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NBA Daily: Has Retooling Usurped Rebuilding?

Over the next couple of weeks, Basketball Insiders is grading all 30 NBA teams on their offseasons — additions, subtractions, draft picks, trades, etc — and their potential headed into the 2019-20 campaign. Between today and autumn, franchises will be tasked with figuring out how their roster pieces, both new and old, might mesh together on the floor.

For some, that will mean constructing a championship-worthy rotation, for others, however, that demands just creating a half-decent product. But for a select few, like the Brooklyn Nets, that entails raising the bar and setting their sights higher than another surprise postseason appearance. After toiling away in the equivalent of basketball hell — bad and without draft picks — the Nets did their homework, trained up diamonds in the rough and plucked contributors out of the G League.

Now with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in tow, the Nets have vaulted from intriguing what-if question marks to full-on threats in the conference hierarchy. Until Durant returns, whether in 2019-20 or not, Brooklyn’s ceiling is obviously lowered — still, they’ve come so, so far from absolutely nothing.

Overview

Admittedly, the season-long recap for Brooklyn will be overshadowed by what comes next — ahem, a few small signings — but, truly, the Nets’ last campaign was nearly as magical.

As shock underdogs, the Nets fought out to a decent 6-6 start, mostly thanks to Caris LeVert’s big-time blooming in head coach Kenny Atkinson’s uptempo offense. But after a gruesome injury in November knocked LeVert to the sidelines for an extended stay — thankfully, the absolute best-case scenario — the young roster had their resiliency tested. In short, they answered the call and more.

D’Angelo Russell transformed into an All-Star-worthy talent and averaged 21.1 points, 7.1 assists and 2.9 three-pointers per games, Spencer Dinwiddie headed the chase for a Sixth Man of the Year nod and Joe Harris became one of the NBA’s most lethal assassins from deep. Jarrett Allen started in 80 games and became a mainstay on viral highlight reels — blocking almost every All-Star out there — and Rodions Kurucs, a second-rounder that was expected to spend most of the season in the G League, made a noticeable difference as the Nets began to claw back.

Beginning on Dec. 7 — a galvanizing overtime victory over the eventual champions in Toronto — the Nets reeled off a red-hot 20-6 streak that put them right back in the postseason hunt.

And it wasn’t just the kids taking over either as the roster’s willy veterans all played their roles effectively. Ed Davis continued to gobble up rebounds like nobody’s business. Jared Dudley provided practical, important locker room talks, all while knocking down three-pointers, drawing fouls and, eventually, getting under Ben Simmons’ skin. DeMarre Carroll, fresh off a career-year with Brooklyn, fought through injury and provided some heady contributions on both sides of the ball.

By February, the Nets were able to slowly reacclimate LeVert to the rotation and prepare for their first postseason run in ages. Not only did they reach their goal, but Brooklyn ended up in 6th place with a record of 42-40. Although just over .500, it was the Nets’ best finish since 2013-14, when a Jason Kidd-coached squad pushed the Raptors out in a seven-game series.

The Nets would win just one contest against the third-seeded 76ers, but they woke up the sleeping masses — finding some much-needed rivalry beef along the way — and rode high into the offseason, dreaming bigger than ever before.

Offseason

Existing in NBA purgatory is a tricky space and, understandably, it’s a focal point that many of our writers have touched on in these offseason reviews. If you’re stuck in that tough reality, moving forward can be challenging — just ask the Nets. The franchise that once famously donated their future in exchange for the aging husks of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce all-at-once sunk to the bottom of the basement and then stayed there for years.

At long last, the Nets are back — at least optically. Once they moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012 — under the overeager impatience of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov — a huge splash was always going to happen. First, they traded the farm for Deron Williams, then sent away even more for Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson, followed by the ill-fated Celtics deal. Over the course of two summertimes, the new-look Nets appeared as title contenders but, unfortunately — and hindsight is always 20/20 — they weren’t the right splashes.

