If the Nets fall in the postseason, but most of the key players aren’t there to see it, did the Nets really fall?
We kid, sort of. But on Sunday, the Toronto Raptors mercifully ended the team’s short postseason run by beating the Nets, 150-122, and completing the first-round sweep.
It was always going to take something close to divine intervention for the seventh-seeded Nets to beat the second-seeded Raptors, especially given how many of the Nets’ top players didn’t make the trip to Walt Disney World for the season restart. The Nets showed bursts of competitiveness early in the series, but in the end, the Raptors were the poised defending champions, and the Nets’ mantra for this season might as well have been, “Just wait till next year.”
For many teams, a first-round sweep would be considered a spectacular disappointment — hello, Philadelphia 76ers! But the Nets can leave Florida with their heads held high. Next season is coming. Reinforcements are on the way. If everything goes according to plan, the Nets should be ready to compete for the finals.
At the very least, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are expected to be healthy at the start of next season. That alone should — emphasis on the “should” — elevate the Nets to a top-tier Eastern Conference team. Add the blossoming Caris LeVert and the return of Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince and DeAndre Jordan, and the Nets will have one of the best rosters in the N.B.A.
But that’s only on paper. There are many questions for the team to answer before that.
What’s Next for the Nets
Sean Marks, the Nets’ general manager, has several key decisions to make in the off-season.
1. The Coaching Search
The news of Kenny Atkinson’s abrupt departure in March rocked the basketball world. The Nets had gotten better every year of his tenure. That he would leave in his fourth season before having a chance to coach a healthy roster was, at the very least, surprising. It raised speculation that Irving and Durant pushed him out. The speculation wasn’t helped by Marks’s vagueness at a news conference announcing the move.
Jacque Vaughn, all things considered, acquitted himself well as the interim coach. The team played hard in Florida, going 5-3 in the seeding games, and frequently punched above its weight. The Nets beat the Milwaukee Bucks and almost pulled out a win against the Portland Trail Blazers in the regular-season finale.
Marks has said that Vaughn’s assessment won’t be based on wins and losses. But he’ll have to make a choice about whether Vaughn should be retained or if another, splashier name should be brought in, like Tyronn Lue or Stan Van Gundy. Whomever the coach is going to be, he will have to get buy-in from big personalities like Irving and Durant, while developing on-court chemistry quickly in an unforgiving media market.
2. Free Agency
The Nets have about $130 million in committed salaries next season, not including Garrett Temple’s $5 million player option. The salary cap is projected to be about $115 million and the luxury tax threshold is set to be around $140 million. Those estimates came before the pandemic hit, so there’s a good chance they shrink.
Basically, the Nets have little room to upgrade the bench. Joe Harris is an unrestricted free agent, and Marks has said bringing him back is “priority No. 1.” Harris, a 28-year-old swingman, averaged a career-high 14.5 points a game while shooting 42 percent from deep. The Nets have the rights to go over the cap to sign him.
The team might have a decent trade chip in Dinwiddie, who may have an expiring contract entering next season if he picks up his player option for the 2020-21 season. There have been questions as to whether Dinwiddie and Irving can coexist. The Nets have an opportunity to upgrade from a position of strength.
They should also be able to find some cheap help on the veteran’s minimum market. Wilson Chandler, a forward who played only 35 games for the Nets, will be a free agent. Chris Chiozza, whom the Nets signed earlier this year to a two-way contract, will be a restricted free agent — and he had some nice moments as a sparkplug point guard in Florida.
Other players who could be interesting: DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, who have battled injuries and are looking for an opportunity to prove they can still play. And let’s not forget Jamal Crawford, who played all of six minutes for the Nets at Walt Disney World before injuring his hamstring.
3. The Draft
The Nets have the Sixers’ first-round draft pick, which will be at No. 19, and it will give the team a low-cost path to add talent. This draft is one of the more fluid ones in recent years, and getting a player ready to help a championship team at that spot will take a lot of luck and savvy. The Nets could probably use more backcourt depth, or the pick could be packaged in a trade.
What’s Past for the Nets
Before we move on, let’s pour one out for the Nets season that just ended. Even though it was a transition year as the team waited for Durant to get healthy, it was still frustrating. It was not part of the plan for Irving to miss most of the season with a shoulder injury or for him to publicly criticize his supporting cast. Nor was it part of the plan to have several key players test positive for the coronavirus and miss the trip to Florida. But there were some positives to take into next year.
1. Irving’s Opening Night
Irving’s first night in a Nets uniform was perhaps the best day of the season for Nets fans, providing unbridled optimism for the franchise’s future. He scored 50 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves as fans chanted, “Kyrie’s home!” The Nets lost in overtime, but Irving’s immense talent was on full display.
2. The Nets’ Young Core
Jarrett Allen, LeVert and, to a lesser extent, Harris all took leaps forward.
Allen improved his touch around the rim and nearly averaged a double-double (11.1 points, 9.6 rebounds; career highs). Allen’s true shooting percentage was a whopping .664 percent, up from .632 the season before. His free-throw rate (free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt) went from to .581 from .489. Basically, Allen improved all across the board and should probably start over Jordan next season.
LeVert’s season was marred again by injuries, but once he got into a flow, he showed significant progress, averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists, while developing a 3-point shot (36 percent from deep). If the Nets are to win a championship next season, they’re going to need LeVert to be a consistent third option behind Durant and Irving.
3. Dinwiddie Reasserting Himself
Dinwiddie had some difficulty early in the season meshing with Irving on court and coming off the bench. But after Irving was injured, Dinwiddie carried the offense. In December, he was dominant, averaging 27 points a game and going to the free-throw line 8.9 times a game.