By Steve Lichtenstein
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So I was a few wins off.
My preseason prediction had the Nets winning 17 games. The final tally was actually a league-worst 20 after Wednesday’s 112-73 debacle in Chicago.
Looking back, I never imagined that starting point guard Jeremy Lin would miss 46 games due to injuries (and one controversial “rest day” on Wednesday). Nor did I factor in how much Lin would inspire his undertalented teammates upon his return after the All-Star break. Brooklyn went 11-13 after being a late-night joke 9-49 on Feb. 28.
With Lin, the Nets were starting to get it. The ball-movement, pace, and defensive pressure were all improving to something closer to coach Kenny Atkinson’s vision.
Of course, late-season NBA results can be skewed given all the injuries, rest, and blatant tanking that goes on.
Which is why, as much as I would like to wrap this season up with “feel-good stories” about development, progress, etc., I just can’t.
The season was an abomination on many levels, especially during Lin’s absence. The Nets, try as they did, never had a chance in most of their games. My ears are still ringing from the clanging that resulted from all the missed shots, which were usually immediately followed by incompetent transition defense.
Growing pains are supposed to be, well, painful. This season brought the pain in spades.
It’s really going to sting when the Celtics sit at the lottery table with the best odds of securing the No. 1 overall draft pick, courtesy of the prior regime’s 2013 go-for-broke blockbuster trade for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry.
I know, the past is past and the draft picks (Boston also owns Brooklyn’s 2018 first-rounder) are sunk costs. However, I can’t completely buy the Nets’ spin because when you get down to the basics, there are only a handful of players on this roster who project as contributors in a good team’s rotation.
Even worse, there’s not too many avenues for that to get much better this summer.
The Nets will select 22nd (as consideration for trading Bojan Bogdanovic to Washington at the deadline), and 27th (in the Boston swap) in the first round, while also holding the 57th overall selection.
Can general manager Sean Marks pull a rabbit out of his hat the way he did with Caris LeVert a year ago? LeVert, who along with Lin proved to be the only players with solid two-way skills, fell to the 20th overall slot due to his multiple foot surgeries in college. He missed the first 20 games and then was placed on a minutes restriction for the remainder of the season.
Marks has recently been scouring the European leagues, allegedly to gauge prospective free agents such as Milos Teodosic and Nicolo Melli. However, it wouldn’t be surprising if Marks uses at least one of his draft picks on a “Euro-stash,” a tactic employed to great success by Marks’ former colleagues in San Antonio.
When it comes to the NBA free agency period in July, Marks is in the Catch-22 position of trying to get top players to come to a rebuilding project when those same players tend to congregate around established winners. Remember that last summer Marks had to offer a four-year, $75 million contract to restricted free agent Allen Crabbe, who averaged 10.7 points per game after Portland matched.
Rumors are swirling that Marks will again enter the risky restricted free agent sweepstakes in July, with Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Washington’s Otto Porter as obvious targets.
Assuming they renounce veteran guard Randy Foye and a $101 million per-team salary cap for 2017-18, the Nets will be sitting with about $27 million in cap space, according to spotrac.com.
That also assumes that Marks exercises all the team options and unguaranteed provisions he put into the multi-year deals for all of his development projects. Between the draft picks and new signings, some folks will have to go.
Wings Joe Harris and Sean Kilpatrick will have their contracts guaranteed on June 30. Forward Quincy Acy and guards Spencer Dinwiddie and Archie Goodwin also have trigger dates during the summer. In addition, the approximately $3.5 million team option for forward K.J. McDaniels, who was acquired from Houston for $75,000 at the trade deadline, can either be exercised or excised on June 29.
Unfortunately, the contracts of underperforming big men Justin Hamilton and Andrew Nicholson are guaranteed for next season. Nicholson’s average $6.5 million cap hits for the next three seasons were taken in the Bogdanovic trade. Hamilton’s $3 million deal will expire after next season.
With so little depth up front, it probably makes sense for Marks to pull center Brook Lopez, his best trade asset, out of the market. As I’ve often mentioned, the Nets all-time leading scorer is a flawed player, even taking into account his growth into a threat from 3-point range (34.6 percent on a team-high 387 attempts). But his value to Brooklyn has always far exceeded what can be brought back in any deal.
If Marks finds any takers for energetic power forward Trevor Booker and his $9.1 million expiring contract, he should jump at it. I won’t discount the importance of Booker’s hustle plays, but Atkinson needs a real “stretch-four” to make his offense work at full throttle.
That also goes for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The 6-foot-7 sophomore spent the latter third of the season transitioning to an undersized power forward. Hollis-Jefferson’s athleticism made for some interesting matchups, but overall the negative impact of having him get bullied by the likes of Dario Saric and Al Horford outweighed his speed advantage on offense. Savvy opponents wouldn’t even guard him outside the paint. Why should they when he shot 23.6 percent from outside of five feet?
In summation, Marks’ summer to-do list includes a fit at power forward, another “3-and-D” starting wing, more capable ballhandlers as Lin insurance, and a backup center.
You want some good news? Marks and Atkinson seem like they know what they’re doing. They have a plan, even if it doesn’t fit in the timeline of impatient New Yorkers like me. The team generally played hard for Atkinson, a sign that his teaching skills are no fable. Lin is a unique player who can will better execution from less-talented supporting cast members. LeVert is a tantalizing athlete who has a higher ceiling than I expected if he works on his body and 3-point shot. Lopez can score.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to generate more than 20 wins this season. Without an infusion of higher-caliber players, it won’t be good for much more than that in 2017-18.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1