ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Brooklyn Nets

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Today kicks off ProBasketballTalk’s season previews. Over the next six weeks we will preview every team in the NBA, looking at the upcoming season. We will start in the Atlantic Division.

Last season: Brooklyn baby!! The Nets moved out of New Jersey to Brooklyn, into their sweet new crib the Barclays Center, wearing a new stylish black-and-white look. On the court they were 27 wins better than the season before — thanks to Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace joining a mostly healthy Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace. Brooklyn had a good offense but struggled on the other ends of the court much of the year. The Nets made the playoffs as the four seed but fell in seven games to a Chicago Bulls team that had an ingrained identity and was tougher.

Signature highlight from last season: Deron Williams sets NBA record with nine first-half threes (11 for the game).

Key player changes: Mikhail Prokhorov laughs at your puny salary cap. With luxury tax provisions ratcheting up this season teams everywhere are looking to shed salary and avoid the tax — but not the Nets. They head into the season with a payroll of $102.2 million (according to Shamsports.com), which will mean about $87 million more in taxes. That’s $189 million just in player payroll.

But they added real talent — a trade with Boston brings Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets (in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and three future first round draft picks). The Nets also got Andrei Kirilenko at a steal of a deal ($3.2 million next season, the tax-payers midlevel exception). All of that, especially the AK47 deal, angered a lot of people around the league who don’t like guys flaunting their strict mew new rules.

Keys to the Nets season:

1. Keep Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce healthy for the playoffs. In the playoffs last year Chicago — as banged up as the Bulls were without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng — were just tougher than the Nets. Garnett and Pierce solve that. Garnett quarterbacking the defense also should improve the Nets on that end of the court — but all of that only works if they are healthy come the playoffs. Those are not young bodies. New coach Jason Kidd should understand this, but he has to keep the minutes for those veterans under control (as Doc Rivers did in Boston) so they are their old selves come the postseason.

2. Deron Williams plays like the Utah version of himself. Last season was the best one Deron Williams has had since his trade to the Nets — he had a true shooting percentage of 57.4 (combining field goals, threes and free throws) which was his best since 2009 in Utah. He started to play like a superstar again — remember five years ago there was a “D-Will or Chris Paul “ discussion. Not anymore. The Nets offense runs through Williams, and he needs to take another step forward for the Nets to reach their goal — he has to be a superstar again. He’s got weapons around him, but how will he use them.

3. Defense. They can’t be average (last season they were 17th in the league in points allowed per possession). Garnett is supposed to help on that end of the court, but it’s going to take more than just him. Brook Lopez has treated defense as an afterthought, he can’t anymore. Kirilenko has to come off the bench and block shots. Jason Kidd has to put a system in place that focuses on that end. The Nets will score, but they need to get more regular stops.

4. Can Jason Kidd coach? Last season we had no idea what kind of team the Nets ultimately wanted to be — they slowed the game down (third slowest pace in the league) but they didn’t play good defense (which if you are going to reduce possessions you need to do). Nobody questions Kidd as a leader or Kidd as a guy with great basketball IQ, but that is different than being able to coach/teach those things. Can Kidd (with Lawrence Frank at his side) give this team an identity? Can he make good Xs and Os adjustments? Can he draw up good plays at the end of games? Can he make sure Pierce and KG get rest and hit the playoffs healthy? Can he do all that in his first year? Maybe, but it’s a tall order.

Why you should watch the Nets: Watch Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce make one more run at a ring. This is probably it — these Nets have at best a two-year window with this roster and the reality is this year is their best shot. These are two future Hall of Fame players, we should savor getting to see them make one more run at a ring. We’ll miss them when they are gone.

Prediction: 54-28, somewhere between the 3-5 seed in and they get to at least the second round of the playoffs. These Nets will be better on the court than last year’s Nets, they will likely be a top four seed in the East (they could fall to five, no lower barring injuries). The Nets see themselves as contenders but a lot of things have to go just right for them — everything mentioned in the keys has to break just their way.

On paper this is a potential contender, but I’m not convinced they can meld all of this together perfectly in one year. I think this becomes the most expensive second round playoff team in NBA history.

Lakers coach Luke Walton: Rajon Rondo will start over Lonzo Ball to start year

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LaVar Ball said the Lakers are Lonzo Ball‘s team, not LeBron James‘.

Turns out, Lonzo isn’t even the Lakers’ starting point guard.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN on Lakers Talk:

Luke Walton told me today that Rajon Rondo will be the Lakers’ starting point guard to start the year.

It’s unclear whether “to start the year” means to begin training camp or the regular season. Lonzo is not yet ready to fully participate in practice after offseason surgery, so this could be as benign as Rondo working with the starters for now.

Or it could be Walton already making a call for the regular season.

The Lakers signed Rondo to push and teach Lonzo. Those messages would come across more strongly if Rondo starts.

But I’d also be surprised if there’s not a more open competition in training camp. Lonzo deserves a chance to earn the job.

Whatever Walton exactly means, the coach has latitude to run the team as he sees fit.

Report: Kyle Lowry dodging calls and texts from Raptors president Masai Ujiri and coach Nick Nurse

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DeMar DeRozan hasn’t hidden his disdain for Raptors president Masai Ujiri trading him.

How does Kyle Lowry, a close friend of DeRozan still left in Toronto, feel?

Lowry dodged DeRozan questions while at USA Basketball’s minicamp in July. At media day yesterday, Lowry repeatedly gave an iteration of the same answer about his relationship with the Raptors: He’s there to do his job and try to win, just as always.

Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

per league sources, Lowry had also been dodging calls and texts from team officials, including president Masai Ujiri and new head coach Nick Nurse, who Lowry said he only spoke with briefly right after Nurse was promoted in June.

This obviously isn’t the healthiest arrangement. Teams function best with open communication.

But the team president and point guard needn’t talk regularly, especially now. Lowry is locked up for two more seasons. The status quo is fairly locked in for the season.

Lowry and Nurse not speaking would be a pressing issue, but training camp just opened. It’s too soon to assess how Lowry will respond to Nurse.

Ultimately, what Kawhi Leonard said about how the Raptors can appeal to him also applies to Lowry – win. If Toronto wins this season, Lowry will likely get over his issues with the DeRozan trade.

A half-dozen players with especially intriguing contract-year seasons ahead

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After increasing 7%, 11%, 34% and 5% the previous four years, the NBA’s salary cap increased just 3% this year. Plus, teams were already overstocked with highly paid players signed during the 2016 – and, to an extent, 2015 – cap booms.

That meant many players signed one-year deals this offseason, allowing them to hit the market again next summer, when the cap is projected to rise 7% and many players signed in 2015 and 2016 come off the books.

The result is a deep 2019 free-agent class.

Some potential 2019 free agents, like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, are assured max-contract offers. Even Kawhi Leonard, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, is practically guaranteed of max offers.

But there are many more players with their future compensation in flux. Here are six players with a ton on the line next season:

DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins shocked the league by taking the Warriors’ taxpayer mid-level exception. It’s probably a one-year rental. The highest starting salary Golden State can offer him next summer through Non-Bird Rights is $6,404,400. This year will give him a chance to get healthy, show he can contribute positively to winning and expand his versatility. Cousins isn’t the perfect fit with the Warriors, and some teams are still scared off by his attitude. But, if all goes well this season, Cousins won’t be able to claim no offers next summer.

Isaiah Thomas

Thomas learned the hard way Brinks trucks typically carry an amount near his $2,029,463 minimum salary – not the nine-digit max contract he hoped for. That dream has probably passed, but Thomas can still land a lucrative contract next summer if he thrives with the Nuggets this season. First, that means getting healthy, as his hip injury still lingers. Then, the 5-foot-9 point guard must show he can still get separation and lift to get buckets. And it’d help if he meshes better with his teammates and coaches. It’s amazing how big of a hit Thomas’ value has taken in the last year, but he has proven his determination before. Will he do it again?

D'Angelo Russell

Russell entered last season as a potential franchise player for the Nets. Then, he got outplayed by Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell missed 34 games due to injury and stagnated in his growth while on the court. The shine is off the former No. 2 pick. But Russell is still just 22 and talented, and point guards tend to develop later. He could earn a huge payday, though it’ll require a major breakthrough. He and Brooklyn can technically sign an extension by Oct. 15, but that seems unlikely – especially with Dinwiddie, another pending 2019 free agent, also in the mix. Most likely, Russell becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

Tobias Harris

Harris reportedly rejected a four-year, $80 million extension from the Clippers this summer. That’s a lot of money to turn down, but the upside is there. Harris could be the Clippers’ focal point this season, especially in the starting lineup (which probably won’t include Lou Williams). Harris is just 26 and has the all-around skills and work ethic to cash in. The Clippers are aiming higher, so Harris might have to leave L.A. to get paid.

Trey Burke

The No. 9 pick in 2013, Burke gradually fell out of favor with the Jazz. He got a change of scenery with the Wizards and struggled even more in Washington than he had in Utah. Burke seemingly blamed everyone but himself. He fell out of the league until the Knicks called him up in the middle of last season. Burke flourished in New York, showing the offensive command everyone expected when he declared for the draft out of Michigan. Burke must fend off Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay – more recent and higher picks – at point guard, and the Knicks’ reported top target in 2019 free agency is point Kyrie Irving. But if Burke maintains his play with New York over a full season, he’ll have lucrative options somewhere.

Marcus Morris

Morris signed a four-year, $20 million extension with the Suns in 2014, taking a discount to play with his twin brother, Markieff Morris. Then, Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons. Marcus vowed never to let personal relationships get in the away of business again. Now with the Celtics, he’ll have his chance to maximize his earnings next summer. Marcus is a hard-nosed and skilled combo forward in a league where his versatility is increasingly valued. He’ll try to prove his worth on a stacked Boston team that has too many strong pieces to allow any individual to fully fly.

Report: Kings trying to get involved in Jimmy Butler trade by taking bad contracts

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The Timberwolves are reportedly seeking, among other things, “salary-cap relief” in a Jimmy Butler trade. But Butler is on a de facto expiring contract, and Minnesota is already below the luxury-tax line this season. There isn’t significant relief to be gained by dealing just him.

So, that likely means unloading Gorgui Dieng, who’s due $48,687,640 over the next three years, including $15,170,787 this season.

That’s a toxic contract that will be difficult to move. Some potential Butler trade partners don’t have viable expiring contracts to trade for Dieng, and some potential Butler trade partners will flat refuse.

Enter the Kings.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In recent days, Sacramento has been aggressive in courting Minnesota and several of Butler’s trade suitors — offering to use its space as a landing spot for bloated contracts.

The Kings have about $11 million in cap space (not counting Jamel Artis‘ unguaranteed deal). They also have a few ill-fitting veterans on expiring contracts that could facilitate a trade: Zach Randolph ($11,692,308), Iman Shumpert ($11,011,234) and Kosta Koufos ($8,739,500).

In return for taking bad contracts, Sacramento will seek draft picks and young players. This is the exact type of trade the rebuilding Kings should make. They just must hope Minnesota’s best offer involves them.