The Inbounds: The new Brooklyn Empire and the Crown of Relevance

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Sometime last Wednesday, after yet another round on Twitter battling the Brooklyn faithful (and they are a faithful lot for a franchise that hasn’t played a single minute in its current city) about Brook Lopez and his max contract, about the efforts to remake the team and the failed attempt at obtaining Dwight Howard, I came to a pretty startling conclusion. The Nets are perfect for sports and the people who love them. There are more compelling stories in the NBA. LeBron James and his ongoing battle to save his basketball soul. Kobe Bryant and his continuing obsession with matching Jordan. The Thunder and the hope of tomorrow vs. the empty optimism of a future which may never come.

But the Nets? They are perfect for everything we love about the NBA and about sports. Because they will provide endless hours for us to develop and express opinions about a dozen different things.

They’re a superstar team without superstars. Deron Williams is a top-five point guard in this league who will flirt nightly with the tag of best-to-second-best. But Joe Johnson? Gerald Wallace? Brook Lopez? You have to love basketball to know these names. Yet if you do, you understand how good they really are. Johnson’s contract alone is enough for hours of debate. No one can argue he’s worth the money but if you factor in the fact that the Nets don’t really care how much he costs, at some point once you’re over the luxury tax line it’s irrelevant how much more he costs. And he’s an underrated defender who can guard 1’s, 2’s and 3’s in this league, defend in the post and on the perimeter, can body and bang and contain on the fly. He can also stop his own offense dead in its tracks with his insistence on isolation possessions that involve a lot of dribbling, a lot of contested jumpers, and not a lot of points. He’ll have nights where he lights up the opponent and nights where his own team goes down in the crossfire. It’s perfect for starting a screaming match between any two people.

Gerald Wallace is an underground icon, the guy named “Crash” whose stat-stuffing exploits were best illustrated in the basketball must-read “FreeDarko Presents: The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac.”  He’s another level, and yet on the level which you can observe with the eye, he seems almost invisible. He’s the hidden play, the quiet moment, master of the “little things which help win games.” And Brook Lopez is the center who can score 30 points but can’t grab eight rebounds. Every accomplishment can be marred with criticism, every criticism can be marred with praise. It’s all there.

And they enter a new arena in the world’s most famous city, ready to strike up a rivalry with the most iconic team on the East Coast (apologies to the greater Boston Celtics, it’s more the Knicks’ failures and your quiet success that trumpet them so loudly). Let’s not be confused on this point. This rivalry will be real from the start.  The Knicks will play big brother and play it off, but they’re not good enough to dismiss the Nets, and the Nets are fighting to establish themselves as legitimate in the boroughs. They even match up well, with no one able to defend Deron Williams, but Williams’ mentor Jason Kidd on the other sideline, the Knicks with defensive ace Iman Shumpert (when he returns from injury) to take on Johnson and the Nets with Wallace to throw at Carmelo Anthony. The Nets have no one to defend Amar’e Stoudemire, but Stoudemire often gets in his own way with injury and defensive issues. The high scoring, no rebound, poor defense center who can score from anywhere on anyone versus the consummate defensive force at the rim. Throw in some young talent and veteran difference makers and you have everything you need. All four matchups next season will be must-watch, even as both teams could be fully embroiled in turmoil and in full disintegration at any point, only to rise from the ashes. God help us if we get a Nets/Knicks-Knicks/Nets 4-5 matchup in the East.

There are questions about how the Nets went about clearing out the populace for the Barclays Center, questions about Dolan’s price gouging, questions about Billy King’s decision making, about how CAA runs the Knicks, are the Nets a real superstar team, is Carmelo Anthony a player you can win with. It’s a whole Baz Luhrmann flick on hardwood.

The Nets will be the best thing anything in sports can be, divisive. You’ll think they don’t get enough credit for how good they are or that they are total frauds masquerading as a Finals contender. Is Brook Lopez a great scorer or a poor rebounder? What happens in three years when the salaries are out of control? What about Dwight Howard?

What about Dwight Howard?

The Nets are going to be a great team next year, even without the big guy. Johnson and Williams will make for a 1-2 pick and roll that’s going to just kill opponents, and with Wallace crashing the weakside and Lopez as the outlet, they’re going to put up points. They have this new color scheme which is as provocative as it is vintage, recalling the styles of the 40’s barnstorming teams and yet reminiscent of the style of minority owner Jay-Z.

The owner is a billionaire Russian who ran for President in Russia and said he’d beat up Mark Cuban in a kickboxing match, for crying out loud. This story has everything.

So while Nets fans try and shoehorn their team into the title contenders conversation and the rest of us try and explain just how limited their options are going to be in three years and how Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson are not worth the money, the NBA and the Nets win.

You want to know the biggest reason why Billy King won the offseason, why the Nets get an A for their summer?

The Nets, more so than even during their stretch of Finals contention, are relevant. They matter. They aren’t dominant enough for us to just accept, they aren’t mediocre enough for us to ignore. They’re just a really good basketball team looking to rewrite history.

This is going to be fun.

