By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets ushered in a new era with Monday’s introductory press conference featuring guard D’Angelo Russell and center Timofey Mozgov.
They were acquired last week in the trade that sent Brook Lopez to the Los Angeles Lakers. The 7-foot center departed as the Nets’ all-time leading scorer.
Forget, for a moment, the emotions and intangibles associated with this change. I’m not going to pick apart whether or not the 21-year-old Russell, as this blockbuster’s centerpiece, has the maturity to handle a leadership load, something he was criticized by Lakers general manager Magic Johnson for on his way out the door.
The cellar-dwelling Nets can still count on a few NBA veterans remaining in their locker room, but no one with superior talent than the 2015 No. 2 overall draft pick.
“I don’t think anybody would take it the right way for a new guy to just come in barking right away,” Russell said of taking on a leadership role in Brooklyn. “That’s not really my personality. So I’m going to try to lead by example first, get guys’ respect, and just go from there.”
As for Johnson’s comments, Russell called them “irrelevant.”
What Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks might find problematic, however, is replacing Lopez’s presence not only as a big man, but also as a long-range offensive weapon.
The 30-year old Mozgov, who has been unfairly labeled as an afterthought in this deal due to the absurd $48 million he is owed over the next three seasons, is the favorite to land the Nets’ starting center job heading into training camp. Returning backups Justin Hamilton and Quincy Acy are simply not good enough and 19-year-old first-round draft choice Jarrett Allen isn’t ready.
“Timmy fits perfectly,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said on Monday. “He’s a competitive player. He’s a guy that loves to run the court. He’s a physical player. He rolls to the rim on pick-and-rolls, which we love. He fits a culture we’re trying to build.”
In Atkinson’s scheme, however, the Nets typically space the floor after initiating their attack with a pick-and-roll. While adding another superb ball-handler in Russell to go along with Jeremy Lin and Caris LeVert makes the Nets more dangerous, Mozgov is just nowhere near the finisher that Lopez was, especially from 3-point range.
The Nets’ conundrum is exacerbated because their power forwards — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Trevor Booker — each shot well below the league average from 3-point territory last season. Having one guy who wasn’t a threat from deep was hard enough for the Nets to create efficient offense, but traffic in the lane will be even more congested if going forward they opt to utilize two poor perimeter shooters up front.
Will Mozgov, who has made just seven of his 40 3-point attempts in his seven seasons in the league, replicate the Lopez metamorphosis from last season? After all, Lopez was 3-for-31 over his first eight years before canning 34.6 percent of his 387 3s in 2016-17.
Mozgov said he is willing to try.
“Let’s see if (Atkinson) lets me shoot,” Mozgov said. “I’m the guy who will do whatever the coach tells me to do. He tells me to shoot (from) half court, I’m going to shoot (from) half court. If (they) want me to shoot 3s, I’m going to work on it. Easy.”
Well, maybe it won’t be that easy, according to Atkinson, who helped develop Al Horford’s 3-point shot while working as an Atlanta Hawks assistant before joining the Nets prior to last season. Atkinson said he could tell right away that Lopez had the form to expand his range. As for Mozgov…
“I think we can expect Timmy to be a little closer to the basket,” Atkinson said. “We’ll put him in that dunker position behind the basket. He’s good at the elbows, with a nice jumper. (If) he keeps pushing me to go out to the 3-point line, he’s going to have to show me. I think I’m going to shoot with him today to see if he can do it. Listen, it is important to spread the court. If he’s capable, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. We’ll start him in the corners. That’s how we started with Horford, but we’ll see if we get there.”
The trade now puts the onus on Marks to focus on adding a true “stretch-4″ when the free agency marketplace opens on July 1. After declining to exercise their $3.5 million team option on wing K.J. McDaniels’ contract on Sunday, the Nets will be about $28.4 million under the league’s cap, according to spotrac.com, with the ability to create up to approximately $7.8 million more room by ditching their five players (Acy, Sean Kilpatrick, Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Archie Goodwin) who are on non-guaranteed agreements.
Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, who, judging by his demeanor following Nets-Hawks affairs last season, seemed to adore Atkinson, would be the dream pick-up. Unfortunately, I would doubt he’d give any consideration to hooking up with a team coming off a 20-62 season. Neither would Toronto’s Serge Ibaka, who shot nearly 40 percent from deep last season.
Marks more likely will attempt to poach a restricted free agent like last offseason. However, this strategy comes with its own risks. NBA owners tend to prevent good young players from escaping for nothing, while the signing team’s cap space is tied up between the offer and match dates. Marks went 0-for-2 on last July’s offer sheets.
Much chatter references Detroit wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Washington’s Otto Porter Jr., who could possibly play power forward if one REALLY stretches it, as restricted free agent targets, but they are near locks to be matched even at max levels.
An underrated restricted free agent prospect is Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic. The Bulls (stupidly) traded star Jimmy Butler to move up in the draft to select Lauri Markkanen, who plays Mirotic’s position. The 6-10 Mirotic is an awful defender coming off a down year, but he is only 26 and can shoot the lights out. Maybe the suddenly frugal Bulls won’t want to pay big money to keep him.
Or maybe Marks will decide to go off in a totally different direction.
“We’ve never looked at it like we have to have this particular position,” Marks said. “I think we’re still trying to get ‘best available’ and so forth, and talent acquisition. You know how we value shooting, so if we can get a shooting big, terrific, but we’ve got guys now on our roster that can shoot from outside.”
Still, someone like sharp-shooting J.J. Redick makes little sense for both parties. Brian Lewis of the New York Post reported that the 33-year-old Clippers guard, who recently purchased a condo in Brooklyn, is on the Nets’ free agent radar. At this stage of Redick’s career, if he’s not going to a title contender, he’d be looking to eat a huge chunk of the Nets’ cap space.
We’re still talking about a long-term rebuild here, not making the Nets a playoff contender in 2017-18. None of Marks’ top targets will do that anyway.
But the Nets do need certain types of players for continuity of their system on both ends of the floor. Brooklyn started to establish a certain way it was going to play toward the tail end of last season when Lin returned from a lengthy injury respite — fast, while embracing the 3-point shot.
Players around the league have noticed, Lin said a recent interview.
Last week’s trade has the potential to allow the Nets to take the next step, provided Marks gets aggressive next week to balance the roster.
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