Throughout the 2018-19 season, the Atlanta Hawks kept a close eye on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks. While some of that monitoring came from a place of “standard operating procedure,” the Cavs and Mavs owed draft picks to Atlanta and, as such, Travis Schlenk and company needed to keep a close eye on the proceedings to inform future planning.
Down the stretch of the campaign, it became (quite) clear that the Cavaliers would retain their top-10 protected first round pick but, ultimately, the Mavericks sent the No. 10 pick to Atlanta to complete the 2018 trade involving Trae Young and Luka Doncic. On draft night, the Hawks sent the leftover obligation from Cleveland to New Orleans in the deal for De’Andre Hunter but, earlier in June, Atlanta acquired a protected 2020 first-round pick in the trade involving Taurean Prince and Allen Crabbe, leaving fans with another season-long rooting interest when it comes to draft positioning.
For those unfamiliar, the Hawks will acquire Brooklyn’s 2020 first round pick if the Nets make the playoffs this season. If Brooklyn falls short of the postseason, that selection will defer to 2021, where the same parameters of lottery protection will apply, and the same setup would then come into play for 2022 if the pick has not yet conveyed. Finally, the pick in question would become a pair of second-round picks if Brooklyn was to (somehow) miss the playoffs for three straight seasons but, considering the acquisition of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, that seems wildly unlikely.
In this space, we’ll examine the projected performance of the Nets for 2019-20, keeping in mind that Brooklyn is actually set up to be better in 2020-21 with the injury issues revolving around Durant.
For a quick primer, here is what happened to turn the Nets from the 42-40 team they were in 2018-19 to the current product that is set to take the floor in 2019-20.
Additions: Kevin Durant (crucially not playing), Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, Garrett Temple, Wilson Chandler, David Nwaba, Nic Claxton
Losses: D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Ed Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Jared Dudley, Allen Crabbe, Shabazz Napier, Treveon Graham
Returning Players: Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, Dzanan Musa, Rodions Kurucs, Theo Pinson
There is something to be said for attempting to project what the Nets might look like based on their record during the previous season. However, Brooklyn made so many changes that it could also be a fraught exercise, so we turn to a few experts and projection systems to get a better idea.
- ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (Pelton) — No. 8 seed, 41-41 record
- ESPN’s expert panel — No. 5 seed, 45-37 record
- ESPN’s Basketball Power Index — No. 5 seed
- The Athletic’s John Hollinger — No. 9 seed (missing the playoffs), 39-43 record
- NBA.com GM Survey — No. 4 seed (tied)
- NBA.com Power Rankings — No. 5 seed
- FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR projection — No. 8 seed, 39-43 record
- FiveThirtyEight’s ELO forecast — No. 9 seed (missing the playoffs), 40-42 record
- TeamRankings projection — No. 8 seed, 40-42 record, 62 percent chance to make playoffs
- NumberFire projection — No. 5 seed, 42-40 record, 74.3 percent chance to make playoffs
- Vegas over/under (consensus) — 43.5 wins; No. 6 seed (tied)
There are more projection systems and expert predictions available but, in short, the consensus lands on Brooklyn as a likely playoff team in the Eastern Conference. At the same time, few project the Nets to light the world on fire to the tune of 50-plus wins.
To put it plainly, that is the exact confluence of events that would be ideal for the Hawks.
Because the pick never becomes unprotected (or even more lightly protected), there is no tangible upside for Atlanta in delaying the arrival of the selection. Are some NBA Draft classes better than others? Absolutely, but it is often difficult to judge that in advance and, in the grand scheme, the Hawks acquiring a pick in the teens for 2020 wouldn’t be much different than a pick in the same range in 2021. There is the potential for a “double draft” that would allow high school players to make the jump to the NBA in the near future but there is some uncertainty in that projection and, as noted above, waiting for Brooklyn to convey the pick isn’t a scenario that isn’t overly likely with Durant on board.
With that as the backdrop, the Nets finishing with a win total in the low-to-mid 40’s would be fantastic for the Hawks and there is every reason to believe that will happen. Brooklyn has a better No. 1 option this season with Kyrie Irving serving as an upgrade to D’Angelo Russell and, with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie around, there is some upside for the Nets. Still, the rest of the additions (in the non-Durant division) aren’t overly inspiring and, candidly, there is a scenario in which old friend Kenny Atkinson leans too heavily on DeAndre Jordan, potentially yielding sub-par returns when compared to the incumbent center in Jarrett Allen.
This isn’t a typical place for Brooklyn Nets analysis (though you can find one here) but, in taking stock of the league in an overall sense, the projections of the Nets as a team that will land between the No. 4 and No. 8 spot in the East seems spot-on.
Is there also a scenario where Brooklyn goes crazy and challenges for a top-three seed? It’s more difficult to see than the downside, but it’s not impossible. Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, there isn’t a consensus team that is leaps and bounds better than Brooklyn (unless you just love the Celtics). As such, there is a path to prominence, but it likely requires an All-NBA season from Irving and real breakouts from LeVert, Allen and others.
Is there a disaster scenario in which Brooklyn falls short of the Playoffs? Yes, yes there is. Irving hasn’t always been that durable and, if things take a while to click and the Nets win only 40-ish games, there are enough teams (Orlando, Detroit, etc.) that are at least capable of getting to 41-43 victories. As such, it would be breezier for the Hawks — at least from a draft evaluation standpoint — if the Nets were comfortably in the playoffs, but there will be a give and take with that. Atlanta would (obviously) prefer a pick in the No. 15 to No. 18 range than one in the No. 20 to No. 22 range and, to put it plainly, the Eastern Conference teams that land in the No. 7 and No. 8 seed positions almost always pick at No. 15 and No. 16 in the draft in recent years.
There is a separate litigation with regard to the trade that saw the 2020 pick (plus Allen Crabbe and a 2019 pick used to acquire Hunter in trade) change sides, and that is inextricably tied to the evaluation of Taurean Prince. As far as the 2020 pick is concerned from this point forward, however, the optimal scenario is the Nets putting together a solid, yet unspectacular, season and producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 42-45 wins.
If that happens as many expect, Schlenk and his staff will have a solid, mid-first round draft pick at their disposal when June arrives and, even if that selection is used in a trade, adding another asset to the arsenal is objectively positive.