You Can't Stay Here: The Never Hungover Nets Prospectus
A conversation with Lucas Kaplan on the past, present, and murky future of the Brooklyn Nets
The NBA offseason: the best part of the year for an NBA fan, where one no longer finds themself burdened with the duty of actually watching basketball, where fandom becomes pure discourse, abstraction, speculation and projection without the tiresome and time-consuming pretext. The offseason is the time of year that calls for a blog like Never Hungover, where organized basketball in general and the Brooklyn Nets in specific are freed to be the sort of purely theoretical vibe weathervanes.
To discuss the Nets’ current predicament, positionality, and prospects, we reached out to Lucas Kaplan, Nets Daily writer and friend of the blog despite his boss’s steadfast commitment to the blog’s blacklisting and shadow-banning. Lucas is among the best Nets reporters, film analysts, and commenters, and his diaristic writing on the end of the Big Three Era was some of my favorite non-Never Hungover Nets writing of the year.
Lucas graciously agreed to a conversation about everything from the Nets’ future and the curious case of Mikal Bridges to draft night and the annual Ben Simmons summer catfish.
Never Hungover: Two questions for you: how are you doing, and how are the Brooklyn Nets doing?
Lucas Kaplan: I’m doing great, it’s pretty funny that the NBA season ends and I get more busy, but everybody loves the slop!
As to the Nets: uhhhh, TBD. Right now, they’re acting out this meme, defying those who say that the worst place to be in the NBA landscape is the middle.
This, in my opinion, is likely the happiest time of the year for Nets brass considering that the theoretical possibilities are endless, given their ability to match salaries in a big-time trade, or use them to accumulate draft picks. But the latter, which I’ve been pining for (The Scoot Dream was over before it started), is not what Brooklyn is interested in. They don’t want to admit defeat post-Clean-Sweep-era, certainly not wanting to get worse. So they’re publicly all-in on the idea of building organically (with a roster full of 29-year-olds), and selling us on the idea of mostly internal improvement. If that is indeed the path we go down…let’s check in on how we feel in January.
Never Hungover: I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the Nets right now by using the Nets fanbase as a sort of proxy. Nets fans are in a really familiar spot right now. The online fanbase originally forms as this collection of people bound mostly by their commitment to fan fiction about what the team could become. Then, you get the big three era, and the fan fiction/armchair GM element doesn’t really disappear, because the guys are never playing and the team is always a piece away, but there’s definitely this triumphalism and concrete, real on-court product that fans were tied to. Now, we’re back to that sort of manic 2019 energy, but with—like you said—seemingly way more possible paths forward. It felt like this sort of schizoid trade machine energy peaked right before the draft, with the rumors that the Nets might either make a splashy, future-mortgaging, history-repeats-itself trade for Dame or make the prudent teardown-and-rebuild trade (I was a Scoot Dream guy as well); instead, as often happens with the Nets, the answer was neither. Did draft night convince you that the team stance is "organic growth," or do you think the Nets are just using that as a marketing/coping mechanism while they figure out what they’re actually doing?
Lucas Kaplan: This isn't sourced at all, so don't ban me from Barclays, BSE Global, but if I had to guess...I'd say the basketball people were probably more amenable to rebuilding, while Tsai & co. were far too stubborn for that, and worried about putting butts in the seats (though I'm not sure that a 39-win team sells more tickets than Scoot). But that's now history, and there's no point in peeking back at the fork in the road once you've passed it. (Editor’s note: the mission statement of Never Hungover, to the extent there is one, is to peek back at the now-passed fork in the road) I think they view this as a transition season, which I can't blame them for; for as cynical as I've been about the potential of this team...they did only play two months together, without a camp. Not saying they're gonna drastically improve, but the front office needs time to truly evaluate what they have.
Next offseason is the real inflection point, and that makes sense. Simmons' contract becomes an expiring deal, the trade landscape probably/likely looks a little more diverse than Dame-or-bust. I think Brooklyn has a plan that involves patience, which, at this point, is reasonable, but it's easier to sell "organic growth" than "check back in next year."
Never Hungover: That basketball people vs. ownership perspective is an interesting one because it also mirrors a sort of schism that the fanbase seems to have experienced during the big three era — you had your fans who were really beholden to superstar talent and believed that the team should cater to these generational players (I’ll admit, to the extent that it isn’t already clear, that I largely fell in this camp) versus people who were more tied to this golden ideal of what the “Nets” are and seemed to resent the stars in general and, while this is a more fraught issue, Kyrie in particular.