Bob Myers says he initially told DeMarcus Cousins’ agent Warriors couldn’t afford center

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If the Warriors signed someone to a salary greater than the $5,337,000 taxpayer mid-level exception or acquired someone in a sign-and-trade, they would have been hard-capped at $129,817,000 this season.

That was obviously untenable for Golden State with its star-studded roster.

So, the idea of the Warriors adding DeMarcus Cousins seemed far-fetched – even to Golden State general manager Bob Myers.

Myers, as transcribed by Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“It was early in the morning — I spoke to his agent. We had been preserving our taxpayer mid-level exception for somebody that might fall through the cracks and not get paid in a very tight free agency market,” Myers explained to Greg Papa and Bonta Hill on 95.7 The Game. “But mostly we were thinking wings. I figured if something like that were to happen it would happen July 8th, 9th, 10th.

“But we got the call and I just said, ‘Look. We don’t have anything more,’ because we’ve talked about other high-level free agents and the thought from their agent was, ‘Can you do a sign-and-trade? Can you get to a bigger number?’ And I kind of said, ‘Look, our roster is what it is. To move that many pieces around, to create $10 million in room, or $15 (million), it’s just prohibitive, I don’t want to waste your time.’

“So I thought that’s where the conversation was going … and I said to him, ‘We don’t have the money that you’re probably commanding out there.’ And this is the moment it became real — he said, ‘We understand what you have.’ And I said, ‘Well we only have the taxpayer mid-level.’ And then when he said, ‘I know,’ that’s when I knew it was real.

“They were very serious about it and they never really wavered.”

We’ve seen free agency from Cousins’ perspective. It’s interesting to blend Golden State’s into the story.

The Warriors are always eying stars. Their ambition might be unmatched. That not even they forecasted the possibility of signing Cousins – who accepted the taxpayer mid-level exception – speaks to just how much colder than expected his market was.

DeAndre Ayton draws himself dunking on Joel Embiid on trading card (photo)

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Joel Embiid issued a warning to pundits after the Suns drafted Deandre Ayton No. 1 overall: “Don’t compare Ayton to me either… I play DEFENSE.”

Ayton envisioned a response to the 76ers star while drawing on a trading card:

Embiid:

I’m impressed with Ayton’s artistic skills.

I’d be even more impressed if he dunks on Embiid, who does play quality defense – so far a hole in Ayton’s game.

Dwight Howard’s trainer: ‘He wants to evolve into Anthony Davis, into Kevin Durant, but his own version of that’

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In 2015, Dwight Howard said he wanted to play 20 seasons in the NBA. He also later admitted he considered retiring the same year.

After that career crossroads, Howard is back on the longevity track.

Entering his 15th season, the 32-year-old Wizards center is focused on getting into shape and developing his game.

Justin Zormelo, via Candace Buckner of The Washington Post:

“He wants to evolve into Anthony Davis, into Kevin Durant,” Zormelo says, “but his own version of that.”

This sounds silly at first. Durant and Davis are far more skilled than Howard. But those superstars provide reasonable goals for Howard.

Durant – who has expanded his game the other way, going outside to inside – shows how to blend playing different styles. Davis provides an example of how to work off the ball as a modern big man.

Howard shouldn’t want to lose his strengths as an elite rebounder and interior defender, but he can move in the direction of Durant and Davis.

After getting pretty big with the Hawks, Howard slimmed down with the Hornets and excelled in transition. He also improved significantly as a ball-handler, allowing him to put even more pressure on the defense in advantage situations and attack with face-ups.

Howard hasn’t shown proficiency as an outside shooter, but that could be his next step. The concern: Howard falls in love with shooting the way he did with post-ups, and he takes too many inefficient shots.

But there’s still something encouraging about someone working so hard to improve this far into his career.

Of course, on-court improvement won’t be enough for Howard. He has quietly produced or near star level in Atlanta and Charlotte. The problems came in the locker room. Howard’s attitude must improve, too.

Maybe it’ll all come together for him, and he’ll thrive through the rest of his 30s. He’s saying all the right things.

But we’ve also been here before.

Carmelo Anthony writes thank-you note to Oklahoma City: ‘I wanted nothing more than to make it work here’

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After last season, Carmelo Anthony summed up his time with the Thunder: “It wasn’t no strategy to me being here.” He waived his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade to and buyout from the Hawks, allowing him to join the Rockets – his preferred destination ever since his time with the Knicks was ending.

But he’s leaving Oklahoma City emphasizing the positive.

Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

This is a nice letter, especially for someone who was there only one year. Thunder fans are extremely supportive, and I believe Anthony truly wanted it to work in Oklahoma City. He changed his game plenty to complement Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

It just wasn’t enough.

Of course, there’s more to the story. That’s self-evident in Anthony choosing to leave the Thunder rather than trying to solve their problems next season in a less-rushed situation.

But this isn’t an analysis of Anthony’s Oklahoma City tenure. It’s a thank-you note that seems pretty genuine and heartfelt – right until it’s signed “STAYME7o,” which is par for the course for Anthony.