The Brooklyn Nets season begins on Wednesday when they visit the Detroit Pistons, and the collective Brooklyn fan base is seemingly breathing a hopeful sigh of relief.
The draft picks owed to Boston for the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett trade are paid in full, the proverbial kneecapping finally complete. Through a series of deft maneuverings by general manager Sean Marks, the Nets have some captivating young talent which plays with purpose under head coach Kenny Atkinson. After a 28-54 season last year, there’s some chatter about this team being in contention for the playoffs and more importantly, being a landing spot for one or even two max-level superstar players in free agency next summer.
The biggest question surrounding this team this season: What should the Nets consider progress this year? What should they consider a successful season?
Obviously, every team wants to win a championship every year but that’s only realistic for so many clubs.
“I want to win,” D’Angelo Russell told The Athletic’s Mike Scotto. “I’ve lost a lot in this league, so I think if we win, everyone gets what they want. If you don’t get it here, you’ll get it somewhere else. Winning, I think, is the problem solver.”
For Russell and the Nets, how much winning is needed? Is the season a failure if they miss the postseason?
Progress for Russell personally has to begin with health. A restricted free agent after the season, DLo missed 34 games last year. And while he led the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game, he shot poorly from the field overall.
One beacon of hope for Russell is that he shot 38.5% from three in 14 March games on 6.5 attempts per contest. If he can replicate that, stay on the court, shoot better overall and be a better distributor, he can go into free agency with a high value while helping the Nets make a playoff push this season.
Russell is far from the only Net on a contract year. His fellow point guard Spencer Dinwiddie was a finalist for Most Improved Player last season after making 58 starts and averaging 12.6 points and 6.6 assists per game. He’ll back up Russell to start the season and may even play together at times, and is auditioning for a new contract either in Brooklyn or, more likely, somewhere else.
Brooklyn exercised its team options next year on its two most promising pieces, Jarrett Allen and Caris LeVert. LeVert showed his versatility off the bench last season, and the 20-year-old Allen erupted onto the scene in the second half of his rookie season, averaging nearly 10 points, over six rebounds and two blocks per game after the All-Star break.
Allen, Russell, LeVert and 23-year-old forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are the four core Nets right now, with Dinwiddie and Allen Crabbe— 25 and 26 respectively— alongside them and rookies Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa. Veterans on expiring contracts make up most of the rest of the rotation, with frontcourt players DeMarre Carroll, Kenneth Faried, Jared Dudley and Ed Davis rounding out the roster.
The season can go one of two ways. If Brooklyn is out of the playoff race in February, Marks can trade the veteran expirings for draft picks or even try to parlay the cap space and a young chip if the right star player becomes available. But if the team struggles but the young players are developing well, is that enough progress for the franchise and its fan base?
Or does the team thrive, with veterans helping coax strong seasons out of the young players, forcing the Nets into a difficult and unfamiliar position: Do they sacrifice the future, or cap space, to try to make the playoffs? Or do they stay the course, even if it means yet another trip to the lottery. It depends, really, on what management wants to get out of 2018-2019.
Suffice to say, Brooklyn management would love for this team to look a lot different at this time next year. If you’ve read this far, you probably know who the available names in free agency are next summer, from Kevin Durant to Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker etc. The Nets will likely have two first round picks next year to add to that core, assuming Denver makes the playoffs.
So will it be enough progress for the Nets to position themselves to add a superstar player to their aforementioned young core, which could include two firsts? Or will Brooklyn channel Russell’s mindset of winning curing all ills? Will Russell even be on the team next season, or even after the All-Star break?
Those questions will be answered over time, but one measure of progress is undoubtedly evident and promising. The Nets finally have options; appealing, promising, hopeful options rather than the veritable Sophie’s Choice smorgasbord of years past. Whatever the Nets consider progress in 2018-2019, at least they have that going for them.