It is a very dark time to be a fan of the Brooklyn Nets. Nobody can dispute this. In former GM Billy King’s tenure, he built fans up just to ultimately let them down, while mortgaging the future of the franchise all at the same time. For the past few years now, we’ve seen the long-term effects that these moves have made on the franchise. And, because of these moves, King is no longer employed with the team.
Things seemed bright for a little while, though. Prior to the 2009-2010 season, Mikhail Prokhorov bought the team and thus, injected hope in a fan base than was accustomed to a penny-pinching former owner. Immediately, Prokhorov, known for his successful business involvements in Russia, became the richest owner in sports.
Soon after taking over the team, it was announced that the franchise would be moving to Brooklyn, ultimately raising the overall worth of the team, while bringing it to a larger market. Things were starting to look up.
The Nets were in need of a star, one they’ve lacked since the Jason Kidd/Vince Carter era. That star, through much speculation in 2011, was going to be Carmelo Anthony. It was clear that Melo’s choice was to go to the New York Knicks, though that choice wasn’t exactly his. He was still under contract with the Denver Nuggets, and the Nets were seen as the dark house that could end up being the winners to acquire Anthony’s services. Things didn’t work out that way for the Nets, as he was eventually shipped off the Knicks.
After missing out on the Melo Sweepstakes, the Nets decided to trade for Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams. At the time, Williams was arguably the second best guard in the league, with Chris Paul holding the crown as the unanimous number one. In the deal, the Nets send over former #3 overall pick Derrick Favors, starting point guard Devin Harris and two first-round draft picks for the All-Star guard.
With D-Will running the point, and Brook Lopez as the franchise center, the future certainly looked bright for the new-look Brooklyn Nets. The 12-70 season from 2009-2010 was long behind them, and a new culture was beginning to be built in Brooklyn.
Continuing the trend of building to the roster, the team agreed to acquire sharpshooter Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason of 2012, a deal that Atlanta almost certainly did not hesitate to make. Though Johnson was a six-time All-Star at the time, he was still owed $90 million on his contract that he signed in 2010. Johnson was still a great player, but many around the league considered the deal to heavily favor the Hawks. Brooklyn, looking to make some noise in their new home, seemed to care very little about the downsides this trade could bring. The Nets sent over a three expiring contracts to Atlanta, along with DeShawn Stevenson and a future first round pick. Of course, they were on the hook for the entirety of the contract.
This is where things start to get very, very ugly for the Nets. In the summer of 2013, then GM Billy King decided to go all-in and try for a championship run. In a blockbuster deal, the Nets acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and D.J White from the Boston Celtics in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans and three first round picks (2016, the right to swap picks in 2017, and 2018).
On one side of things, it was clear for the Celtics that they were moving on from their foundation; and instead looking to retool and rebuild. For the Nets, they were eying the first NBA championship in the franchise’s history.
Shortly after the trade, Nets’ owner Mikhail Prokhorov went on record to say, “today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets.” It’s safe to say those gods were doing something, but it sure as hell wasn’t smiling. Billy King, in his defense of the trade, said, “We are excited to welcome Kevin, Paul, and Jason to Brooklyn. All three players have championship pedigree and possess the veteran qualities that will make us a stronger team.”
Though it’s typical for a GM or manager to say something like this to the media, “veteran qualities” don’t exactly show up on the scorecard. Nor does “veteran presence” The only cliché thing missing from that quote was the fact that those players’ possessed “heart” and “grit.”
What Billy King didn’t understand by making this trade is that Garnett was coming off of what was easily his worst year as an NBA starter. In fact, in the team’s press release after the trade, they failed to mention each player’s statistics from the year before. Instead, they highlighted what they’ve accomplished over their careers, ignoring the fact that each one of these players was in a significant decline. At the time of the trade, Garnett was 36-years-old, while Pierce was 35-years-old. Jason Terry didn’t even last a full season in Brooklyn, as he was traded mid-season along with Reggie Evans to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Marcus Thornton.
Unsurprisingly, the Nets did not raise a championship banner that year. Nor did they get out of the second round of the playoffs, as they were steamrolled by LeBron James’ Miami Heat. That summer, Paul Pierce decided to sign with the Washington Wizards and leave Brooklyn behind after just one season.
Fast forward to 2017, the Nets are still paying the price for the damage Billy King did to the franchise. In January of 2016, King stepped down as GM. After five and a half seasons of transactions that consistently sent the franchise backwards, the horror show had ended.
During his regime, King traded 11 first-round picks while going through four different head coaches. All he, and the franchise, have to show for it is one playoff series win against the Toronto Raptors (they almost lost that series, too!) In an endless effort to win now, the team also spent close to $124 million in luxury taxes.
To replace King, the Nets hired Sean Marks, who had served as the assistant GM for the San Antonio Spurs before coming to Brooklyn. Things were not going to be fixed overnight, of course, though hiring someone who worked in the front office of one of the most successful professional franchises is always a good start.
Marks took over a team with very little talent, though he had two interesting trade chips in Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young. Young, who had just signed a four-year, $50 million deal the summer prior, was the first man to go. In an effort to get back into the first round of the 2016 draft, Marks dealt Young away to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for the 20th overall pick, as well as a protected second-round pick. The trade kick-started the rebuild for a franchise starved for young, affordable talent.
With the 20th pick, the Nets selected Caris LeVert out of the University of Michigan. Originally projected to be a lottery pick, LeVert’s three surgeries in a two-year span hurt his draft stock. The Nets, who employ LeVert’s doctor, decided to take the chance on the 6’7″ All-Conference senior.
