By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
Quick quiz: What’s the connection among the following basketball quintets?
A) C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Humphries, Andray Blatche
B) Alan Anderson, Marcus Thornton, Mirza Teletovic, Mason Plumlee, Blatche
C) Jarrett Jack, Bojan Bogdanovic, Anderson, Cory Jefferson, Plumlee
D) Shane Larkin, Bogdanovic, Wayne Ellington, Thomas Robinson, Andrea Bargnani
Only those familiar with the Nets would recognize those names as the fellows who for the most part made up Brooklyn’s bench brigade over the past four seasons.
Why do I bring this up now, with the Nets sinking in the Atlantic Division to the point where the tanking Sixers are no longer a lock to finish in the basement? (The Nets’ 114-100 home loss to Indiana on Wednesday dropped their record to 12-38, which leaves them just four games up in the loss column on Philly.)
You’ll notice heavy turnover in the casts each season as if this were a bad reality TV series — maybe something like “So You Think You Can Play Basketball.”
Well, get ready for another bench overhaul, according to NetsDaily.com, which reported via Twitter on Wednesday, citing a source, that the four Nets reserves with player options (Larkin, Ellington, Robinson and Bargnani) will exercise their opt-outs after this season.
With the salary cap expected to get a significant boost in 2016-17 due to the increased revenue inflows from the new TV deals, the source said the agents for these players will be eager to test the expanded marketplace.
Just another parting gift from Billy King, the former general manager who was recently reassigned. In the latter years of his tenure, King often preached “continuity and chemistry” without understanding what those words really mean.
Not that Nets fans will be sorry to see anyone from this current unit go. Of all of King’s bench men, this might be his worst crop.
And the list above is far from formidable. Only Thornton is currently contributing to a team with a winning record while Plumlee is the only former Net averaging over 20 minutes played per game this season.
King’s mission for this season was to get under the luxury tax threshold, which meant he had to allow Teletovic and Anderson to bolt to Phoenix and Washington, respectively, while armed with only a mini mid-level exception and minimum contracts to re-stock the bench.
Despite the limited resources, the Nets needed King to hit a few doubles in free agency. Instead, he whiffed.
The Nets once again are getting obliterated in terms of bench production. Brooklyn’s starting unit has been plus-0.7 points per 100 possessions in the 276 minutes they’ve played together since Jack’s season-ending knee injury on Jan. 2.
The Nets’ record in that period? 2-15.
The Pacers bench outscored the Nets’ reserves 54-11 before the final 1:38 of garbage time on Wednesday. Less than a week ago in a blowout loss in Dallas, the tally was 34-2.
The Nets typically fall apart in fourth quarters. Some of that could be attributed to fatigue from excessive minutes given to starters Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Thaddeus Young, whose tanks may have been running on empty in some of the most crucial stretches.
Usually what happens is that the opposition makes its big run while the Nets starters are resting for crunch time. Against the Pacers, the Nets cut a 19-point halftime deficit to 10 points after the third quarter. Lopez and Johnson, having played the entire stanza, needed a breather. By the time they re-entered with 7:11 remaining, the Pacers’ lead jumped back to 15 points.
“It’s the same story,” said Brooklyn interim coach Tony Brown. “Our starters played relatively big minutes, but we just didn’t have any rhythm coming off our bench. We’ve got to find some other guys to join the fray.”
To be fair, I included Ellington as a reserve above, even though he has been predominantly starting since rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fractured a bone in his ankle in December. Hollis-Jefferson is expected to return sometime around the All-Star break and, unless Brown has a concussion, he should immediately regain the starting job based solely on his badly needed defensive skills.
Besides, when you look at Ellington’s body of work this season (7 points per game on 38.5 percent shooting from the floor and 33.5 percent from 3-point territory), he’s been as maddeningly inconsistent as all of King’s other summer replenishments.
Whoever Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov settles on to replace King in the GM chair has to understand that repairs are going to be needed to damage beyond the core. The estimated $40 million in cap space that the Nets will have this coming summer can’t just be used on max contracts. That’s how this whole mess was created in the first place.
For years, King undervalued team depth in favor of high-priced big names. Draft choices that could have been used on developing players for subservient roles were gifted away in trades as if the Nets had an endless supply.
In addition, King was just not that good of a talent evaluator. Oh, he had some cheap hits — Anderson and Blatche proved to be worthy investments at their price tags, and let’s not forget that Shaun Livingston was so invaluable in his one season in Brooklyn that the Nets took off when he was inserted into the starting lineup — but the Nets certainly got what King paid for when it came to this bench.
There were experts who called the Bargnani free agent signing for the league minimum last summer “a low-risk move.” Not when you consider that for every game Bargnani has helped keep the Nets afloat with his mid-range jumpers, there have been three that he has either shot the club out of or ceded through defensive indifference.
I can see how King might have thought that the frontcourt duo of Bargnani and Robinson, who was also signed to a minimum free agent contract in the summer, would complement each other — in theory. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way. In the 156 minutes they have played together this season, the Nets have been outscored by 18.1 points per 100 possessions.
King opened Prokhorov’s wallet a little bit more to get Larkin, carving into Brooklyn’s mini mid-level exception in the hope Larkin would prove all the doubters who dismissed his abilities due to his size wrong.
Unfortunately, his defensive deficiencies and knack for ill-timed turnovers have too often made him a liability. Larkin should have been the heir apparent when Jack went down, but Brown was forced to yank him from the starting unit in favor of Donald Sloan after a handful of poorly played games.
As for Bogdanovic, I’ve already delved into his numerous flaws in a previous post. Even though he has another year remaining on his Brooklyn mini mid-level contract, in my view he is the player in most need of a change of scenery.
That will be up to the new GM, who hopefully will be in place before the Feb. 18 trade deadline to begin the massive reconstruction process. ESPN.com reported that the Nets have been given permission to interview Rockets executive vice president Gersson Rosas and Nuggets assistant GM Arturas Karnisovas. According to the New York Post, the Nets have reached out to the Wizards to request permission to interview their senior VP, Tommy Sheppard. Former Phoenix and Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo has also been mentioned as a serious candidate.
Until then, Brown doesn’t have many options.
“If I have to play more guys longer minutes just to stay in the game, I will,” said Brown. “But we’re still looking for a few good men.”
More than a few, Coach.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1