By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
In case you missed all the news, the Nets signed a bunch of players to short-term contracts this week to round out their roster for the upcoming season.
After striking out in the Allen Crabbe/Tyler Johnson restricted free agent derby Sunday, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks quickly moved on by inking guards Greivis Vasquez, Joe Harris and Randy Foye and forwards Luis Scola and Anthony Bennett.
Not exactly a Dream Team.
All were obtained on the (relative) cheap after unimpressive 2015-16 seasons, and only Bennett was reported to have a (partially) guaranteed second year in his deal.
So it will mostly be a mix of not-ready-for-primetime players and a few way-past-prime players that will compete for the love of new Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson when training camp commences in September.
Let’s call them the “Un-Fab 15.”
Center Brook Lopez is the only proven commodity on the roster, which includes six players 24 years old or younger, four of whom are under 22. If I had to guess, the rest of the opening night starting lineup would include free agent acquisitions Jeremy Lin and Trevor Booker at point guard and power forward, respectively, alongside returning wings Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Bojan Bogdanovic.
Chris McCullough, Sean Kilpatrick and rookies Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead will battle the above bargain-basement pickups for rotation minutes.
On paper, it’s 50/50 whether that group will be able to better the meager 21 wins produced this past season.
As awful as that sounds, it’s the right way for Marks and the Nets to proceed with the rebuild.
Despite the Celtics’ option to swap first-round slots in next June’s NBA Draft and ample (around $55 million on July 1) funds to spend on free agents, the Nets did not need to fill up their cap space tank in a bid to win 30 to 35 games this season.
Crabbe and Johnson, neither of whom have averaged more than 26 minutes per game in a season, would have cost Brooklyn $125 million combined over the next four years. Johnson was projected to be the Nets’ third guard. Crabbe was allegedly promised that he would start, but who knows if he would have been usurped by one of the younger guns at the loaded shooting guard position once the season took its course?
One hundred twenty-five million dollars is an awful lot of money to invest on spec.
It’s better for the Nets to develop their young, in-house players and save the cap space for those more deserving next offseason, when there is expected to be a deeper and higher-quality free agent pool with fewer teams that have enough cap room to bid on them. The latest reported projection calls for an approximately 8.5 percent increase in the per-team cap in 2017-18 as opposed to the 34 percent spike that preceded this offseason free-for-all.
Four players (Hollis-Jefferson, McCullough, Kilpatrick and Whitehead) have been starting for the Nets’ Summer League team in Las Vegas that advanced to the quarterfinals after squeaking by the Ben Simmons-less 76ers on Thursday.
Hollis-Jefferson continues to be the most intriguing of the prospects due to the havoc he wreaks on the defensive end — provided he can improve what still appears to be an off-kilter jump shot and he can stay healthy. He’s had several awkward landings in Las Vegas this past week where it looked like he still hasn’t fully recovered from the broken ankle that cost him 50 games in his rookie season.
McCullough, on the other hand, has miles to go in the mental aspects of the game. Until I see otherwise, his ceiling is as a Channing Frye-type stretch 4. Kilpatrick, though not as youthful (he’s 26), has been dominating inferior Summer League wannabes, as he should. Whitehead, the Nets’ second-round selection out of Seton Hall, has shown glimpses of NBA potential, but he doesn’t handle the ball or distribute well enough to play the point, as some have projected.
And let’s not forget LeVert, the 20th overall selection in the June draft who was acquired when Marks dealt forward Thaddeus Young to Indiana. Many claim LeVert has lottery ability, but his multiple foot surgeries scared off other teams. LeVert skipped the Summer League but should be ready for training camp, according to Atkinson.
This season will be all about two things: whether Lin can once and for all prove he is a legitimate starting point guard, and which of the young players has what it takes to stick around for when the Nets are ready to rejoin the competitive NBA fraternity.
It’s very important that some of them do, as it will provide further evidence that Marks has changed the culture in Brooklyn. The word is spreading, albeit not at the pace Nets fans had hoped for, that the stench from the incompetence of the prior Billy King regime is gone. However, some positive results as it relates to Marks’ acumen as a talent evaluator will be needed as confirmation.
In addition to currently owning about $20 million in cap space, according to BasketballInsiders.com, the Nets could very well have somewhere around $45 million to $50 million to use to take a second stab at free agency next summer.
Maybe someday soon Brooklyn will be looked at as a primary destination for the NBA’s top players instead of merely the grateful ones.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1