When the Nets finalized their decision to move from their long-time home of New Jersey to the hipster hotbed known as Brooklyn, there was a real sense of optimism. Not only was there real excitement around their move into the beautiful Barclays Center, but the Nets had a talented squad centered around the trio of Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
That skilled trio pushed the team to a solid initial season in Brooklyn, as they finished 49-33 season. Although they ultimately lost to the Bulls in a hard-fought 1st round match-up, it was a positive sign of things to come.
Positivity quickly turned to a sense of joy for Nets fans in that off-season as the Nets were involved in one of the biggest trades in recent memory. In the deal, the Nets sent Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Joseph, 1st round picks in 2014, 2016, 2018 alongside the rights to swap the 2017 1st round pick to the Celtics in exchange for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry. Despite basically throwing their future away, the Nets seemingly pushed themselves towards being a championship contender.
However, Brooklyn fans quickly realized that hitching their ride on a pair of veterans with more than 30 years of NBA experience between them was an ill-conceived pipedream. The 2013-14 Nets defied expectations by having an even worse record than the previous season, as they barely finished over .500 with a 44-38 record. Although Pierce’s “old-man game” still worked when he was an old man, as he put up 17.3 points, 6.0 rebounds per game on 45% shooting, Garnett’s tenure in Brooklyn was much worse. Playing only 54 games, Garnett had a career-worst season as he put up 6.5 points and 6.6 rebounds on 41% shooting.
Even after Pierce and Garnett departed, going to Los Angeles and Minnesota respectively, the Nets have been swimming in a pool of mediocrity without having a ladder to pull themselves out. That mediocrity has been evident as the Nets have failed to get to the 40-win plateau, finishing 38-44 in 2014-15 and 21-61 in 2015-16. To add insult to injury, it seemed like there was no end in sight for the Nets struggles due to their lack of 1st round draft picks.
Although the Nets are still firmly entrenched in the Eastern Conference cellar, there’s a sense that there might be some positivity in the future. A lot of that’s due to what new Nets GM Sean Marks has done. Since getting the job in February, Marks’ has been focused on pushing out the big veteran contracts (Bargnani and Johnson) while taking a chance on a crop of younger players that can still develop.
Whether they’d be ex D-Leaguers (Sean Killpatrick, Justin Hamilton and Henry Sims), reliable role players (Jeremy Lin, Greivis Vazquez) or even a former #1 overall pick (Anthony Bennett), Marks is willing to fill his roster with players looking for a 2nd or 3rd chance at the NBA.
That process of looking for a “diamond in the rough” player is also prevalent when you look at some the rookie and sophomore players on the Nets roster. Without having the privilege of a drafting a lottery player, the Nets have had to be creative with how they grab young talent.
Aside from Brook Lopez, Chris McCullough is the only player on the Nets that the team acquired with their own draft pick. That leaves the Nets having to either trade players or break their piggy banks to snag a late 1st or 2nd round pick. With that process, the Nets have landed Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and Isiah Whitehead. Brooklyn’s final method of grabbing potential rotational players is through signing undrafted free agents as they acquired the following players: Yogi Ferrell, Beau Beech and Egidijus Mockevicius.
Counting those undrafted rookies, there’s currently 19 players on the Nets payroll. Although the likes of Beech and Mockevicius probably won’t make it on the final roster, there’s still a huge crop of players looking to find a role on a team that has a limited amount of slots. Aside from some guarantees (Lin, Brook Lopez, Hollis-Jefferson, Bojan Bogdanovic, Trevor Booker, Randy Foye and Greivis Vasquez), the rest of the Nets stand as question marks on where they’ll be positioned on the Nets’ active roster.
Taking away those eight players that will have guaranteed spots, the Nets would have nine players looking to fill four spots on the team’s active roster. So where would that leave the other five players? Either fighting for a spot on the team’s inactive or looking for another job.
Brooklyn’s precarious situation leaves one potential destination for those hungry players: NBA D-League. Thankfully, the Nets recently acquired their own NBADL affiliate, with the Long Island Nets. In better news, both the Long Island and Brooklyn Nets will be spending the 2016-17 season at the Barclay’s Center. Both teams playing in one arena allows the Nets organization a lot of roster flexibility. Sean Marks will easily be able to have someone to play with Long Island without having to worry about whether they’ll be able to come back in time to play with Brooklyn.
In a way, the Nets could utilize the D-League as sort of a platoon system that can send players between Brooklyn and Long Island. With the Nets having a wide range of young players that would fit into the back of their rotation, Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson will have flexibility on what 2nd unit players would fit best against which team.
The players that aren’t utilized would still get playing time over with the Long Island Nets. While there might be some worries about overall team chemistry, this kind of experimenting may be needed for a team that has a slew of young players. That experimenting would also allow Atkinson to see which players ultimately fit with the team as they continue on with their rebuild
The close proximity between Brooklyn and Long Island will be especially useful for two players: Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead. For LeVert, he’ll use the Long Island Nets as a way to rehab from the left foot fracture that he suffered as a senior. The Long Island Nets would be a way for LeVert to slowly get back into playing shape while also continue to grow as an all-round player.
Whitehead’s potential in Long island is a completely different story. Despite having all the on-court ability to be a solid NBA role player, Whitehead just stands as a player that never really seems to be in full control of his game. Decision making was a huge weakness of Whitehead’s game, as he stood as an analytical nightmare by having a pedestrian 51% True Shooting Percentage as a sophomore. The D-League would definitely be a good outlet for Whitehead to help mend his decision-making concerns before getting an opportunity in Brooklyn.
To coincide with Brooklyn’s young core, the team brought in an extremely young coach for Long Island. Former Butler guard and 26-year-old Ronald Nored will be the first head coach in Long Island history. Despite his relative youth, Nored has a solid amount of coaching experience.
After graduating from Butler, Brad Stevens added his former player to the Red Claws coaching staff, where he stayed for two seasons (2013-14, 2014-15). Following that, Nored spent a single season at Northern Kentucky before getting the gig with Long Island.
That coaching experience should be beneficial for Nored, as he’d be able to combine the great ideology of Brad Stevens with the tools that . Alongside that, Nored should be a nice mentor as he’d be easily connect and relate to the young D-League prospects.
After three seasons filled with trials and tribulations, it looks like the Brooklyn Nets are slowly getting back on track. Although the journey is still going to be very long, GM Sean Marks has compiled a crop of young and hungry players looking to prove that they belong in the NBA. However, like most teams with a slew of young talent, the NBA D-League will look to be a crucial part of the Nets’ rebuilding process.
However, that importance is elevated from the fact that the Nets won’t have their own lottery pick until 2019. That basically forces the Nets to continue looking at 2nd round picks, undrafted free agents or D-Leaguers for potential low-risk, medium-reward players. Although that strategy hasn’t necessarily worked in the past, it seems like the best option for a Nets team that has been stuck in mediocrity over the past few years.
Will that strategy work? Well, the odds are definitely against them but there’s a chance that it can. If Sean Marks and the Nets are able to really utilize the D-League as a tool to help develop some of those low-risk players, then you might wind up with some medium-reward players that you’d be able to implement into Brooklyn’s rotation. If the Nets use the D-League to develop some solid rotation players, then they’d have a solid core in place when they get an opportunity to snag a star player through free agency.
Although the odds may be stacked against the Nets going forward, perhaps this is going to be the method that can eventually push them towards success.