In 2019, the completely different front office will hope their big calculations end up the right side of the equation this time around, so enter Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

In one fell swoop, the franchise direction pivoted. In a joint-maybe-not-joint decision that may have been plotted out far, far beforehand, the Nets made the two biggest free agency signings in club history. Naturally, the swap from Russell to Irving has brought debate to a fever pitch over the last 30 days, but that is a topic destined for dissection down the road. Durant tore his in Achilles after coming back during Game 5 of the NBA Finals, a league-altering injury that will shake up the prime of a future Hall of Famer — but now, he’s in the hands of the Nets’ thoroughly-praised medical staff.

Irving and Durant, regardless of how 2019-20 unfolds, were the headline grabbers, but general manager Sean Marks wasn’t satisfied with just merely adding two superstars to the rotation.

In June, Marks moved the oft-injured Allen Crabbe and his salary of $18.5 million, along with the No. 17 overall pick in the draft, for Taurean Prince and a 2021 second-round pick. To many, this was the first sign that Brooklyn had a real chance to attract major free agents as Marks’ once-original plan was to merely collect assets. Prince, 25, scored 13.5 points on 39 percent from three-point range, thus ending the Nets’ long-desired search for a stretch four in the salary-dumping move.

After moving back again at No. 27 in the draft, Brooklyn came away with Nicolas Claxton, a massive 6-foot-11 center from Georgia, and Jaylen Hands — two athletic prospects with cheap second-round bills that also doubled as a financially-motived decision ahead of free agency. In addition, the Nets grabbed Garrett Temple (two years, $10 million), DeAndre Jordan (four years, $40 million), David Nwaba (two years, $3.5 million), Wilson Chandler (1 year, $2.6 million) and even re-signed fan-favorite Theo Pinson.

In an unexpectedly helpful move, Brooklyn signed D’Angelo Russell to a new four-year contract and packaged him with Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier in exchange for Durant and a protected first-round draft pick.

Henry Ellenson, a former first-rounder from 2016, signed a two-way deal with the Nets — last year, Alan Williams and the aforementioned Pinson held down those spots for much of the season.

PLAYERS IN: Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, David Nwaba, Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple, Theo Pinson, Nicolas Claxton, Jaylen Hands, Henry Ellenson (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, Ed Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Alan Williams, Allen Crabbe, Treveon Graham, Shabazz Napier

What’s Next

In asking what’s next for the Nets is to simply wonder how much higher can this return to prominence rise? Without Durant, the Nets are simply a playoff shoo-in — but beyond that, it’s anybody’s best guess for now. Irving is still elite, LeVert and Allen will each be one year wiser and most of their previous rebounding issues will be stemmed by Jordan. Dinwiddie, a heavy recruiter of Irving, will remain an excellent gunner from the bench and Harris, the NBA’s reigning three-point champion, should continue to get high percentage looks in Atkinson’s offense.

After turning Russell into an All-Star and weathering the storm without LeVert, the late postseason run was just the cherry on top. But adding Irving and Durant has massively escalated those short-term and future plans, without question. The Nets are no longer plucky underdogs, a roster full of castaways and overlooked second-rounders looking for an opportunity. They’re contenders — to what level, we’ll have to wait and see — but 2019-20 will be a year of growth, just with slightly grander stakes.

Of course, everybody will watch to see how Irving gets on with his new teammates and coaching staff — but that’s not all. Can LeVert take the next step? Will Allen respond strongly to being the backup center again? Is Kurucs a legitimate rotation piece? Could he and Prince solve the Nets’ dire stretch four needs? Again, they won’t be champions come next summertime as those dreams are reserved for Durant’s eventual return.

But this is much bigger than the Nets have dreamed in almost a decade — a team once drudged to the bottom of the NBA basement with no hope or light to hold onto.

This time around, maybe it’ll all work out.

OFFSEASON GRADE: A+

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