What interests me a lot about this is that theoretically there should not be—and, during the last era, never should have been—a disconnect between the prudent basketball decision and the smart front of house decision, other than this weird self-perception and marketing apparatus that the Nets organization seems to have going on. You write for Nets Daily, (a place I take a ton of potshots at but also one that I, and every online Nets fan, have a deep debt to) which has long had an editorial line that seemed really aligned with the franchise’s vision of itself. The Nets feel like one of the only professional sports teams outside of budding leagues like the WNBA or MLS where fans are not just rooting for the success of the team itself but also for the success of the franchise, as if we’re trying to will our Pinocchio into becoming a real boy. That’s often looked like a concerted effort to “build an organic fanbase” through the “organic growth” you’re talking about, but sometimes it also feels like a delusion.
I’m asking this because, as I’ve written about, it feels like Mikal Bridges is a sort of poster child for the type of early-Brooklyn-years feel-good marketing energy. Mikal seems to be a magnetic personality, he’s great with press and fans, he’s reliable on and off the court, and he appears to be a genuinely good guy. That being said, do you think the team is talking itself into Bridges as this franchise savior a bit too prematurely just because he maps onto their possibly delusional vision of who they are as a franchise? We just saw the Celtics ruthlessly trade their mascot and object of an astonishing amount of fan projection, and they’ll probably be better off for it.
Lucas Kaplan: Mikal is a great case study of everything you talked about coming to a head. I would love to know what he truly thinks of his situation, post-trade. He loved being in Phoenix, and while his individual profile has certainly exploded, he's years away from cashing that in on his next contract and much further away from true contention than his old team is. In all honesty, Bridges is not the most talkative/affable with local media, certainly not to the extent that Cam Johnson is. The Nets have done a ton of work in building his image, and they've done a good job at it, for all the reasons you mentioned. Let me take that a step further.
Barclays Center crowds have always showed up to the arena to be entertained, regardless of - and due to a lack of - pure Nets allegiance. They go absolutely wild, more so than any other arena, for Steph bombs, LeBron dunks, etc. And it's been this way ever since the cut the red tape in BK. They were very engaged for KD/Kyrie/Harden, who just so happened to be wearing black-and-white. Mikal Bridges, I think, represents the next evolution of what the franchise projects itself as. What if they were led by a star who was indeed homegrown, as much as a 27-year-old who gets traded to the organization can be, who reflects the values of the franchise, and not a hired gun (They tried to do this with Kyrie with his Jersey ties, but I'm sure they could never go as far as they wanted because, well, imagine if you asked Kyrie for his true thoughts on moving the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn).
On one hand, it's a little premature because I think the counting stats on a bad offensive team overstate how close Bridges is to stardom, and they're locking themselves into not trading him (though if they weren't going to for Scoot, it was probably never happening.) On the other, he's on a valuable contract for a while, and Brooklyn is going to try to win a title before they tear it down. In 2025-26, Bridges will still be making well under a max contract, and Ben Simmons' max slot will be off the roster. I think the dream is that's the year the Nets build a true championship roster...After the Star Era collapsed, Bridges came here and did things The Right Way. He was rewarded for his years of patience, and his journey mirrored the franchise as a whole, turning himself into a champion, and Brooklyn into a home.
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Never Hungover: You scouted the draft: how would you describe the Nets draft picks to someone who militantly avoids watching college basketball?
Lucas Kaplan: Noah Clowney is an almost-stretch almost-big. The form looks decent and he likes to shoot the rock, despite bleh numbers at Bama. Super long and skinny, will remind Nets fans of draftee Claxton, except with less switchability and ball-handling. But he's 18 years old, and will add muscle. He's going to see some G-League minutes, I'd imagine, but some people had him closer to the lotto. In short: A fun project whose progress will be exciting to check in on every two months—perhaps a reason for me to head out to Long Island next season. Vibe check: Funny in an understated sort of way, very nice and a bit soft-spoken but, perhaps due to age, will occasionally be a little more blunt than his PR people may prefer.
