The Nets have made all their big decisions, trading Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, then extending coach Jacque Vaughn and keeping GM Sean Marks.
Now comes the rest: Filling in the rest of the picture. That’s what they’ll spend the rest of this season and into the offseason doing.
A source described Marks and Nets team owner Joe Tsai as being “in lockstep.” Another told The Post that “ownership has full confidence in that front office to build for the future.” With 15 games left in the regular-season — and an undetermined amount in the postseason — Brooklyn will be weighing how to attack that future.
Unlike the first time Marks rebuilt — bereft of draft picks — now the Nets are armed with the fourth-most draft capital from 2023-29: A total of 11 first-round picks and eight second-rounders, as well as a team-record $18.1 million trade exception, currently the biggest in the league.
How will the Nets use all those assets?
The rest of this season should inform exactly what they need, the cost of getting it and the timeline for acquiring it.
The Nets are assuredly not making all those draft selections themselves, but would they use picks, the trade exception, current players, etc. to get back in the market for a star as soon as this summer?
The non-negotiable centerpiece of the Durant trade — the one the Suns refused to budge on last summer — was Mikal Bridges.
“He’s the ultimate competitor,” Vaughn said. “I love that piece about him. He plays every single night. He’s very unselfish. He gives of his time, of his knowledge in the locker room, during the games. It’s really been a joy to be around him and learn him as an individual.”
Sources have said the Nets are “pleasantly surprised” with how Bridges has elevated his game. He’s also an ironman, having not missed a single game since his junior season — in high school. That, plus his infectious personality, makes him a building block. But the way he’s leveled up his offense is the most encouraging sign for what he can be for the Nets.
As Vaughn and the coaching staff have learned what Bridges can do, they’ve baked in some mid-range looks at the elbow for him the same way they did for Durant, analytics be damned.
The results have been impressive.
Bridges was averaging 25.5 points on white-hot 52.6/48.1/92.2 shooting splits entering Thursday’s Milwaukee tilt, the first player in NBA history to score 25 points on 50/40/90 shooting splits through his first 10 games with a new team.
He’s seen his usage rate skyrocket, and Brooklyn has even used him as a primary ballhandler, letting him play-make along with point guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
“They don’t use this term for basketball, but [Bridges] is a five-tool type of basketball player, where he does just a little bit of everything,” Joe Harris said. “Offensively, he can definitely carry the load for us. But he always makes the right play, too; if he’s not getting the bucket for himself, he’s making a play for somebody else.”
Vaughn & Co. must continue to find the best ways to maximize Bridges. And the Nets must keep developing him into a player who can come into next season with a legitimate chance at being an All-Star.
In a wing’s league, the Nets not only start three — Bridges, Cam Johnson and Dorian Finney-Smith — but have Harris, Royce O’Neale, Yuta Watanabe (and Ben Simmons) coming off their bench. They’ll field a host of offers this summer, and will have to decide who to move to balance out their needs at guard and center.
And while Brooklyn doesn’t have to worry about Irving’s free agency, they still have a number of calls to make on that front, too, starting with Johnson.
Set to be a restricted free agent, Johnson already turned down four years and $72 million from the Suns. But his tight relationship with Bridges, positional value and status as part of the Durant deal make him hard to let escape.
A 6-foot-8 wing who can shoot 40 percent from deep with solid defense will command top dollar. Sources say his floor is $18 million annually, and could easily top $20 million. And with a new leaguewide TV deal kicking in after 2024-25, it’ll make the end of Johnson’s contract a smaller cut of whatever the salary cap becomes.
“I’ve said this — because this was a topic of discussion when I didn’t sign the extension — that I’m still under contract at this moment,” Johnson told the Post. “I still had that year; I still have the rest of this year. And my goal right now is to win games and make a playoff push.”
After Marks signed four restricted free agents to offer sheets from July 2016 to July 2017, only to see every one matched by their teams — Tyler Johnson (four years, $50 million), Allan Crabbe (four years, $75 million), Donatas Motiejunas (four years, $37 million) and Otto Porter Jr. (four years, $106 million) — could somebody turn the tables with a big run at Johnson?
Meanwhile, Watanabe and Seth Curry are both unrestricted free agents. O’Neale ($9.5 million) –—who leads the Nets in total minutes played this season — and Edmond Sumner ($2.2 million) are both partially guaranteed for next season.
And that doesn’t include Nerlens Noel, signed this week to a 10-day contract. With Simmons, who’d been serving as center Nic Claxton’s backup, out with knee and back injuries (more on that later), Brooklyn felt a need to add some more size.
The Nets can only sign Noel to two consecutive 10-day deals before they have to make a decision whether to keep him. That means seeing as much of him as possible now, because Day’Ron Sharpe, now in his second year, hasn’t appeared ready for prime time yet.
“I want to see could Nerlens play in a basketball game and contribute and be able to pick up what we’re doing as a group,” Vaughn said. “Also see his quickness if he can protect the rim. So I needed to see that … so I decided to use one of those 10 days pretty quickly to see what he was going to give us.”
Vaughn and Marks must find a reliable backup center, and need to find out if Noel has a chance to be that.
Brooklyn can use the final weeks to figure out how they want (need?) to defend.
For the past few years they’ve not only switched more than any team in the league, but more completely. They’ve switched one-through-five to take advantage of Claxton’s versatility and ability to defend guards on the perimeter.
But he’s the only starter left from before the Durant and Irving trades. With four new faces more accustomed to playing traditional drop coverage, Vaughn has tried to change on the fly. Now he’s attempting multiple defensive looks, sometimes going drop, zone or switching one-through-five, and others one-through-four.
“It’s all a part of the game,” Claxton said. “If I say I want to be Defensive Player of the Year, I need to be able to be effective in any coverage.”
“It’s just credit to the coaches, putting us into situations and teaching us and learning, and obviously the guys being ready to adjust,” Bridges said. “We’ve just got multiple defenses, and obviously the drop is something new, but coach has got us right and we have the guys to lock in and wanting to win, so they’re willing to do whatever and to learn fast. It’s great.”
As mentioned earlier, the Nets have plenty of assets to go out and pursue a legitimate scorer or potential star. Maybe a player in his mid-20s with top overall pick pedigree and All-Star production already under his belt.
Where could they ever find a player like that? And what would it take to get him in a Nets uniform?
Look on the end of their bench. And whatever it takes to get Simmons right.
Simmons missed his 24th game of the season Thursday in Milwaukee, and his eighth straight with knee and back woes. An MRI revealed back inflammation, and he hasn’t played since before the All-Star break. It would be good to see him play this season, but it’s vital to see him playing well next season, by any means necessary.
“We want Ben back when he’s capable of being back for us,” Vaughn said. “The day-to-day thing, that’s just for me to say some term to you guys. When the back gets better, and when the knee gets better, then he’ll be with us.”
Simmons averaged 14.3 points and 6.0 win shares in his last 76ers season. So far this season, he’s at 6.9 ppg with just 2.3 win shares, and no guarantee of playing again in 2022-23. But with $78 million owed over the next two seasons, spending the next few months getting him right for 2023-24 and beyond has to be a top priority.