So far, so good for LeVert and the Nets. In a lost season, LeVert has been one of the few bright spots on this team that has fans interested in the future of the organization. Not to mention, the rookie has also made the highlight reel this year by breaking opponents’ ankles.
Caris LeVert may have crossed Wayne Ellington all the way to upstate New York pic.twitter.com/Qssdoh17NM
— Minute 48 (@minute48) January 26, 2017
LeVert likely won’t turn into the cornerstone of the franchise. That’s rather obvious. With that being said, he’s a nice piece to begin the rebuild with. It shows Mark’s ability to find a diamond in the rough. The organization certainly has to be creative with the few selections they have, along with their free agent signings. The Jeremy Lin singing hasn’t worked out for the team due to his injuries, but at three-years and $36 million, it won’t derail the Nets in any way. In fact, if Lin can prove he’s healthy and posts numbers similar to those before his injury, he could be an interesting trade chip in the summer, or at next year’s trade deadline. For now, the man with a new hairdo every month has to try and fully rebuild his value.
Another key piece to the franchise’s future success is 22-year-old forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Jefferson, drafted in 2015, was First-team All-Pac-12 as well as Pac-12 All-Defensive Team in his final year at Arizona. He came over to the team from the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Mason Plumlee. Hollis-Jefferson is a premier defender at small forward, one that the Nets have lacked for quite some time.
The problem, however, is that he lacks an effective shot. He’s averaging just eight points on the season, but the hope is that his shot develops with age. He’s recorded four double-digit scoring efforts in the past six games, however.
At the trade deadline, the team decided to part ways with Bojan Bogdanovic, who had been with the club since the start of the 2014-2015 season. A restricted free agent this summer, Bogdanovic was averaging 14.2 points per game prior to his trade. The Nets sent him off to the Washington Wizards, who had just missed out on acquiring Lou Williams to bolster their bench. Instead, they added Bogdanovic, who cost them this year’s first-round pick.
In addition to Bogdanovic, the Nets were said to be dangling Brook Lopez to interested teams as well. They were asking for two first-round picks in exchange for Lopez, which teams likely deemed too deep of a price. Given what the Sacramento Kings acquired in exchange for DeMarcus Cousins, teams weren’t willing to pay the asking price for Lopez. That, coupled with the fact that the main suitor for Lopez was the New Orleans Pelicans, made a trade almost impossible at the deadline. Instead, the Nets decided to hang on to their longtime center.
Because the Nets don’t have a whole lot to deal from the roster, they have to learn to be creative in the offseason. Sean Marks proved this past offseason that he was up for the task, as he gauged the market for talent that other teams overlooked, or didn’t deem as their top priorities. The Nets agreed to contracts with Miami Heat guard Tyler Johnson, and Portland Trail Blazers guard Allen Crabbe. Crabbe’s deal was for four-years, $75 million, while Johnson’s was for four-years, $50 million, respectively. While the rest of the league saw the contracts as overpays, Marks’ goal was to find diamonds in the rough while realizing the deals would look great in a year, once the league’s salary cap continued to rise.
Both the Heat and Blazers decided to match the offer sheets, thus prying the two players away from the Nets. At the time of this post, Johnson currently ranks seventh among shooting guards in PER. He is ranked above the likes of Klay Thompson, Gary Harris, and Avery Bradley. Crabbe, while being a backup to CJ McCollum, has averaged 10.3 PPG, along with 2.9 rebounds per game and a little over one assist. Each statistic is an improvement over his career totals prior to this season.
This kind of maneuvering on the market has to make fans encouraged for the future. Marks must be creative in building the roster, given the very few assets he has to work with. Adding Tyler Johnson, specifically, would have been a big improvement to the current roster, though of course it didn’t work out that way.
Not enough has been said about head coach Kenny Atkinson in his debut season with the club. Even though this team has easily the worst roster in the sport, they consistently play until the very end, highlighted in their comeback win against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 6th. There’s something to be said for that, and it’s a tip of the cap to the coaching staff.
The Nets have a long way to go until their return to relevance. The first step is to continue hitting on their first round picks, while finding cheap and under appreciated talent on the free agent market. They have two first round picks their year, though they currently do not own any next season (a trade of Lopez or Lin next season remain entirely possible). However, after next year, the Nets are back to controlling their own destiny when it comes to the draft. A betting man would assume they will continue to bottom out for at least the next two or three years, giving them what should consistently be a top three pick in the draft. Given the talent, and the right decisions, the team can return to relevance as soon as 2019/2020.
Crazier things have happened in the world of sports, and perhaps they can be competitive sooner than most anticipate. On the other hand, that seems like a pipe dream at this point. The goal is to continue to build for the future, while using Billy King’s tenure as a blueprint on how not to run the organization. Surely, Mr. Marks is well aware that it is never wise to mortgage the entire future of the team for a short-term window. As long as LeBron is in the East, you need a juggernaut of a team to get past him. He has, of course, been to six straight NBA finals.
The Nets will likely never be able to overtake the New York Knicks as the center of attention in the basketball world in NY, though there is always the chance they can be competitive again before the Knicks. As long as Phil Jackson is at the helm in New York, the Nets always have a chance or surpassing the Knicks as the better basketball team. James Dolan and company helps make the Nets look (somehow) like the more tolerable franchise in New York. In the meantime, the rebuild must go on.