It seems nice to be the Nets.
Yes, their season ended prematurely after a disappointing second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs. But the defeat could easily be chalked up to injuries to their star guards, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. And even then, the Nets almost won the series, thanks to the heroics of Kevin Durant.
But they have a clear organizational direction with free agency underway. It helps to have an owner in Joe Tsai who is willing to open his checkbook.
However, their situation is more precarious than meets the eye.
The Nets know their starting lineup will include Irving, Durant, Harden and likely Joe Harris. They’ll be a championship contender even if they fill out the rest of the roster with the readers of this article and the writer. They don’t have cap space, so their summer won’t be spent trying to attract another star. But because they have a historically great trio, they’ll likely be able to persuade a quality veteran to take a pay cut to chase a ring.
However, organizational direction goes only so far. Looming over the Nets is that their three best players — Irving, Durant and Harden — can leave after the upcoming season. When teams lose at full strength, there is usually an easy diagnosis: They need more shooting, or better defenders, or more bench help. But it’s tougher to assess a team like the Nets, where the top players got injured and the role players — Jeff Green and Bruce Brown for example — often punched above their weight. And now the Nets face the added pressure to show their top players that they are savvy enough to acquire the right teammates for them. Otherwise, they may leave.
Here is a look at the Nets’ off-season options.
What We Know
With their sole first-round draft pick, at No. 27, the Nets selected Cameron Thomas, 19, a Louisiana State guard known for his scoring.
Among the key unrestricted free agents for the Nets are guards Spencer Dinwiddie, Chris Chiozza and Mike James.
Dinwiddie, 28, missed most of last season because of a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He is a starting-caliber guard on a team that probably doesn’t have a room for another one, making it likely that he won’t be back.
The Nets have already made a few moves, agreeing to bring back Blake Griffin, who found a gear as a 32-year-old after joining the Nets in March that he had lacked in his last season with the Detroit Pistons. And Brown plans to sign a one-year qualifying offer from the Nets, according to ESPN. Griffin showed that he was willing to accept a lesser role and that he was capable of playing alongside Irving, Durant and Harden. Brown, 24, had his best season in his third year, posting career highs in offensive efficiency and rebounds.
Green, 34, has bounced from team to team on minimum contracts, despite being productive. He was excellent for the Nets last season, his best moment being a 27-point performance against the Bucks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. He provided crucial wing depth that the Nets will need to replace: He has agreed to a two-year deal with the Denver Nuggets, according to ESPN. In his stead, the Nets plan to sign another journeyman 34-year-old — James Johnson, a tough defending reserve — to a one-year deal, according to ESPN. Johnson split last season between the Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Nets also agreed to terms with Patty Mills, according to ESPN. This was a get: Mills, who turns 33 next week, is one of the best backup point guards in the league. He had been a San Antonio Spurs mainstay for most of the last decade, and has a deep well of playoff experience. He won a championship in 2014 with the Spurs. This deal makes Chiozza and James unlikely to return.
As potent as the Nets offense was, their defense was a liability for much of the season. Irving, Harden, Harris and Griffin aren’t known as defensive dynamos. The 33-year-old center DeAndre Jordan was pushed out of Coach Steve Nash’s rotation, in part because he’d lost a step defensively. In the playoffs, the Nets struggled to slow down Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, highlighting their need for a defensive-minded presence at the rim.
Adding defenders who can shoot to play off their stars wouldn’t hurt either.
But the Nets’ most important need might be trying to lock in at least two of their three stars long term.
If Dinwiddie leaves, there is the chance of a sign-and-trade and the Nets might be able to bring in some help that way.
There are also some intriguing names on the free-agent market. Danny Green, 34, is a deeply experienced shooter with three championship rings to boot. He shot 40.5 percent from 3-point range last season for the Philadelphia 76ers. Avery Bradley, 30, struggled with the Houston Rockets last year after starting the season with Miami, but overall is still an above-average perimeter defender and shooter.
But more than likely, the biggest help for the Nets will come through internal growth, particularly that of Nicolas Claxton, 22, and Alize Johnson, 25, who spent some of last season in the G League. Claxton, a second-round draft pick in 2019, proved himself to be a capable rim runner but needs to bulk up to be more physical. The Nets signed Johnson to multiple 10-day contracts, and at each step, Johnson showed impressive energy off the bench. In one April game, Johnson had 20 points and 21 rebounds.