The Brooklyn Nets didn’t endear themselves around the NBA by resting three starters for their regular-season finale against Chicago, allowing the Bulls to claim the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a 39-point win.
Because Brooklyn is forced to swap draft picks with the Celtics as part of the ill-fated Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade, it will draft 27th overall. The Nets also own the 22nd overall pick because of their trade of Bojan Bogdanovic to the Wizards.
Because former general manager Billy King sacrificed so much of the future for an opportunity at a title run with Pierce and Garnett — ending with an Eastern Conference finals elimination at the hands of Ray Allen and the Heat — the Nets have had to get creative to attract young talent.
They made draft-day deals to nab Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, traded for Brooklyn native Isaiah Whitehead, and signed young journeymen such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Archie Goodwin.
The primary means of rebuilding for the Nets will have to be free agency. They have enough cap space to sign a maximum-salary player and could create more space by trading Brook Lopez, who is entering the final year of his deal.
Only Jeremy Lin and Andrew Nicholson (a contract the Nets had to acquire to get the first-rounder from Washington) are signed after next season. Brooklyn will have to essentially start from scratch because it won’t have a lottery pick the next two drafts unless it trades for one.
First-year coach Kenny Atkinson has received positive reviews for how hard his team played despite the obvious lack of talent, and the Nets were able to beat the Grizzlies, Knicks (twice), Hawks (twice), Bulls, and Pistons in the final six weeks of the season.
“We’re still fighting every game, I haven’t noticed a difference,” Atkinson said recently. “I just love that we’re a together group. We come in every day and these guys could easily ease back and relax, and that hasn’t been case. They keep fighting and they keep fighting me. Brook and Jeremy are leading it, they’re fighting me for minutes and more minutes and they want to keep playing. It’s been great and our young guys are trying to prove themselves, so that helps. They’re fighting for minutes. They’re fighting for contracts. They’re fighting for their future, so we have a nice mix of veteran kids that are trying to come up and a veteran group that cares a lot.”
The fact the Nets didn’t essentially tank the season — they really had no incentive with the Celtics’ owning the right to swap picks — has created optimism for Brooklyn’s future. Like Celtics coach Brad Stevens stressed four years ago, the foundation for building a winning culture is playing hard on a nightly basis.
“I do think we need to be careful and take it with a little bit of a grain of salt,” Atkinson said. “We have to understand that this time of the year, that not every team was fighting for a playoff spot. We have to be a little tempered in our evaluation of the situation, not thinking about that.
“We’re not going to put up on the white board, ‘We’re going to the playoffs next year.’ I just think that we have to stick with our really humble outlook.
“At the end of the day we won 20 games and we obviously have a lot of work to do. We’re just not in that position yet to start predicting.”
Atkinson will have to sell free agents on Brooklyn’s future because the current roster is not likely to influence a proven player to start condo shopping near Atlantic Avenue.
“That’s an easy sell,” Atkinson said. “I just think we have great fans. We had a sellout [last week] against Chicago. Every game they’ve been amazing. It’s a great basketball city. We have a great practice facility.
“I think we’re getting some mojo around the league that it’s a pleasant place to play, and I think guys like that. I think guys will look at it and think maybe this is a place where I can get an opportunity and help this team improve.”
It’s the proper outlook, and Atkinson has enough energy to push the organization through this dark period, but without lottery picks the next two seasons, the transformation to a respectable franchise will be meticulous at best.
UPSET IN MAKING?
Miller, McHale give Bulls chance
The consensus is that the Bulls have a real shot to upset the Celtics, considering the teams split four regular-season meetings and the Bulls have a playoff-tested trio of Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler, and Dwyane Wade.
Wade is the wild card. He has averaged 22.8 points in 166 playoff games, including 21.4 last season for Miami with 52.2 percent from the 3-point line. The ability to flourish in the postseason is one reason Wade came to play in his hometown, and he could return to vintage form against a Celtics team against which he has had great success.
