NetsDaily Off-Season Report No. 1

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First things first

As we note above, we’ve been doing this for 11 years, through thick and (mostly) thin. Some editions will be long, some will be short. Some will be better than others. Some will come out on Saturday, some on Sunday. The Off-Season Report will follow the off-season, right up to October 1, which is the start of the pre-season … nearly SIX MONTHS FROM NOW.

This one is pretty basic.

Welcome Joe Tsai!

It’s difficult, as of now, to see what changes the 54–year-old will bring to the Nets between now and 2021 when he has the option to buy a controlling interest. We don’t know what level, if any, of control he will have in the interim. We heard that one reason for the nearly six months delay between agreement in principle to closing was the level of control.

Tsai, like Mikhail Prokhorov, is a big basketball fan —having arranged the big PAC-12 tournament in Huangzhou last October; very very solvent —each are worth $11 billion of so; and of course, not a U.S. citizen — having been born in Taiwan and at some point acquiring Canadian citizen (not uncommon for rich Taiwanese.)

Tsai, unlike Prokhorov when he arrived on the NBA scene in 2009, has a keen familiarity with American life. For nearly 20 years, he spent most of his time in the U.S. and in fact in the extended New York area. From eighth grade through senior year in high school, he boarded at the Lawrenceville School outside Trenton. Then it was off to New Haven and Yale, first at Yale College, then at Yale Law. After graduating law school, he was hired by Sullivan & Cromwell, one of the so-called “white shoe” (aka elite, conservative) law firms in Manhattan then later worked as an investment banker. He got married on Park Avenue.

Tsai’s “big break” came in 1999 when he and a few others joined with Jack Ma to found Alibaba, which became one of the world’s great e-commerce company, China’s version of Amazon. Tsai has often been Alibaba’s public face, but with his legal and investment background, he ultimately was given control of the company’s strategic acquisitions and investments as executive vice chairman. He has a very keen interest in the nexus of artificial intelligence and commerce.

Throughout that journey, he’s been anchored by sports. He played football in high school and lacrosse at Yale. (He also just bought an expansion franchise in the National Lacrosse League.) Then, last November, he was the host of one of college basketball’s first forays into China, a game between UCLA and Georgia Tech. The game quickly became international news, not because of the game itself, but what preceded it, the arrest of three UCLA players including LiAngelo Ball, for shoplifting in Hangzhou, home of Alibaba’s headquarters.

As ESPN’s Arash Markazi reported it was Tsai (more than President Donald J. Trump) who played the critical role in the release of the three players and an end to the incident. It was also Markazi who before the incident caught Tsai telling Bill and Lori Walton that Jeremy Lin, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, is “my favorite player.” He also told Walton that he likes D’Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert.

As he said in that short discussion with Walton, Tsai believes in the Nets long-term strategic plan. In the press release announcing the closing this week, Tsai stated, “I share the vision and culture that Mikhail Prokhorov, CEO Brett Yormark, General Manager Sean Marks and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson have put in place, and I look forward to being part of this great franchise.”

The same press release tried to reassure fans that Tsai’s purchase won’t change the Nets goals. “There will be no changes in the day-to-day management of the team’s business or basketball operations.”

Also, for at least the next three years, it will be Prokhorov and Nets chairman Dmitry Razumov who will be making the key decisions rather than Tsai. How much control Tsai will assert remains uncertain, undiscussed in the press release or in news stories. He hasn’t shown up (yet) on the Nets front office directory.

Although the closing —and NBA approval— only took place this week, Tsai has been slowly integrating himself into the world of Nets basketball. He attended at least three games this season, both games vs. the Warriors and one game vs. the Knicks at Barclays — all losses, we must note. At the end of the Warriors game in Oakland last month, he and his wife, Clara, spoke briefly with Atkinson and some of the players, including Lin and Spencer Dinwiddie.

According to a report this week in Forbes Russia, Tsai has leased the Barclays Center suite next to Prokhorov’s. The author, former Nets employee Dmitry Materanskiy, noted that “the billionaires can exchange glances or greeting nods.” Of course, it’s unknown how many games Tsai will attend. Prokhorov usually is about between five and seven games a year, with Razumov courtside for many more. Also uncertain is who Tsai might choose as Nets directors. And we don’t know who his “basketball guy” is, his NBA adviser.

