November 17, 2017

This year, BBALLBREAKDOWN decided to do something a little different to preview the NBA’s trade deadline. We gave 30 writers/podcasters/twitter personalities control of an NBA team for a week and let them negotiate deals with each other in a mock trade deadline. Jesse Blanchard took control of the Brooklyn Nets and discusses running a team in purgatory. 

Brook Lopez is the Brooklyn Nets best trade chip, but they shouldn’t sell him below market value. (Photo: Andy Marlin – USA TODAY Sports)

By Jesse Blanchard

To view the rest of the trades in the BBALLBREAKDOWN mock trade deadline, click here.

  • The Nets send Brook Lopez and Sean Kilpatrick to the Portland Trail Blazers for Al-Farouq Aminu, Festus Ezeli, Ed Davis and the Trail Blazers’ 2017 and 2019 first round picks with top 10 protections for two years—if picks not conveyed first year, will transfer to next available year for two years until the pick loses protections. Nets waive Quincy Acy.
  • Nets flip Al-Farouq Aminu, Randy Foye and cash to the Orlando Magic for Evan Fournier.

The Nets, sitting dead last in the NBA standings, exist somewhere between Brooklyn and purgatory. Fortunately, the future that Billy King once mortgaged is currently the present, moving ever so closely to being squarely in the past.

Not having a prime seat for this upcoming, critically acclaimed draft class really hurts. But that doesn’t mean the team can’t be productive in any sense while counting down its time in limbo.

Taking the reins from Sean Marks for a week for the BBALLBREAKDOWN mock trade deadline, my first course of action was to determine the franchise’s best assets. None stood out more than the coaching staff, led by Kenny Atkinson.

Atkinson was hired for his player development chops, hailed for his work with the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks. I felt it important to put him in a position to succeed. There isn’t a move available for the Nets to fix this mess in one trade deadline, so swinging for the fences was never an option. Instead, to continue the baseball analogies, the approach was to lay down some sacrifice bunts to move runners into scoring position.

That means starting to build the infrastructure now to accommodate chasing stars via the draft or free agency. That means putting a culture in place, creating some corporate knowledge and developing versatile, young players.

Brook Lopez is the Nets’ best player and trade chip, and the added three-point range expands his value on the court. But at age 28, squarely in his prime, Lopez is a player who appeals to teams in win-now mode. And his limitations on the defensive end—he’s not terrible, but his fit is very specific—make him a tough fit for teams with coveted assets.

There’s also value for developing players in having a quality offensive hub to play off of and provide some structure, and Lopez isn’t exactly blocking intriguing, young prospects from playing time. Likewise, the Nets should be content and in no hurry to move Jeremy Lin, who’s a perfect starter point guard (in the starter home sense)—capable of running an NBA offense while also comfortable moving off the ball and letting others shine in spots.

What I’d look for from veterans on a Nets team are players who can provide younger players reps within a comfortable role, while also being humble and adaptable enough to cede touches and time to allow said younger players to experiment with their skills.

As for the younger players, Caris LeVert is precisely the type of prospect the Nets should be looking to develop. He’s a young wing with good size and a nice shooting stroke who should work capably as a secondary facilitator and eventually might crossmatch defensively with point guards for stints. From a personal standpoint, length and passing are combinations I value greatly, and the more I can get across the roster, the better. Brooklyn can afford giving him some touches to work as the primary facilitator, while his game should comfortably move off the ball, attacking from the periphery of a defense’s focus when the time comes. 

Chris McCullough hasn’t gotten much burn, but he’s a rangy athlete with length and a shot that extends beyond three-point range. The foundation of a modern NBA forward is in place and it’s on Atkinson to help him realize that potential.

Given the current phase of their careers, and the Nets own timetable, both young players are probably more valuable to Brooklyn than anything they’d receive in trades.

The mock trade deadline kicked off with the Portland Trail Blazers expressing interest in Brook Lopez, offering the two first round picks, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Festus Ezeli for Lopez and filler. The only real negotiations were on the pick protections (top 10 for two seasons for each pick) and the second player I’d give up.

Oliver Maroney, running the Trail Blazers, wanted LeVert or McCullough—I offered up Sean Kilpatrick and was firm on leaving it at that until the final day of the deadline, knowing he had other goals in mind that required a fast trigger on this deal.

With the framework of the deal in place, and a young rotation forward in Aminu and an extra first, I started contacting other teams to see if they might have any interest.

Nerlens Noel is the type of player I believe the Nets should target in free agency, overpaying to force another franchise to at least make a tough decision. With Embiid looking like a star, I inquired about his availability. Bryan Toporek was the 76ers’ GM and adamant about not considering moving Nerlens until he determined what he could do with Jahlil Okafor.

To exert some pressure, I offered a carrot and a stick: asking for a wish list of players who, packaged with a first round pick and Ed Davis, that might entice him to part with Noel; then informing him I’d likely be approaching Noel with a max offer in the offseason.

Bryan managed to fleece the Dallas Mavericks with an Okafor trade, nabbing Seth Curry and an unprotected first round pick, which ended any already slim hopes.

The Orlando Magic, run by Cole Zwicker, inquired about Aminu. He’d made a trade for Favors at center and Norman Powell in the backcourt, while also moving Vucevic for Otto Porter Jr. and was trying to offload Evan Fournier and Bismack Biyombo’s salary and wanted another versatile forward on a nice contract in Aminu.

Taking back both was a non-starter for me. I view Biyombo as a piece a team acquires after it’s already established its identity and looking to take a final leap, not a foundational building block. I valued cap and roster flexibility more than taking both.

Fournier, on the other hand, checks off most of what I’m looking for. He’s young enough to grow within our timetable, established enough to help immediately, versatile enough in skill set and role to fit next to anyone and better than anyone we’re likely to get in the draft or free agency the next two seasons.

He’s so-so as a passer, but is a quality scorer without needing to dominate or deviate from an offense. As a secondary scorer or even sixth man, he’s as good as the Nets are going to get without having to pour too many resources into him. Parting with the Portland 2017 pick, which sat at 15th at the time of the trade, was a bet on the other moves the Trail Blazers made in the mock trade deadline and how bad the bottom of the Western Conference playoff seeding is. I included Randy Foye to clear more cap room in case a last day trade materialized.

So, to recap the Nets’ mock trade deadline activity, we turned Brook Lopez and Sean Kilpatrick into Evan Fournier and the Trail Blazers’ 2019 first round pick. The key, moving forward, is to continue to build a flexible roster and use the cap space and long view to create chaos and take advantage of it in the offseason.

To extend this exercise further, my objective in the offseason would be to extend a max offer to Nerlens Noel and force the 76ers into a tough decision, with Cristiano Felicio of the Chicago Bulls or Alex Len of the Phoenix Suns as backup options. Really, anywhere where a team is walking the tightrope of keeping its young talent and maintaining flexibility.

All the while, the Nets should also keep their cap sheet flexible enough to acquire a max contract and pay an impact starter at a moment’s notice. Finding a star player remains the ultimate goal for any team, but they can come by very different means and in very different forms.

In an ideal situation, a team lands a LeBron James or Kevin Durant who can make any roster work. But that star player might also be a volume scorer in the Carmelo Anthony mold, or a subtle franchise player like Marc Gasol; players you can build around, but only in very specific ways. Until such a player is obtained, a team can still start building a steady roster, preferably one capable of capitalizing on the availability of any star player at any time.

Limbo doesn’t have to mean damnation, one just has to use the time spent there to prepare.

Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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