THE opportunity was presented in a variety of ways, the question posed in various forms. But on the subject of the Brooklyn Nets, and their progress as a team this coming season, Kenny Atkinson wouldn’t bite and neither would Sean Marks.
Hence, the outlook in Brooklyn this week sounded mostly promising for the Cleveland Cavaliers and their obsession with retaining LeBron James beyond next summer. The men at the Nets’ helm say they are realistically hoping for— in Marks’ words— “small wins” in the months ahead, the kind not necessarily affecting NBA standings and potential lottery picks.
Here is Marks, the general manager, on how his Nets will largely define progress in what is Year 2 of his and Atkinson’s reconstruction regime. Or, depending on one’s point of view, the final year of the draft-pick giveaway staged by Billy King, Marks’s predecessor, when he dealt the Nets’ foreseeable future to Boston in 2013 for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the blessing of AARP.
“It can be how guys are progressing performance-wise, or what they are doing in the weight room, how they bounce back after a defeat, after a tough loss, how they practice, how they do their recovery and where their mind-set is at,” Marks told reporters on Tuesday. “So it’s about celebrating and finding those wins, but it’s also about family wins, how we talk about our cultural lives, and also about the feedback we get from the wife, the significant other.”
ALL of northeast Ohio would be thrilled for the Nets to achieve meaningful domestic harmony while continuing to fail at basketball, home and away. That might help persuade the increasingly restless James to discard any plans of free-agent relocation to Los Angeles next summer to join the Magic Johnson-run Lakers.
By granting Kyrie Irving his wish to be traded, and by acquiring, among other assets, the Nets’ first-round pick in the 2018 draft from the Boston Celtics, the Cavaliers have made the lowly Nets a team to watch this coming season.
Or, more to the point, scoreboard-watch.
For as long as the Celtics held the Nets’ 2018 pick, that story line was a tribute to Boston’s wheeling-and-dealing Danny Ainge and a sad Brooklyn commentary on one of the more lopsided exchanges in NBA history. But with the pick now in Cleveland’s hands, and with the draft expected to be top-loaded with skilled, athletic big men, or what the Cavaliers have lacked, the Nets’ performance this season could weigh heavily on the league’s eventual balance of power.
And certainly on the Eastern Conference’s competitive order.
To that end, when asked if he was bothered by speculation about the strong likelihood that Cleveland will get a significant upgrade via the pick, Marks said it was none of his business.
“I mean, it’s not our pick, right, so if I focus on what could have been, I wouldn’t be here, Kenny wouldn’t be here,” Marks said. “Our focus is on what we have, those 15 guys. I’d be doing them a complete disservice if I was to focus on what Boston was going to do with that pick, what Cleveland is going to do with that pick.”
He’s right about that. He has no reason to care but, in Cleveland, the feeling isn’t quite mutual.
RECENT speculation disguised as news has James all but shaking hands with Magic over lunch on the terrace of an oceanside bistro. But what if Isaiah Thomas, the pocket-size point guard Cleveland obtained in the Irving deal, recovers from his hip ailment and, with his fellow former Celtic Jae Crowder, helps James return to the NBA finals for an eighth straight year? What if Lonzo Ball doesn’t set the league ablaze as a Lakers rookie, and Paul George and Russell Westbrook decide to extend their fledgling partnership in Oklahoma City?
What if the Nets do poorly enough that Cleveland ends up with the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the draft?
It stands to reason that James, ever mindful of his on-court legacy and his collection of championship rings currently stalled at three, will at least be eyeing those Nets scores on his smartphone in the locker room after games this season.
The Nets had the league’s worst record last season and may have overachieved by winning 20 games. (Their first pick in the 2017 draft had also been handed over to Boston, which traded it to Philadelphia.)
OVER the summer, Marks subtracted center Brook Lopez, his leading scorer and shot-blocker, and landed point guard D’Angelo Russell, who was the second pick in the 2015 draft, and Russian center Timofey Mozgov.
To a young and reasonably athletic roster of interchangeable parts, he also added a couple of pricey wing players, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll.
Rule changes to discourage teams from tanking for draft benefits are in the NBA pipeline, although they are unlikely to be adopted this season and wouldn’t apply to the Nets, anyway. With teams like Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago having traded or lost key players and considered the next wave of floppers, if not tankers, could the Nets’ youth and enthusiasm translate to more winnable games and possibly even elevation into contention for the playoffs? And, of course, a draft pick with less value.
This was another performance-enhancement question Marks deftly evaded.
“I think you got to be careful with that because as we saw last year, one major injury can derail every plan you may have had,” he said, referring to the returning Jeremy Lin. “So for us it’s going to be about staying fluid throughout the year, see what happens.”
To which Atkinson, sitting alongside, added: “My gut is I feel the momentum of where we’re going. Obviously, we want that to translate into results.”
There’s no doubt about it. But for me to stand here and say we’re going to win 35 games, or 32 games, that’s not how my thought process goes.”
That’s a positive thought process for the Cavaliers to carry into the season, a prelude to The (James) Decision, Part III. Who said the Nets would be irrelevant until they again had control of their picks?