A lot of questions still be answered, but the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Tsai is going to plunk down more than a billion dollars for a 49 percent stake in a team that has won a grand total of 69 games in three years. Based on that, the Nets valuation is $2.35 billion, the biggest ever.

And his position with Alibaba, his experience with e-commerce and China is likely to rekindle Prokhorov’s dream of making the Nets a “global” franchise. Adam Silver, in a conversation with Brian Lewis back in December at the Mexico City games, thinks it’s possible.

“Most importantly the new partner … Joe Tsai, co-founder of Alibaba, the fact is that he’s someone who’s living in China but very familiar with the Brooklyn Nets brand,” Silver told Lewis. “He’ll be the co-owner for several years, not controlling owner, [but] it speaks specifically to the interest in the Brooklyn Nets in China, and to the greater interest in the league.”

Note to Nets players: Nǐ hǎo.

One final note for those Nets fans who think Tsai’s love of Jeremy Lin might mean special treatment or a long term contract … whatever. As we’ve pointed out, Prokhorov and Razumov still control the team and more importantly, the Nets history shows that nationality doesn’t offer much privilege.

The Nets signed Andrei Kirilenko but when he couldn’t produce and Lionel Hollins wouldn’t play him, off he went to Philly in a salary dump. The Nets traded for Sergey Karasev, hoping he’d develop working with AK-47. That didn’t work either, Hollins wouldn’t play him and the Nets didn’t renew him. (He’s back in Russia, playing for his father and doing well.) As for Timofey Mozgov, we all know that he was the salary the Nets needed to take on to get Russell. He started a few games but despite his Russian nationality and big contract, off he went to the bench.

Expect the same with Lin. If he doesn’t produce at the level the basketball operations staff expects, his heritage won’t help.

Speaking of Lin…

“Baggie Day” is that traditional end-of-season opportunity for the media to talk with players before they head home. This season, like the two previous ones, “Baggie Day” took place in April. No playoffs.

The media didn’t get much of a chance to talk with Jeremy Lin during the season. He spent five months in Burnaby, British Columbia, recovering, rehabbing and more at Fortius Sport & Health. Fortius has an international reputation for extending rehab, giving athletes a chance to rethink and rebuild their bodies … “from the ground up, each and every muscle and joint, not just the patella tendon,” as Lin told his fans back in November.

According to more than one beat writer on the scene Thursday, Lin looked bigger, or as our Bryan Fonseca wrote, “jacked.” Bryan wasn’t alone. Others said the difference was noticeable. He looked stronger. He is moving better too, according to various reports although that wasn’t part of Thursday program. He’s said the surgery to repair his patella tendon also cleaned up some “loose bodies” in his knee that had been giving him problems.

On a more subtle note, Lin spoke to the media for 16 minutes, which is verrry long for a player to take questions. He was, as one beat told us, more comfortable with the media than in the past. (Not that Jeremy Lin has ever been uncomfortable!)

Lin of course said he expects to start next season, but it was a small part of that 16 minutes. Here’s the specific quote…

“I came here having the same role. I don’t expect it to change,” he said. “And if it does, it’ll be something we communicate over. But honestly, I’m not really even thinking that far in advance. I’m thinking about my health; I’m thinking about moving properly. And I have full confidence that if I’m doing that, everything will be…everything will make up for lost time, and we’ll see what I had envisioned my time in Brooklyn being.”

Much of the interview was devoted to what he learned about his body in Canada … and leadership.

“We need players on the court who will be leaders, who will drive the defense forward,” he said. “We need to have a voice on defense. When I come back, one of the things I’m expecting of myself is to really be the captain of the defense.”

If you didn’t expect Lin to state that he expects to start, expects to lead, you don’t know him. NEVER forget that Lin is a HIGHLY competitive person. You don’t get to where he is: Harvard; undrafted to NBA; Linsanity; $60-plus million in career earnings; international celebrity, without being hyper competitive. That is a good thing.

Draft Sleeper of the Week

The Nets will soon be working out college and international prospects at HSS Training Center, updating their scouting reports, prepping for the Draft Combine a month from now, etc. In the Marks era, they have worked out around 60 players. Unlike when Rod Thorn and Billy King were running the show, the list of players they’re working out is treated like a state secret.

There are a number of players who’ve been linked to Brooklyn, although it’s hard to tell which one of them is at the top of their list for the 29th pick (or a higher pick if they choose to move up.)

