As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2015-16 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues with the Brooklyn Nets, who were eliminated from the playoffs last week.
The moment the Brooklyn Nets chose to buy out the final two years of Deron Williams’ contract last July, the story of their 2015-16 season was set in stone.
Yes, the Nets had many reasons to move on from Williams, who remained an above average point guard but was nowhere near worth the $100 million contract he had received back in 2012 to become the face of the team’s move to Brooklyn. Letting Williams go not only removed a public relations millstone from the neck of the franchise, but it also allowed the nets to save a boatload of money by going under the luxury tax.
What it didn’t do, however, was make the Nets better on the court. For most teams, that wouldn’t be a problem. But for the Nets, who don’t have control of their first round pick until 2019, it left them with no benefit to a season full of losing.
Both coach Lionel Hollins and general manager Billy King wound up paying the price, as the Nets opted to fire Hollins and, in a highly unusual move, reassigned King in mid-January. By moving King out of the GM job, Brooklyn then had to conduct a search for a new person to run the organization in the middle of the season.
That search went on for over a month, eventually ending with the Nets hiring San Antonio Spurs assistant general manager Sean Marks on Feb. 17 – the day of the trade deadline. Now the Nets are playing out the string, waiting to see where the first-round pick they owe the Boston Celtics from the trade that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn in 2013, and for Marks to begin what is one of the biggest rebuilding jobs in the NBA this summer.
2016 draft picks
First round: None (pick will go to Boston regardless of where it winds up).
Second round: Their own, but subject to pick swap with the Los Angeles Clippers (unless Clippers finish with one of the NBA’s five best records).
2016-17 salary cap space (with projected $90 million cap)
$37.6 million ($41.4 million committed to seven players, including a $500,000 buyout of Jarrett Jack’s contract; $5.8 million in stretch payments to Deron Williams and Andrea Bargnani; $4.1 million in player options for Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and Thomas Robinson; $1.1 million in two roster charges).
2016 free agents
PG Donald Sloan, SG Sergey Karasev, SG Markel Brown, PF Willie Reed
Five questions to answer
1. Who will be this team’s coach?
When the Nets moved on from both King and Hollins back in January, they had two potential courses of action. One was to hire a coach that would likely seek full control of the team’s basketball operations, like Tom Thibodeau or John Calipari. The other was to hire a general manager and allow them to choose who the coach is going to be.
By hiring Marks, the Nets went the latter route. And hiring the former Spurs executive has only added to the speculation that the heavy favorite to become the team’s next coach is Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina.
The 56-year-old Italian is one of the best European coaches of all time, winning a dozen league titles between his time in Italy and Russia and claiming four European titles. Messina is familiar with Nets ownership from his time coaching CSKA Moscow, and would fall in line with ownership’s infatuation with the Spurs’ program.
2. Will anyone take Brooklyn’s money?
Trying to figure out how to rebuild the Brooklyn Nets – at least in the short-term – seems like a near impossible task. With little current talent and no control over their first-round picks for the next three years, there is basically only one way to bring in players at the moment: by using cap space in free agency or trades.
That’s why the Nets are one of the team’s impacted the most by the massive rise in the salary cap over the next couple of seasons. Yes, the Nets will likely have around $40 million in salary cap space to use, and have the allure of New York and the potential for lots of playing time to attract free agents.
But with basically every team in the league having enough money to offer a fat contract to at least one player, the Nets will have plenty of competition for basically everyone they try to sign – and almost all of that competition will present a better option for winning in the short-term than Brooklyn can. That’s why both the Nets — before hiring Marks — and Marks — since being hired — have talked about trying to find players in Europe and other undervalued markets to work around this.
3. What’s next for Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young?
In his introductory press conference last month, Marks made an interesting comment at the end of his answer about how he might dig the Nets out of the hole they find themselves in.
“Yes, for sure, [we don’t] have a draft pick as we stand right now,” Marks said. “But that, too, can change. So we’ll just wait and see. Time will tell.”
It was an eyebrow raiser, for one specific reason: the only way the Nets are going to be getting a draft pick anytime soon is by trading either Lopez or Young – their only two veteran building blocks. It’s a tough decision for the Nets to make, and essentially comes down to how Marks wants to attempt to rebuild the roster: either try to get veteran help to put around Lopez and Young now, and try and fight back to the middle, or to completely tear down the roster by trading Lopez and Young for draft picks and build for three years from now.
4. Can Rondae Hollis-Jefferson develop a jump shot?
There hasn’t been much to get excited about this season in Brooklyn. But one thing, unquestionably, has been the play of rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
A livewire 6-foot-7 shooting guard with arms that go on for days, Hollis-Jefferson made an immediate impact – particularly on defense – before injuring his ankle in early December. Between his athleticism, defense and ball-handling ability, Hollis-Jefferson has plenty of appealing attributes as a player.
One thing he doesn’t have, though, is a jump shot. His herky-jerky shooting motion is reminiscent of two other defense-first wings: Memphis’ Tony Allen and Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Hollis-Jefferson has been working with shooting coach David Nurse, and in his first game back from injury Tuesday his shot still looked awkward, but better than before his injury.
If that improvement can continue, Hollis-Jefferson’s ceiling – which is already significant – would only go higher.
5. Will ownership allow Marks to do his job?
During his press conference announcing the decision to fire Hollins and reassign King, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov said that he thinks the Nets can be back next season as a championship contender.
This is a ridiculous assertion. That being said, it’s one that would fall in line with the way the Nets have done their business over the past few seasons: by chasing short-term success at the expense of long-term sustainability.
By hiring Marks over a more splashy hire, it appears the Nets may be finally shifting away from that philosophy. But, on the other hand, by lacking name-brand recognition Marks could be a prime target to be overruled by his bosses if they don’t approve of the plans he’s trying to put in place.
The Nets are a team that desperately needs to put a long-term plan in place and then carry it out to its conclusion. If that happens in Brooklyn, there are plenty of reasons to think this could become a successful franchise in a few years. But whether it can, or will, happen with Prokhorov as owner is a very legitimate question to ask.
More in our NBA Postmortem series: