By Steve Lichtenstein
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The clock hasn’t officially run out on the NBA offseason, but all indications seem to suggest the Nets have called it a summer.
Though there are still some intriguing restricted free agents available, Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks appears to be willing to take his approximately $16.5 million in salary cap space into the season.
If, for instance, Marks had deemed Grizzlies forward JaMychal Green worthy of an offer sheet, it would have gotten done by now, if only to start the two-day clock that, as we learned through the Otto Porter, Jr. ordeal, spiteful teams can legally extend to further tie Brooklyn’s hands.
The Nets would also be wise to stay far away from the Carmelo Anthony drama playing out between the Knicks and the Rockets. What third or fourth team is giving Brooklyn due consideration for taking on a massive salary cap hit like Ryan Anderson’s? The best asset would be the Knicks’ own 2018 first-round pick, and if that gets moved just to push Melo out of town, new GM Scott Perry may as well keep his belongings in the boxes he just shipped from his Sacramento office.
So assuming Marks has nothing else up his long sleeve, where exactly does his club stand as it prepares to enter the 2017-18 season, its first without center Brook Lopez in 10 years?
Point guard Jeremy Lin went on Instagram last weekend to proclaim that “We’re making the playoffs,” but professional basketball players are supposed to be overly optimistic.
Anyone not associated with the team who shares that opinion, however, is not thinking straight.
It’s way too soon to make predictions as to just how bad Brooklyn will be this season, but any improvements over last season’s 20-62 horror show will be incremental, not monumental.
The Nets will certainly be different, with Lin and possibly Rondae Hollis-Jefferson projected to be the only starters who were also on the court for the tip-off on opening night in Boston last October.
Instead of having Lopez and his 20 points per game as the offensive focal point, the Nets are banking on D’Angelo Russell, the 21-year-old guard obtained from the Lakers along with center Timofey Mozgov in exchange for Lopez, maturing to coexist with Lin and form a formidable backcourt.
Head coach Kenny Atkinson has three months to figure out how to make all this newness fit. Personally, I would love to see him experiment with a five-man unit of Lin, Russell, Caris LeVert, newly-acquired veteran DeMarre Carroll and Trevor Booker. It would be severely undersized, but its floor spacing and defensive switch-ability would seem to be tailor-made for today’s NBA. So it’s not quite the second coming of the Warriors’ “Death Lineup,” but maybe it could be a “Viral Lineup,” something that’s at least annoying to play against.
Unfortunately, in Atkinson’s egalitarian rotations, you can expect the development guys — those young players picked up off the scrap heap like Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, Sean Kilpatrick, Quincy Acy and Archie Goodwin, plus 2016 second-round pick Isaiah Whitehead — to continue to garner significant minutes.
Oh, the players in that group will make some positive contributions over the course of a game. But they’re not big or fast enough, they don’t shoot efficiently, and they don’t defend well enough to help the Nets win the number of games required to compete for a playoff berth.
I still maintain that the Nets are one shooting big man from becoming, well, interestingly frisky. The bottom half of the Eastern Conference is in flux, with no one quite sure what the Bulls, Hawks and Pacers are doing.
Someone like restricted free agents Green or Nikola Mirotic, or even Ersan Ilyasova (previously unrestricted before signing a one-year, $6 million contract with Atlanta), would have fit well here.
But Marks has a different vision. He has stated on numerous occasions that he won’t be chasing such mediocrity as an eighth postseason seed. Only young players, or veterans with young players/draft picks attached, will be targeted for deals.
While fans like me see value in Brooklyn winning, say, 30 games instead of 20 to avoid abetting a Celtics’ dynasty by handing over another high lottery pick (the last one owed from the failed 2013 Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce gamble), it isn’t even a minor consideration for Marks.
Marks has done a more-than-satisfactory job rebuilding the Nets from the rubble left behind by the Billy King Error. He has parlayed his limited assets into as many young players as possible, with the hope that someday in the future Brooklyn will again be a relevant NBA franchise.
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