The Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns face off this evening, both of which took part in the monumental Kevin Durant deal a year ago. Plenty has changed since then. Mikal Bridges, who the NEts acquired, has become to grow into his own. The Suns, after being bounced from the playoffs by the eventual NBA Champion Denver Nuggets, gutted the team and built around KD and Devin Booker.
I had the pleasure of checking in on the Twins, and the Brooklyn Nets, with my man Brian Fleurantin of Nets Daily and Nets Republic (@busyxb on Twitter, shoot him a follow!). He provided some very engaging and insightful answers to questions I had pertaining to the Brooklyn Nets in the 2023-24 season.
This should provide a fairly solid glimpse at this team, headed into tonight's matchup with the Phoenix Suns.
Without further adieu, let's get into it!
1.) How have you assessed the play, and growths, of Mikal Bridges this season?
I think Mikal has been pretty solid. It’s such a transition when you become the lead option and face of the franchise, and it’s something that Bridges has adjusted to well. He’s had moments where he’s failed in big moments and had to answer for adverse moments and circumstances, but he’s stood tall and kept his head up through it all. The organization has had so much instability since the summer of 2019 and having someone like Bridges who suits up every day and doesn’t create a mess for himself/the team off the court is a welcome change for the Nets. There’s a responsibility in being the top guy on a team, and he’s been a great representative for the team on and off the court.
Look at Mikal Bridges man, game winner!!!— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) December 7, 2023
Trae gets a bucket &, on the road, Jacque Vaughn trusts him as he directs traffic to get it done on the road
His growths into a primary option have a different feel to them pic.twitter.com/sw51O2fUH4
On the court, I do like that he’s taking more three-pointers. His percentages are down compared to his Suns peak, but he’s had to do a ton of self-creation so 36.4 percent from deep is respectable given that context. His defense has slipped, but he’s talked about wanting to get back to that elite level and I think the defense going away from drop coverage will help him a bit on that end as well. He’s still a good finisher and someone that moves well off the ball, so adding more to his arsenal is a great sign of his hard work to get better.
2.) Do you see Bridges as a key piece to what’s to come for the Nets, or do you view him as a piece to help facilitate to what the franchise is building post-Durant?
I think he’s absolutely essential to what the Nets are doing in 2024 and beyond. There’s been a huge push by the fanbase online to tear everything down and start over, but I think that’s a bit mistaken. The Nets are in such a tricky spot with no control of their draft picks, but draft picks from other deals they can utilize. You need good players on the club so there’s a foundation to build towards, and I think Bridges (along with Nic Claxton and Cam Thomas) are crucial for that goal. He’s still a fairly young player at 27 years old and someone that has improved each season in the league. Guys like that you keep on the squad and make them parts of your vision going forward. It was always gonna be rough post-KD, and it’s up to the organization to be transparent and open about their goals and how they go about achieving them. It’s something they’ve struggled with as an organization for a while, and they’ll need to correct that if they want to regain the trust of the fans moving forward.
3.) How have you gauged Cam Johnson’s play this season, and generally in his time in Brooklyn? Do you see him as a trade asset for this upcoming deadline?
It’s been fairly tough for CJ. I think the injury at the beginning of the year threw him off a bit and he’s had to leave some games due to cramping. He’s been creating some more offense for himself, which is a nice change up from his catch-and-shoot excellence. I think he’s a bit miscast at the power forward position, but the Nets don’t really have a suitable alternative to him there right now so they have to ride it out.
Some of Cam Johnson's growths on display in 1 play— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) November 29, 2023
Stop on the physical switch in the paint with Anunoby, grab & go (pace!), changing speeds with pace in PnR to keep Anunoby at bay + engage Poetl to feed Claxton
Good on good from CamJo here pic.twitter.com/6XgednWSFo
As far as being in Brooklyn, he’s been absolutely wonderful! He’s really made it a point to make Brooklyn home and be a real part of the community. It’s awesome to see a player take to New York in the ways that he has and be really involved in the ways that he has been. I think that goes a long way in building relationships between the team and the community.
I don’t see the Nets dangling him as a trade asset come deadline time. I think Sean Marks and the Nets management team want to see how this group gels together, and having Johnson goes a long way in that. If it doesn’t work well, they might shop around in the off-season, but we’ll have to see what the salary cap number is before the team starts making moves.
4.) Jacque Vaughn has had an impressionable stamp on the Nets, and earned himself into job security following the Nash-led era. In what areas have you felt he’s been most impactful as the head coach of this teams post-Durant?
I think what’s helped him is his willingness to adjust. The Nets went into training camp and played the early part of the season in a drop defense. It helped them on the glass, but their overall defense fell off a cliff. They’ve gone back to switching more often, and the defense has been top ten in the league in January as a result. Being able to acknowledge that something isn’t working, be willing and open to make the necessary changes, and put your players in the best position to succeed is a sign of someone who still has a beat on the locker room.