“Being an older player and playing on a younger team in my last few years with Indiana, I could not wait for the regular season to end and get to the playoffs,” Hall of Famer Reggie Miller said. “It is such a long season for a guy when you’re in your mid- to late 30s. When I was 35, 36, 37, the playoffs were a sanctuary for me to get to because there’s no back-to-backs, you have time to prepare and lock in on your opponent, you watch more game film, and it’s only one team you have to focus on. I thought that’s when I was at my best, when I could lock in on you and try to take away your strength, almost like a chess match.
“For Dwyane, I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking. It’s been an up-and-down ride for Chicago this year, between the coaching staff, Jimmy Butler and Wade . . . and Rondo starting or not starting. They found a way to make the playoffs, and it’s a new season. Those 82 games are gone now, everyone starts 0-0, so hopefully you would assume their best basketball is ahead of them.
“In my opinion, this is the best No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup, if you’re Chicago, that you could have dreamed of because what has Boston done in the playoffs lately? Don’t get me wrong, Brad Stevens and his coaching staff have done a great job overtaking Cleveland for the No. 1 spot . . . but what have they done [in the playoffs]? If you’re Chicago, you think, ‘Hey, Dwyane Wade and Rondo have won championships. Jimmy Butler has gone deep in the playoffs before. We have playoff savvy and we know how to win.’ I think this is a great matchup for Chicago.”
Former Celtic Kevin McHale believes the issue for the Green will be rebounding. Boston finished tied for 26th in the NBA in rebounding and 27th in rebounding differential. Celtics opponents pulled down 10.8 offensive rebounds per game this season.
“The one glaring thing I look at with Boston as far as a real deficiency is they don’t rebound the ball very well,” McHale said. “Can Chicago get second shots, can they pound the glass, will they be able to physically dominate that inside paint area? Because Al Horford, I love the way he plays the game, but he’s not a great rebounder down there. They’re going to have to get tough on the boards. The thing I like in Boston’s favor . . . is [Avery] Bradley, [Jae] Crowder, and [Marcus] Smart. They’ve got three guys that can go out there and play against the strength of the Bulls, which is Wade and Butler. It should be fun . . . and should be very competitive.”
Hornets are not trending upward
One of the league’s most disappointing teams this season was the Hornets, who were the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs last season before losing in the first round to the Heat. With essentially the same roster, the Hornets finished 36-46, including losing their final five games.
The issue seems to be a mediocre roster behind All-Star Kemba Walker. Nicolas Batum, in the first year of a five-year, $120 million contract, averaged 15.1 points per game and shot 40.3 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from the 3-point line.
Coach Steve Clifford, who along with general manager Rich Cho could be in trouble if Charlotte doesn’t return to the playoffs next year, said the issue was the bench. Marco Belinelli, Frank Kaminsky, and Jeremy Lamb are capable of scoring but not defending, and Clifford has clamored for a roster shakeup.
“From a personnel standpoint, we need depth,” he said. “Our starters are good. I believe we’re in [the top 10] in plus-minus in the league. It’s no secret, when we go to our bench it’s hit or miss. And you can’t over 82 games, you can’t work like that.”
Clifford especially pointed to the lack of center depth — the Hornets went through Roy Hibbert, Miles Plumlee, and even Christian Wood — as the major issue. The Hornets lacked rim protection and struggled with 3-point defense.
“Part of this is also health-driven,” Clifford said. “My vision was Roy Hibbert a lot at [center] protecting the basket. The first night, I remember leaving the arena in Milwaukee saying, look out, he had been our best player that night. He was a monster. But he hurt his knee and was never really the same.
“One of the reasons we struggled so much when [forward] Cody [Zeller] was out is we haven’t even played with our backup center. We’ve really played with our third and fourth centers all year, and when people say size doesn’t matter, they’re naive. Size is everything in this league, whether it’s size at the rim or size [at all positions] so you can switch [defensively] like [the Celtics] do.”
“We don’t have the luxury of doing either, so that’s why our 3-point defense struggles. From a basketball standout, we have to figure that out. We have to get our defense back. We have to obviously improve our bench.”
The bright spot was the improvement of Walker, especially from the perimeter. Walker was a 30.4 percent 3-point shooter two years ago, and that number jumped to 39.9 percent this season. He also finished with career bests in scoring average and field goal percentage.
