• Alec Liebsch

2019-20 Team Obituaries: Brooklyn Nets

In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing obituaries for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.

Another team coming out the other end of a rebuild, the Brooklyn Nets built themselves in a unique way. Instead of drafting talent and building around it, the Nets added their franchise players via free agency, inking Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to four-year deals last summer.

Considering where this team was just a few years ago, recruiting two players of that caliber is quite an impressive feat. A lopsided deal with the Boston Celtics in 2013 not only put the Nets in the cellar, but also drained them of the high draft picks needed for a bottomfeeder to correct course.

Instead, Brooklyn had to take unorthodox swings at talent. In the 2016 and 2017 offseason, for example, it tried its hand at restricted free agency by inking players like Otto Porter, Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson to lucrative deals far beyond what they were worth. The Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers and Miami Heat, respectively, had to either match the offers and retain their players, or lose them for nothing. All three opted to pay Brooklyn's price to keep them.

Brooklyn used its salary cap space twofold: to either add a solid player, or to force a contending team to pay extra to keep its own. For a team that had money to spend and wasn't worried about lottery odds (the Celtics owned their first round picks and/or swap rights for 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018), it was a keen strategy.

When those tactics didn't work, the Nets tried their hands at salary dumps. Essentially, contenders are sometimes desperate to get bad money off their books, and are willing to part with valuable pieces to offload the money. Plenty of rebuilding teams have "bought" players to accumulate assets, but one of the biggest ones in recent memory was executed by the Nets, who acquired D'Angelo Russell by absorbing Timofey Mozgov's contract and shipping out a late first round pick.

Russell made the All-Star Game in 2018-19, his second season with the Nets. He represents one way they got the most out of former castaways, to the point that the Golden State Warriors signed him to a max deal last summer (part of the Durant sign-and-trade).

Another way that Brooklyn added talent was through minimum signings, a la diamonds in the rough. Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris each became journeymen after their first few years in the league, unable to find homes with the teams that drafted them. That made them prime candidates for Brooklyn to take a chance on, and with the help of the team's development staff, they flourished. Neither is a star player, but both have proven to be important parts of a winning team.

These internal improvements were on display last season, when the Nets made a surprising push to the playoffs. They lacked the superstar talent to compete, but their collection of developmental successes was enough to get rave reviews around the league. Those accolades reached the ears of Durant and Irving, and suddenly the Nets had the stars they needed.

The results

Except they had to wait another year. Durant suffered an Achilles injury in last year's Finals, so he spent the entire 2019-20 season rehabilitating. His partner in crime spent most of the season nursing injuries himself, only appearing in 20 contests.

Suddenly the 2019-20 Nets were not too different than the 2018-19 Nets, only without Russell to lighten the load. Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert stepped up in primary roles, but the oft-injured LeVert only suited up for 45 games. The rest of the team was role players who were eager to play complementary roles around Durant and Irving.

This motley crew ended up being a playoff team, but only because the back half of the East was so putrid. They were 30-34 before the COVID-19 hiatus and 5-3 in The Bubble for a final record of 35-37—roughly the same as last year.

The playoffs once again saw the Nets outmatched, but this time they didn't have any of Durant, Irving, Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Wilson Chandler or Nicolas Claxton. Joe Harris also left in the middle of the postseason. They employed one (1) center in Orlando, and started guys like Johnson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot for meaningful games.

The results were as you'd expect: a sweep at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. Toronto was a rock-solid team from top to bottom this season, especially against talent-starved teams (37-4 vs. squads below .500, the second-best mark in the league). That's exactly what Brooklyn was by mid-August, and they were simply outmatched by the reigning champions.

The outlook

The bright side of having a bunch of role players spearhead your team is that they can audition for the chance to be a part of something bigger. Nearly everyone who donned the black and white this season, whether in meaningful games or not, will be considered for 2020-21, when the Nets intend to be at full throttle.

When it comes to finding ball-handlers alongside (and behind) Irving, their flexibility on defense and off the ball prowess on offense will be targeted. LeVert has the talent to do both, and has received endorsement from Durant as Brooklyn's third star.

Dinwiddie doesn't fill either particularly well, as he has never graded out as a good defender and is best with the ball in his hands. Considering that LeVert would be next in line for ball-handling duties, Dinwiddie's days on this roster may be numbered.

Chris Chiozza provided energy off the bench and would be cheap to retain (restricted free agent with a $1.5 million qualifying offer), so he'll definitely get a look from the front office. Ditto for Johnson and Jamal Crawford, veterans who know their roles and would appeal to Durant and Irving.

As for the wings, Brooklyn's biggest priority is re-signing Harris. Most free agents will be cheap in a suppressed financial climate, but Harris could still garner something close to J.J. Redick's two years, $26 million figure from last summer. And since his last extension was also for two seasons, expect his next one to be for a bit longer.

Garrett Temple has a team option for $5 million next season. He's probably not worth all of that, but he fills many roles on offense and competes on defense. The Nets will need that if they want to compete; pencil him in for that figure.

They won't have much flexibility after that. They'll have to hit on more minimum-salary guys and their Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception, though that might need to be saved for the frontcourt.

In case you guys haven't heard, the Nets are a bit small in the bigs department. Jarrett Allen is a restricted free agent next offseason, and Jordan is on the books through 2022-23. It's unlikely that they'll want to dole out too much to Allen considering Jordan's cap hit (roughly $10 million per season for the next three), especially since they have overlapping skills.

Allen is a good player, but what he would fetch on the trade market is uncertain. Not too many teams need a center in 2020, and fewer want to pay his next contract. Their best option may ultimately be to keep him and see what restricted free agency looks like in 2021.

As for that stretch big, Brooklyn's best bet is that Serge Ibaka would take a discount to play with Durant again. Marvin Williams' retirement takes a cheaper facsimile off the board, Paul Millsap is an unknown quantity at the 5, and Jerami Grant would have bigger deals awaiting him if he declines his $9.3 million player option. And even if Ibaka wants to come to Brooklyn, getting him to agree to the $5.7 million Taxpayer MLE will be tough. Maybe Nicolas Claxton is ready to step into a role as early as next season.

For the first time in ages, the hard part of Brooklyn's team building is out of the way. They just need to find the right fits around their stars, many of which may be filled by ring-chasing veterans on the cheap.

The man who will put it all together is a storyline to watch too. The Nets hired Steve Nash to be their next head coach, a spicy hire who could either be just what the doctor ordered, or completely outmatched in a new position.

Brooklyn expects to be one of the most interesting teams in the league next season, both for the basketball and the storylines.