Nets’ audition season begins in Motown
Brooklyn to open free agent-luring campaign at Pistons
The Nets will have the money to sign not just one, but potentially two maximum-contract free agents next summer.
But the looming question hanging over the Brooklyn-based NBA franchise is who will want to ink a long-term, lucrative deal to play on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues in 2019?
The Nets’ collective performance over these next 82 games, and perhaps beyond, will help determine whether big-time free-agents-to-be like Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler can envision themselves seriously vying for NBA championships here in our fair borough.
That makes Wednesday night’s regular-season opener in Detroit the first in a season full of auditions for these Nets, who have spent the past three years on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
If Brooklyn hopes to sign any of the players on virtually every team’s NBA wish list next summer, it will have to build on the eight-game improvement it enjoyed last season following an NBA-worst 20-62 finish in 2016-17.
“We’re in a results-driven business,” ceded Nets general manager Sean Marks, who has been the master planner of this ongoing rebuilding project after winning NBA titles as a player, assistant coach and team executive in San Antonio.
“But at the end of the day, as [head coach] Kenny [Atkinson] said, it’s never going to be purely on the wins and losses. It’s going to be how we pivot throughout the year.”
The biggest pivot the Nets must make in 2018-19 is going from a team that earns merit for its never-say-die attitude into one that wins consistently enough to make a serious bid for a postseason spot.
That’s something Brooklyn fans haven’t witnessed since the 2014-15 campaign, the last of three straight playoff years following the team’s arrival on the Downtown scene.
“You accept and are gracious when people say your team plays hard and they play together, that’s great,” said Atkinson. “I also think that sometimes, a lot of times, especially toward the end of the year, it puts a chip on your shoulder.
“We’ve got to get over the hump. It’s just not enough. In a way, it’s like you’re saying, well, you’re not good enough, quite honestly. I think all of us feel like that’s one of the humps we’ve got to get over. That’s not enough, just playing hard.”
It certainly isn’t.
The Nets, buoyed by a plethora of still-developing talent in their back court, went 28-54 a season ago despite a slew of injuries, including a devastating one suffered by former point guard Jeremy Lin during last year’s opener in Indiana.
D’Angelo Russell, a restricted free agent next summer, Spencer Dinwiddie, a nominee for the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season, and Caris LeVert, who just had his option for next year picked up, will all have to continue their steady improvement as the season progresses.
Especially Russell, who is trying to prove he is a player worth keeping going forward rather than being unloaded for cap space next summer.
“A lot of guys have gotten better,” said the 22-year-old Louisville, Kentucky native.
“I think, just in general, we all have that chip on our shoulder, and are better prepared this year going in, we have a better feel for each other. And then just competing. I think everybody has that competitive edge now.”
Second-year center Jarrett Allen, coming off a strong rookie campaign, also had his option picked up and will be a key member of the organization going forward while newly drafted European players Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs are hoping to get off the pine enough to make an impact in their first full season.
Returning veteran forward DeMarre Carroll and long-ball specialists Allen Crabbe and Joe Harris are back in Brooklyn, and Marks added some grit to the Nets’ previously sparse frontcourt with the acquisition of self-described “Manimal” Kenneth Faried.
Rebounding machine Ed Davis, the ever-improving Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Faried figure to help the Nets begin to solve their woes on the boards and shore up a defense that was one of only four in the league to yield upwards of 110 points per game last season.
Atkinson, who made his name and earned his position based on his player-development skills, will also have to prove that he can take another step up in the win column this season.
The Nets, possessors of their own first-round pick for the first time since Marks’ arrival here, aren’t looking to tank.
Instead, they are hungry to compete and, though they will not openly admit it, eager to make themselves more attractive to the free-agent class of 2019.
“There’s a lot of things that go with playing hard,” Atkinson noted during the Nets’ summer workouts at the HSS Training Center in Sunset Park.
“We can play smarter. We can execute better. That’s a challenge for us this season. I’m hoping we can improve and not rest on those compliments.”
There will be no rest for Atkinson, Marks and the Nets players as the long grind of another NBA season lies before them.
But what happens beginning Wednesday night in Detroit will go a long way toward determining whether Brooklyn can enter 2019-20 with a pair of superstars on its roster.
“We’ve maintained [salary-cap] flexibility for a couple of years now,” Marks noted. “That’s going to be important moving ahead. So, however the roster is built, we’re going to make sure in a year from now, two years from now, we’ve still got the flexibility to go out there and obviously compete No. 1.
“But also put out a product on the floor that’s not going to sort of pigeon-hole us into, ‘That’s it, there’s no way to improve that roster from there.’ Big picture view, that’s how we’re looking at it.”
Ultimately, it’s how Durant, Thompson, Irving, Leonard and Butler will be “looking at it” that will determine if the Nets are ready to begin chasing their first-ever NBA title in 2019.
Nothing But Net: Following their visit to Motown Wednesday, the Nets will host the archrival New York Knicks at Barclays Center on Friday night in their home opener before embarking on a three-game road trip with stops in Indiana (Saturday), Cleveland (Oct. 24) and New Orleans (Oct. 26).
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