Newly acquired forward Jared Dudley checks all the Nets’ boxes.
Traded to Brooklyn last week, along with a 2021 second-rounder (protected to pick No. 35), from Phoenix in exchange for to-be-waived forward Darrell Arthur, Dudley, 33, is a highly regarded locker room presence. He can play multiple positions on the wing or as a stretch four. He is a career 39.6 percent shooter from 3-point distances.
And, maybe most important, his $9.53 million contract will expire after the 2018-19 season.
Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks' plan for this offseason was clear: Maximize salary-cap space for next summer while simultaneously augmenting the club's draft pick inventory. The only Nets with guaranteed contracts after this season are rookies Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs, wing Joe Harris, center Jarrett Allen and guards Caris LeVert and Allen Crabbe (who has an opt-out).
Give Marks credit for executing the plan, but I’ve already gone over the risks in previous posts. While the Nets might be basking in as much as $70 in cap space next summer, depending on how they treat the cap holds on their own free agents, they will have severe competition when wooing the slew of All-Stars slated to become free agents. When the money is equivalent, however, the opportunity to win is what usually sways these top players.
Brooklyn’s selling point is that of a team on the rise. That will only work next offseason if they can first stay on that course. The Nets won’t be able to advertise, “Look at us, we’re improving every year!” after a regression to 20 to 25 wins this season.
So, after another Marks makeover of nearly half the roster, what do the Nets look like on paper? Can this team even beat its 28-54 mark from last season?
There are too many unknowables -- from injuries to the impact of the rookies -- to make any predictions now. However, I believe the only ways the Nets can avoid a deep fall is if they do the following.
1) Alter Their Defensive Philosophy
Anyone who watched the NBA playoffs must have noticed all the defensive switching on nearly every screen. Coach Kenny Atkinson isn’t as firm a believer. Nets bigs typically hang back in the paint defending pick-and-rolls, allowing ballhandlers unfettered access coming around the corner. The theory is that the Nets should surrender fewer points by conceding midrange attempts. It hasn’t worked. To the contrary, the scheme has contributed to other ancillary defensive woes, from their league-worst forced turnover numbers last season to their third-most second-chance points allowed. With the exception of recently signed free agent Shabazz Napier, the Nets have long guards and active bigs who should be able to switch a lot more often than Atkinson had them doing in the past.
2) Figure Out How to Space The Floor
I know it’s hard to believe, but the Nets' offense was Warriors-esque last season when they utilized floor spacers such as Quincy Acy and Dante Cunningham up front. Per NBA.com, Brooklyn was an astounding plus-11.7, with an offensive rating of 118.2 points per 100 possessions, in the 295 minutes when Acy, the definition of a journeyman but a big who can get hot from deep, shared the court with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Nets went 19-25 in those games. Acy and Cunningham are now gone, with Dudley and DeMarre Carroll (who was much more effective as a wing last season) remaining as the only plausible fours with 3-point range. Neither, however, has the size to bang inside or consistently clear the defensive glass. Dudley hasn’t averaged more than six rebounds per 36 minutes since 2008-09. Since the Nets’ other bigs (Allen, Ed Davis, Kenneth Faried and Hollis-Jefferson) garner no respect when behind the 3-point line, Atkinson will have a dilemma on many nights -- play small and risk getting killed in the paint or use more traditionally-sized frontcourt pairings that will clog up the offense. Again, Musa and Kurucs are possible game-changers, but history tells us not to bet on Euros in their first NBA go-arounds.
3) Clear Backcourt Logjam
The consensus believes that Marks’ trade of Jeremy Lin to Atlanta earlier this month unclouded the Nets’ backcourt picture for this season. That’s not entirely true. Sure, injuries will free up court time, but between D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, LeVert, Crabbe and Napier, there are not enough minutes to appease everyone, especially those playing for new contracts. As I noted in my last post, I think Napier is a real wild card. The Blazers were on the plus side of the ledger when Napier acted as either Damian Lillard’s or C.J. McCollum’s sidekick last season. The Russell/Dinwiddie pairing, on the other hand, was a disaster, with Brooklyn getting outscored by 11 points per 100 possessions. Napier shot almost 45 percent on 118 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season, while Dinwiddie made just 37 percent on 183 attempts. This suggests that Dinwiddie should be relegated to strictly backup point duties despite all the hype he received last season when he placed third in the league’s Most Improved Player Award voting. Crabbe should start as Russell’s running mate, with LeVert, who has to show more consistency than last season, competing with Napier for minutes as Crabbe’s sub or in small lineups. Force-feeding Dinwiddie off the ball is a losing recipe.
The Nets, who will choose from their own draft slot for the first time since 2013 next June, do not appear to be tanking this season. There’s enough legitimate NBA material here, especially if they continue to play hard for Atkinson, to be just good enough to miss the boat on the best lottery odds. Still, Marks passed on opportunities (i.e. the Dwight Howard buyout) that could have made the club a lot more competitive. That’s hard for me to swallow knowing how much easier it is to lure the top free agents with positive buzz.
We’ll know for sure that Marks’ plan didn’t work if we’re sitting here a year from now after another offseason of salary dumps, overgenerous restricted free agent offer sheets to slightly above-average players and large carried-over cap space.