One player who the Nets seem to have followed closely is Chandler Hutchison, the 6’7” senior wing out of Boise State. Local reporters have tracked the Nets interest in him.

From October…

December…

January…

… and February

So what’s he like?

Here’s video of his best game, a 44-point performance against San Diego State…

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony wrote this about him in his latest mock draft…

Hutchison made significant strides with his game as a senior. He looks primed to take advantage of the lack of wings in the draft — and the NBA in general — this June. He has outstanding physical tools and is a much-improved ball handler and perimeter shooter.

As the video shows, he has that versatility that the Nets value. He can shoot, inside or out; pass, rebound a little and defend. Moreover, he is a high character player. What’s the downside? He’s skinny, he’s untested against big time competition, sometimes inconsistent and probably most of all, he is an older senior. He turns 22 in ten days. That’s old for a draft pick, particularly for a rebuilding team’s draft pick.

Hutchison is that mid-major gem who starts to rise in mocks as the Draft gets closer —34 scouts were at his last college game, but as of now, ESPN has him at 28th in its mock draft, Tankathon has him 29th and NBADraft.net has him at 36th. Right there, you might say.

European Free Agents? Probably not

We’ve heard about European free agents as a possible pool of talent the Nets might exploit. Sean Marks has mentioned it along with the draft, free agency and G-League as possible sources of players who the Nets could develop.

Marks has scouted a number of European free agents when he’s gone overseas, but truth be told, those trips are mostly about the Draft … and here’s why. The European players who are good enough to play in the NBA are, in large part, European superstars who make a serious amount of money and are accorded that same trappings of superstardom there that NBA superstars are in the U.S. — endorsements, for example. Not to mention the simple ego rewards.

So if a European over the age of 22 (and therefore ineligible for the Draft) wants to come to the NBA in mid-career, he may have to give up some money and time on the court and stardom. If that’s going to happen, the player is more likely to join a top flight NBA team rather than what might be called a “development” team. It’s what David Pick said, and was proven correct, about the Nets pursuit of Milos Teodosic, the Serbian point guard who played for CSKA Moscow. He signed with the Clippers.

A good example of the European superstar who considered, but ultimately decided not to come to the NBA is the Nets own assistant GM, Trajan Langdon. In Europe, at Mikhail Prokhorov’s CSKA Moscow, Langdon was a two-time Euroleague champion, a nine-time Russian League champion, a member of the Euroleague All-Decade team and Euroleague Final Four MVP. He had played a couple of years in the NBA and could have returned, but he’d have come off the bench.

There’s also a financial issue. A lot of Europe’s best players have big buyouts in their contracts, sometimes reaching $2 million or more. An NBA team can only play $675,000 of the buyout. The rest would either have to be picked by the player himself or added to the team’s salary cap.

It sounds good, but until the Nets get good, don’t hold your breath.

Final Note

We have to admit that when the season ended this week, we were relieved. As much as we loved these guys —and we did— there was so much frustration attached to the season. The team’s two best players at the beginning of the season missed 115 games combined. So many bad calls. So many close games. So much inconsistency from what is one of the league’s younger teams. Too few wins.

Sure, there was a lot to look forward to, and we do. The organization’s reputation for player development was cemented with Spence Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson all taking leaps in their development. Allen Crabbe and D’Angelo Russell both looked good at the end of the season after ups-and-downs, DLo’s a function of his injury.

On Monday, Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson will meet with the media for their annual summary of the season and preview of the off-season. Do not expect any surprises. It appears the plan going forward is a variation on what we’ve seen, incremental change with an eye on a big deal should it arise. As Marks told us back in February…

“I think for us, it’s going be ‘look, we’re going to keep hitting singles and every now and then, we will tend to be opportunistic. Where can we strike, where can we make a move that we feel fits this organization as a whole and does that accelerate that build, that process. And I’m not sure when those (moves) are going to come. They could come this off-season. I would never say, ‘look, we’re going to do absolutely nothing,” because why would we do that.”

He’s also talked lately about the value in continuity, meaning the rate of roster turnover might slow, but again if opportunity knocks…

There will be questions Monday on roster turnover, offer sheets to RFA’s, draft strategy and what is becoming the Jahlil Okafor chronicles. We’ll be there. We always are.

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