NEW YORK -- Since taking over a 21-win team that does not have total control of its own first-round pick until 2019, new Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks has harped on the following:
“We won’t be skipping steps along the way.”
Translation: This massive rebuilding project has only just begun, and it’s going to take some time, so patience will be required.
Heading into free agency on Friday, Brooklyn’s roster includes Brook Lopez, Bojan Bogdanovic and four players under the age of 22 -- Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead. And with around $50 million in cap space, the Nets have several significant needs: a good point guard; a replacement for Thaddeus Young in the frontcourt; a D-and-3 wing; more shooting; more bigs; and more bench help.
Even so, because they’re only in the infant stages of building from the ground up, first-year coach Kenny Atkinson is realistic about the team’s approach to free agency.
“I think more veteran leadership is important,” Atkinson said Tuesday in Coney Island, where local product Whitehead was being introduced. “I think undervalued guys, guys that might be under the radar and can produce -- and maybe not necessarily the big star, maybe we’re not in a position to get a guy like that. But really, guys like Isaiah, that fill the characteristics we’re looking for -- hard working, high character, high basketball IQ and competitors.”
Atkinson, a former assistant with a strong track record in player development, might be Brooklyn’s biggest asset when it comes to attracting potential free agents. With the Knicks, he helped Jeremy Lin get better. In Atlanta, he helped Kent Bazemore get better.
Both players figure to be Nets targets -- as ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported -- while simultaneously serving as success stories for other potential signees. The pitch: Come here, and Kenny and his staff can help you get better too.
“The first part is getting the right type of player that’s willing to work and willing to compete and willing to buy in,” Atkinson, who will coach Brooklyn's summer league squad in Las Vegas, said of players improving under his watch. “And I think it takes a village, it takes a community to help build a player in the NBA, and I think we have that here. Sean and I have built a staff with that in mind, that we’re really going to help the Isaiah Whiteheads of the world, the Caris LeVerts. Those are guys we hope two, three years down the road you’re going to be looking at those guys and saying, ‘Man, they’re good players.'"
Marks and assistant GM Trajan Langdon figure to scour the international market, as well, given their worldly basketball backgrounds. The Nets would be well served finding a solid player overseas or transforming a struggling former lottery pick, such as Bismack Biyombo, who thrived in Toronto last season and is set to make three or four times his $3 million salary as a result. Restricted free agents, such as Portland’s Allen Crabbe, who is in line for a hefty raise and a greater role, also figure to be on Brooklyn’s radar, as ESPN's Ian Begley reported.
To reiterate: When you’re lacking in talent like the Nets are and seemingly every team in the NBA has cap space, creativity is necessary.
Lopez, who on several occasions has nearly been traded, appears now to be a building block, with Atkinson insisting the team is not looking to deal him. He is currently recovering from plantar fasciitis in his surgically repaired right foot, though team officials maintain the 28-year-old will be fine.
Lopez was injury-free last season, appearing in 73 games before being shut down for precautionary purposes. Atkinson definitely wants Lopez to be more of a leader in 2016-17, something previous Nets coaches also had hoped for.
Lopez is the vet now. The Nets need more of them. They need more of everything.
And it won’t happen overnight.
But as it pertains to laying the foundation, free agency can be a useful place to start.