they enjoy.