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.

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.

Report: Lakers trying to open max salary slot with Anthony Davis trade

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The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis, but they aren’t done tweaking the details of the deal yet. Depending on when Davis’ trade gets completed, Los Angeles will open up myriad financial options for their free agency extravaganza this summer. Now it appears the Lakers might be trying to get a third team involved to help them grab max cap space.

We’ve explained the cap ramifications as the deal stood with the New Orleans Pelicans already. On one end, Los Angeles could wait until July 30. After renouncing some free agents, this would leave L.A. with $32 million in cap space. If they complete the deal on July 6, and if Davis waives his $4 million trade kicker, they end up with somewhere between $24 — $28 million.

Now it appears the Lakers will go for the full max slot space.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to ship out some of its younger players — turning the Davis trade with New Orleans into a 3-team deal — to satisfy some CBA rules that allow them to get to that mark. The Lakers have made Mo Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and Isaac Bonga available.

Via Twitter:

Los Angeles is also reportedly looking to grab some second round picks, which allow for cheap contracts that they can use to fill out its roster while going over the salary cap.

This is a bold endeavor.

No doubt the front office in L.A. looked at the trade the Toronto Raptors made for Kawhi Leonard this past season feel as though adding more stars to its roster cannot possibly hurt. The only problem is that the Raptors already had a team good team unit in place when they traded for Leonard. Los Angeles won’t have any players of note when they head into this season, even if they are able to sign a third star to go with LeBron James and Davis.

It’s really going to be difficult to see how Davis, James, and a third star will carry this team if there is a steep drop-off between the bench rotation. Even considering veteran minimum signings — which always happen for championship-contending teams — this team needs more role players.

This is an extremely Los Angeles thing to do, and this thing just keeps getting more complicated the farther we get into the NBA offseason. It’s not even July yet, and it’s already wild in the Association.

Report: Al Horford not returning to Boston, will sign elsewhere this summer

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Boston’s disastrous season — and off-season — just keeps getting worse. Anthony Davis is a Laker, Kyrie Irving is out the door and now this.

Al Horford opted out of the $30.1 million the Celtics owed him this summer, but that was expected. A lot of people around the league also assumed he would begin negotiating with Boston to return for a longer contract, worth more money overall but a little less per year, that would give him some security.

He is going to get that security elsewhere, reports Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

The buzz from around the league is this is more about Boston not wanting to pay him and do a retooling of their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than it is Horford wanting out. Either way, it puts an outstanding player on the market.

Horford is 33 years old and teams may be concerned about the final year of a four-year contract, but he is kind of glue big man who can do everything well that could fit a lot of places and lift teams up to the next level. Horford can play in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good defender and role player, and just seems to have no holes in his game. That versatility makes him incredibly valuable.

Horford is going to get paid this summer — not max money, but close enough to it to make him happy — and some team is going to get a lot better when they do it.