After the Nets finished with the worst record in the NBA two years ago, the notion of them competing for a top-tier free agent could have been summed up by the sign posted on the Belt Parkway for traffic leaving Brooklyn: “Fuhgeddaboutit.”
But the Nets ranked as the No. 1 surprise in the NBA this season when they made a remarkable leap from a 28-win season to a 42-40 record that was good enough for a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Perceptions of the Nets were altered as general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson developed a young core that includes All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell, Sixth Man award candidate Spencer Dinwiddie, NBA three-point percentage leader Joe Harris and emerging young stars Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen.
Looking back on his own experience as a player plucked from the G League when the Nets signed him in December, 2016, Dinwiddie believes the success the Nets have achieved combined with the family-oriented culture created by Marks and Atkinson will be a lure for the top free agents.
“This is a fairy-tale experience,” Dinwiddie said. “They really care about you. It’s a joy to come to work every day, and that’s top down from management to performance staff.
“They’re going to send flowers to your parents, they’re going to make sure that, if you have a newborn, he gets to come to as many games as possible. All of it is players-first. That’s the culture they’ve built here, and it’s been a pleasure to be a part of it.”
Dinwiddie said a solid organizational foundation is in place with Marks and Atkinson and a core of young talent. But most organizations contending for marquee free agents have those ingredients, and the money will be the same wherever they go except for the fact their current teams can offer an extra year. At a certain point, the workplace environment becomes a major factor, and the Nets have a positive image around the league.
“Nobody wants to go into a place that, even if you are a great team, you’re miserable every day,” Dinwiddie said. “If we’re calling a spade a spade, the guys you talk about in terms of [Kevin Durant] or whoever else, nobody can overpay them because they’re going to get every dollar regardless of which team. It really comes down to happiness, culture, where you want to be, winning.”
This season also had a fairy-tale aspect as the Nets rebounded from an 8-18 start and a catastrophic dislocated ankle suffered by LeVert to win seven straight and begin their ascension to the playoffs, where LeVert starred in their first-round loss to the 76ers. Now they head into an offseason of uncertainty with just seven players guaranteed to return if you include Allen Crabbe, who has a player option on the final season of his contract worth $18.5 million.
The Nets are projected to have $30 million of salary-cap space to pursue one top free agent and would have to clear a little more space to accommodate a maximum salary. They also must negotiate with restricted free agent Russell and possibly make a big decision if he tests the market and receives a maximum offer.
But veterans DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis and Jared Dudley, all of whom played vital roles and all of whom are free agents who would like to return, agree the Nets must sign an All-Star caliber player to go deep in the playoffs.
“If you want to start talking about championships, we’re a young talented group, but you’ve also got to bring in a really, really talented player or players,” Carroll said. “That’s the reality of the thing.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to have a game-changer. I think that’s what Brooklyn is going to try to do this year.”
They need look no further than their five-game loss to the 76ers, who started four All-Star-caliber players in Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris along with superb shooter JJ Redick to understand the challenge that lies ahead. Butler and Dix Hills native Harris will be among the top prospects in a free-agent class headed by the likes of Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson.
“To get to the semifinals, conference finals and the Finals, you need those top-tier players, at least one that’s going to get you 25 a night,” Davis said. “That’s just how the NBA is now with all these teams stacked up with three or four All-Stars.”
Dudley said his perception of the organization was altered in a positive way this season from ownership, GM, coach, playing style and performance staff on down plus the opportunity to play in the New York market.
“Free agents would definitely consider it,” Dudley said. “Now, them picking it, maybe Brooklyn has a little more to do. [But] the players they have coming up here are ready to take on that challenge.”
Dudley was inferring the talent base the Nets have in place is good enough to support a top star. But as a realist, he understands it’s tough to compete with the Knicks, who had the NBA’s worst record and are much farther from contention but will have cap space to sign two max-salary free agents.
“The advantage the Knicks have is history, even though they might not have been good for the last 15, 20 years,” Dudley said. “For us, the advantage is the foundation and the culture we have . . . I would say right now, Brooklyn has put [itself] in a fighting position to land somebody.”