“He made a small adjustment in his mechanics. His shooting got better. He works on other aspects of pick-and-roll,” Clifford said. “His shooting has improved tremendously as has his pick-and-roll game. And again, it’s the old fashioned he gets in there and he works.”
Defenses that don’t respect 3-point shooters generally go under screens to allow the shooter to attempt the long-range shot. Defenders generally paid more attention to Walker’s teammates and conceded him the 3-pointer.
“They can’t go under [the screen],” Clifford said. “Until last year, every pick-and-roll [defense] went under, so there’s no rotation and they’re basically saying, ‘Go ahead and shoot the three,’ but now if they go under, he shoots a high percentage from there. So by going over the top it allows him to use his setups, his pick-and-roll game, and it forces not only the second defender, but when he gets by the big guy that’s when everybody else gets shots.”
Performance one for the books
A witness to Devin Booker’s 70-point game against the Celtics on March 24 was Al McCoy, 83, who has done Suns radio play-by-play for 45 years. It was the highest-scoring game in Suns history, and McCoy was the first to remind the 20-year-old Booker that he broke Tom Chambers’s record, set 27 years ago to the day.
“It was unbelievable,” McCoy said. “As I said on the broadcast, the Celtics won the game but it was Devin Booker’s night. To see a guy score 70 the way he did was unbelievable. And I think he had eight rebounds, six assists, a blocked shot, [three] steals to go with it. When the player’s hot, everything that goes up goes in, and his teammates realized they weren’t going to win the game in all probability, but . . . to see him score 70 was once in a lifetime.”
McCoy hasn’t had many bright spots to call over the past few years, but it was a special night for the broadcaster, who has missed only one game in an illustrious career.
“As I said when Tom Chambers had 60, it’s unbelievable to see it happen,” McCoy said. “When he had 23 in that third quarter and then everything he’s throwing up is going in and he was getting to the free throw line and to the basket. But it was a fun one.”
As expected, the Magic parted ways with general manager Rob Hennigan, a Worcester native. The Magic have been one of the more disappointing franchises in recent years, unable to rebuild after the Dwight Howard trade despite a slew of lottery picks and salary-cap space. Poor drafts have crippled the franchise. It began in 2012 with the first-round selection of St. Bonaventure forward Andrew Nicholson, who was allowed to sign with the Wizards after four forgettable seasons in Orlando. The Magic selected Victor Oladipo second overall in 2013, but they could never figure out a suitable backcourt position for the former Indiana standout, who was eventually traded to Oklahoma City. In 2014, the Magic had two top-10 picks and wound up with Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton. Both have been starters the past few years but neither developed into a cornerstone. The next year, the Magic selected Brazilian swingman Mario Hezonja fifth overall. He has started 11 games in the past two years and shot 36 percent this past season. Finally, in 2016 Orlando took Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis with its first-round pick but traded him and Oladipo to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka. New coach Frank Vogel admitted that the Ibaka trade was a mistake and stunted the growth of players such as Gordon at power forward. Ibaka eventually was traded to the Raptors for Terrence Ross and a first-round pick. What was perplexing about the Hennigan firing is assistant GM Scott Perry also was removed. Perry, a former SuperSonics and Pistons executive, has long wanted to run his own team, and this may have been an opportunity. Instead, the Magic named assistant general manager Matt Lloyd as interim GM. The Magic and Celtics began rebuilding at about the same time, and it’s another testament to Boston’s astute decision-making that the Celtics grabbed the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Meanwhile, the Magic haven’t reached the playoffs since 2011-12. Look for the organization to make a serious run at Doc Rivers as GM/president if the Clippers are eliminated early from the playoffs and the team is broken up . . . There’s some good news in Philadelphia, where No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons has been cleared to return to practice. The 76ers could place Simmons on their summer league team, likely for limited action, as a precursor to training camp. Philadelphia could make a significant jump to a playoff team next season with Simmons, Dario Saric, and a healthy Joel Embiid joined by another lottery pick and a free agent addition.
While Russell Westbrook’s historic season has dominated headlines, Cavaliers star LeBron James has put together an outstanding season as well. The four-time MVP is one of just three players to average 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists while shooting better than 50 percent from the field in a season.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.