5.) Dennis Smith Jr. had a career revitalization last season with the Hornets, and his relationship with Mikal Bridges has been well-documented. How have you felt his spark, point-of-attack defense, and athleticism have added a new layer to the team?
He’s been a revelation! There have been games where the coaching staff has gone with him to close games in favor of Dinwiddie, and he’s had success. The Nets need to play fast in order to win, and DSJ helps with that. He and Claxton are probably the two best athletes on the team and when the Nets speed it up, they look a lot better. Even during the Big Three era, the Nets didn’t have super athletes (except for Clax) on the roster, so he’s been a nice change of pace from what we’re used to in Brooklyn.
6.) Cam Thomas has been one of the more fascinating microwave-style scorers, enabled the freedom to be creative from coach Vaughn. Where have you seen growth from him this season, past just putting the ball in the basket?
Cam is one of the few players on this team that can get their own shot and get downhill. The best way I can describe the Nets offense at its worst is like when you have a meal that doesn’t have any seasoning in it. When the Nets are in a bad place, their dribble handoffs go nowhere, defenders don’t respect their drives, and the Nets throw up bad threes after only one pass in a possession. It makes for gnarly, sometimes unwatchable basketball, and part of the reason why they fell off a cliff following that game they punted against the Milwaukee Bucks. I think with Thomas, he gives them someone who can bring much-needed scoring punch alongside Bridges and make things easier for him as well.
I think the biggest bit of growth from him beyond scoring is how he’s handled the inconsistent role in the lineup. If you think back to Fall of 2022, he posted #FreeCT around the same time Steve Nash was let go and Kyrie Irving was sharing anti-Semitic material and arguing with reporters about it on the podium. He wasn’t getting minutes then and was visibly frustrated on the bench when you watched the games. This time around, he’s handled it in stride and made sure to not have it take away from his work once he gets on the court. I think he still prefers to start and has said as much, but he’s come in and done well whenever his number is called. Jacque Vaughn has mentioned that in media availability, and I think that growth from him is critical and a sign that he’s willing to continue working hard to get better and be someone the franchise can include in their future plans.
7.) Ben Simmons’ tenure with the Nets has been an intriguing one. Does he still fit into the plans of this organization? Do you feel he’s playing to garner attention from other teams?
I’m glad you asked this since he came back last night and had perhaps his best game as a member of the Nets. Since the Nets are so mediocre in the halfcourt, having someone like him that is always looking to get out in transition and find those easy baskets is essential to what the team is trying to do. I’m still not sure how he fits into the plans because he hasn’t shown that you can trust him to play every game and play consistently well while he’s out there. Even when he was playing well last season with Durant, we still saw those moments where he didn’t lean into contact at the rim, didn’t want to go to the free-throw line, etc. To be fair to him, he told us, he still wasn’t at full strength and was fighting through the back injury. I think it’s a risky, risky bet to assume that he can give you 32 minutes of good, borderline All-Star play every night going forward. I’ve fallen for the Ben Simmons pump fake plenty, but he’ll have to ball out the rest of the season before I feel comfortable trusting him to be a steady contributor to this team in the future.
I don’t necessarily think he’s playing to garner attention from other teams because I think his stock is so low that teams wouldn’t want to bring him in for the next 1.5 seasons. Next year when his contract is expiring, that might entice a team to knock on his door and see if they can make magic with him. But for now, I think the team is in assessment mode to see what he can do and how to best make use of his talents. He’s in a (relatively) low-stakes environment and I think that will help as he tries to complete his comeback.
8.) Do you believe this team can be a relevant Play-In contender, and earn another first-round appearance?
Coming into the season, I thought that they would be a play-in and eventually playoff team. However, I think I underestimated just how good Orlando and Indiana would be. Barring something unforeseen, I don’t see a path for them to make it into the playoffs. I think they’ll linger around 9th/10th place and appear in the play-in, but that’s as far as they’ll go.
9.) Seeing that they have plenty of picks in tow, and have more opportunities to add via league interest in a handful of the players on the roster, what is your ideal trade deadline scenario for this team?
If I had my choice, I would see what you could get for Spencer Dinwiddie. It hasn’t been a great year for him on the court and you can see the frustration he has when he’s benched late in close games. I would be stunned if the Nets offered him a large contract this off-season, so if they can get something for him now before the (likely) split this summer, more power to them.
I remember last year, there were rumors the Cavs wanted to trade for Royce O’Neale, but it didn’t happen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland came calling again to see if they could bring him to add more forward depth to the team. They’ve been asking for multiple first-round picks for players like O’Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith, and playoff/title-contending teams are likely to get more desperate by the deadline, so I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody paid up to get some of the Nets’ rotation players.