Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 24
Last Season: 28-54
Notable Additions: Ed Davis (free agency), Kenneth Faried (trade), Dwight Howard’s contract (trade)
Notable Subtractions: Jeremy Lin (trade), Dwight Howard’s vessel (buyout)
Vegas Over/Under: 32.5
Team MVP: D’Angelo Russell
Best-Case Scenario: After crawling through the past three seasons of shitty basketball, the Nets can finally see the light just up ahead. No matter what happens this season, they will control their own first-round draft pick, and thus their own destiny. Even if they finish in the bottom third of the league for a fourth straight season as we’re predicting (which feels low!), no longer having to send Danny Ainge a vig payment is an accomplishment.
While they’ve waited out their Billy King–induced purgatory, the Nets have poured sweat into building an infrastructure that can generate advantages in-house. Brooklyn’s three top earners this season (Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll, Kenneth Faried) were salary dumps it took on for a price, and three of its five projected starters (D’Angelo Russell, Crabbe, Carroll) are reclamation projects that have found second winds (to varying degrees) in its ballyhooed developmental system. Their projected starting center, Jarrett Allen, has already flashed upside that belies his draft slot (22nd overall in 2017). Imagine what we could do with more talent is a more honest slogan than whatever the marketing department has cooked up for this season.
At least one player is willing to consider the possibilities: In asking for a trade from Minnesota, Jimmy Butler reportedly listed the Nets as one of his three preferred destinations. Butler is more interested in the Clippers and the Knicks, according to ESPN, but being on the list is tacit approval of Brooklyn’s process, in the same way a free-agent meeting with LeBron James once was for the pre–Lob City Clippers. It also introduces a pretty interesting tension moving forward: The Nets have not made a lottery selection since 2010, before the team moved to Brooklyn—would they really give away their first opportunity in nearly a decade in a trade for a star? It runs counter to the slow-and-steady approach GM Sean Marks has executed thus far. Then again, you could argue that Marks shouldn’t be encumbered by King’s sunk cost, and that having Butler in hand is the easiest way to lure a second star over the summer. The Knicks have preached restraint, and good for them. But the Nets don’t have any untouchables, and their lack of preciousness could be an advantage (like it was for Toronto) in a market where all four Los Angeles– and New York–based teams have money and a positive outlook.
Best case, though, the Nets hold on to the pick. They play a bit over their heads and flirt with a playoff spot; some of the younger players like Russell, Allen, and Caris LeVert take noticeable steps forward; they flip someone (Spencer Dinwiddie?) at the trade deadline for an asset; and head into free agency armed with a lottery talent and a strong sales pitch.
Worst-Case Scenario: Is there any scenario in which people come away from this Nets season feeling disappointed? This is the beauty of low expectations: If they’re bad, we were prepared for it; if they’re good, it’s a pleasant surprise. Brooklyn’s aggregate talent level is middling, even in comparison to the riff-raff at the bottom of the Eastern Conference; for as bad as things look in Cleveland and Detroit and even Charlotte, those teams still have at least one surefire All-Star. But a team that plays that fast and shoots that many 3-pointers and is that well-coached can mitigate the disadvantage.
The key to breaking into the playoff field is, once again, Russell. The former no. 2 overall pick’s revival tour was mixed, at best. Left knee surgery limited Russell to just 48 games in his first season with Brooklyn, and though his per-36-minutes numbers are trending upward, he remains a bit erratic. But there’s still a star in there, somewhere. Playing more with Allen should help: Positive net ratings are tough to find among the Nets’ two-man lineups, but this particular duo was a plus-1.5 in 527 minutes together. Russell, 22, has also checked all of the right boxes this offseason: He has gotten appropriately yolked, and his coaches and teammates say he’s shown signs of maturing in a more structured environment.
Marks told reporters last week that he probably won’t offer Russell an extension before the October deadline. A breakthrough season for Russell could mean having to pay big to retain him in restricted free agency this summer, which could complicate the Nets’ cap sheet if they’re unable to wrangle a star or two to play along with him this summer. But the worst-case scenario is ending up without any franchise cornerstone a year from now, and rejuvenating Russell is at this point their best chance.
TL;DR: The Nets probably will be bad again—but fun-bad—as they wait to build a future in earnest next summer.