By Steve Lichtenstein
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August tends to be a quiet month around the NBA. We could sure use it after such a frenzied start to the offseason fraught with daily news of superstars changing addresses.
However, for a team such as the Nets — one that plans to rely on many young players — this is the time when the real work gets done if they want to rise above the ashes from the dumpster fires they left behind the last few seasons.
Through a series of trades since February’s deadline, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks has remodeled the roster into one that is now at least intriguing on its face. Marks used the Nets’ ample salary cap space to add legitimate pieces while simultaneously jettisoning much of the deadwood.
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, should he so choose, will be able to send out a starting lineup comprised of Jeremy Lin, D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll and Timofey Mozgov. Developing players such as Caris LeVert, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Isaiah Whitehead and Sean Kilpatrick — all of whom started at least 24 games last season — will now have to compete for playing time on a deeper second unit.
Since attending Crabbe’s introductory news conference last week, I’ve been going back and forth as to whether these changes will yield material results this season in a watered-down Eastern Conference. Marks tempered expectations in his remarks, but, at least until we see this new conglomeration unfold, it’s not a stretch for fans to believe, as Joe Johnson once put it, “it ain’t that bad here.”
And then my son Jack reminded me about how the NBA works. A theoretical team of average players doesn’t project to go 41-41. It’s more likely to end up 30-52. Think of the Celtics before Isaiah Thomas’ metamorphosis.
It’s a star-driven league, and the Nets, as of this moment, don’t have one.
Even worse, given that they’ve never had the pedigree to lure one in free agency, now they no longer have the flexibility to obtain one in a trade.
When asked Thursday if the Nets had targeted anyone in this summer’s unrestricted free agent market (a four-year, $106 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Otto Porter Jr. was matched by Washington), Marks replied: “Not really. For us, it was just about understanding the league and what was going to be best for us, now and heading into the future. If there are guys we really wanted to go after, whether they’re restricted or unrestricted, we’ll hopefully make that pitch and get an opportunity to sit in front of them and go after it.”
In other words, don’t hold your breath hoping for anyone in the star-studded 2018 free agent class either. The Nets’ only hope of getting a superstar in the foreseeable future is to develop one.
While the Nets’ brass obviously believes that Crabbe can be more than a one-dimensional 3-point specialist — that’s why they agreed to take on the onerous contract ($56 million owed over the next three years) that will make him their highest-paid player — the best bet to blossom is Russell.
The 6-foot-5 Russell, who was traded by the Lakers along with Mozgov in exchange for center Brook Lopez, certainly has upside. He’s only 21 years old and was drafted No. 2 overall in 2015 for a reason.
Like most young players in this league, his first two seasons were bumpy. Immaturity may have been an inhibitor in his ability to overcome the difficulties inherent in L.A.’s losing environment. New Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson insulted Russell’s lack of leadership qualities soon after the trade.
So he’ll never be as fast as someone like John Wall, as efficient from the perimeter as Stephen Curry, as explosively athletic as Russell Westbrook or as sublime a ballhandler as Kyrie Irving or Chris Paul.
But he’s been pretty good already. The list of players who have matched Russell’s per 36-minute averages in points, assists, rebounds and 3-point percentage in their first two seasons, according to a June article in the New York Post, contains Curry, Paul, Larry Bird, James Harden and Manu Ginobli.
And Russell can get better. Much better. The next two months will be crucial in determining whether he can take his game to the next level.
Russell made his late-night workouts a social media event in the immediate aftermath of the trade, but much of the labor will occur out of public view. With the Nets’ Performance Team, to mold his body into one that can withstand this league’s rigors and the Nets’ high-tempo pace. And with Atkinson and his staff, to work on both the mental and physical aspects of the game.
Atkinson has established a standout record of his own for developing young players. Lin, Mozgov and Carroll are among the many players who have raved about the benefits from Atkinson’s tutelage in his prior gigs as an assistant for the Knicks and Hawks.
Now it’s Russell’s turn to get placed under Atkinson’s wing.
Russell told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that in his first meeting with his new coach, Atkinson stressed defense.
“Defense — the first thing (Atkinson) said,” Russell said. “‘I’m going to push you, push you.’ Every coach on the staff said that.”
Maybe the Nets’ staff can also help Russell get that 3-point conversion rate a few points above the substandard 35.2 percent he shot last season. And dissect game films so he can understand how he posted an unseemly 12.3 percent turnover ratio, the league’s sixth worst among point guards who played over 25 minutes per game, per NBA.com.
Russell’s healthy Q rating in the big city is nice for the franchise, as was discussed in New York Post reporter Brian Lewis’ interview Sunday with Brett Yormark, the CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, the Nets’ parent company.
But the Nets need Russell to play like a star, not just act like one. If it’s going to happen, this is when it starts.ar
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