As for Dariq Whitehead: Hell yes. #2 national high school recruit who under-performed in his lone season at Duke, which was bookended by two foot surgeries, the second done by Nets physician Dr. Martin O'Malley. Youngest Nets draft pick ever. Capital-S Shooter. The optimist will say that since the Nets drafted him, O'Malley must be sure his foot is all good, and a full recovery will mean he gains back some of the athleticism we didn't see at Duke. The pessimist will say that the foot is truly worrisome and the non-guaranteed improved athleticism isn't going to make him a more creative ball-handler and floor-reader anyway. The super-pessimist will say he's such a nice guy (everybody semi-plugged in that I've talked to says they've heard nothing but great things about his personality; Sean Marks repeated that), and that's the real reason Brooklyn felt comfortable taking a swing nobody else would. #Culture.
Jalen Wilson is a 3-and-D wing that has never had good outside shooting %'s (albeit on high volume), and a little lacking in NBA athleticism. A four-year Kansas Jayhawk, though, who we will undoubtedly hear good things about during camp. Hard-worker and another #GoodDude, by all accounts. Wouldn't be surprised if he actually gets the first real NBA minutes of the trio, even though he has the lowest upside, just because I'm sure he'll be a guy that the coaching staff trusts.
Never Hungover: It sounds like the Nets drafted projects, which is the right thing to do right now. You mention Clowney’s vague resemblance of early Nic Claxton, which is well taken—I remember watching Claxton’s college tape and talking myself into him being the American, ethical Giannis. He’s not, and not going to be, but he’s also probably the Nets player I’m most excited about this year. What do you think this year looks like for Claxton?
Lucas Kaplan: Insane that it's already year five for Clax. My hope, honestly, is that we see more moments of ethical Giannis-ball from him. The Nets need offense badly—any sort of added punch or creativity would be a blessing. Giving Claxton more freedom to work from the elbows and either get into fake-handoffs or one-dribble drives off a face-up (his floater-range %'s were really good last season), I think, is a realistic expectation for the last addition to his game. We already know he's a defensive monster. All in all, with his first big payday looming next summer, this could be his last season in Brooklyn if he plays himself out of their price range.
Never Hungover: As to Whitehead, I see top-level, Jersey-native high school player whose time at Duke was derailed by a potentially chronic injury and just have to ask: do you think Joe Tsai will let him watch YouTube, or are preventative measures being taken?
Lucas Kaplan: No such provisions have been made yet, to my knowledge. I think the organizational hope is that, by getting to Whitehead before he was exposed to Boston, they've set him on a different path.
Never Hungover: About the Nets offense: even if the Nets largely stand pat, I can talk myself into this being a year of figuring out what they have, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to abide by a full year of Dinwiddie-ball. Surveying the offseason landscape, what are the Nets’ prospects of upgrading on the ball handling and creation front?
Lucas Kaplan: You and me both, brother. As of now, cap projections are largely pointless considering the team hasn’t re-signed Can Johnson yet, which they undoubtedly will. Depending on his annual salary, they’ll be over the tax with some potential to duck it. (They likely want to, for obvious reasons.)
I’d say their most obvious path to adding ball-handling would be offloading Dorian Finney-Smith/Royce O’Neale or both, and instead of taking first-round picks for their services, taking a couple seconds and a capable floor general. I wish I could tell you who that would be.
Never Hungover: Okay, one final question for you: the Ben Simmons summer catfish “back in the gym” tour has begun, and it seems that nobody cares. What do you think happens with Ben this year. Do the fans muster up any energy to care about him? Is he trotted out as a sort of final sin from this bygone era? Is he more or less studiously ignored and forgotten?
Lucas Kaplan: 'Surprising' isn't the right word, but it sure is fascinating how in a year's time, Nets fans went from hyping up Simmons as a better fit on the squad that Harden, to rage that he wouldn't be playing at all in '21-'22, to promising a comeback season for Young Socialite, to total apathy. Lost in all that was a six-game, November stretch before a knee flare up last year, in which he averaged ~ 16/6/7 in 31 minutes a night.
Can he get back to that this year, at any point, and give the Nets some of the infusion of ball-handling and offensive flow that they desperately need? I wouldn't count on it, but I really wouldn't be surprised if it happens, either. The expectations on the individual and team levels are miniscule compared to seasons past. I would expect Ben10 to be largely a footnote to this season, even if his performance is better, which I guess I'm predicting as cautiously as a Simmons drive to the rim. Even his meandering drives and insistence on handing the ball off like Daniel Jones are worth something on this Brooklyn team, probably more than any other team in the league.
Simmons, the second he becomes an expiring contract next off-season, will be placed in every mock trade imaginable - his performance this year, in part, will determine how willing teams are to take on that salary for a year. This derpy saga, which you will do a much better job at eulogizing than I could when the time comes, is a fitting end to it all.
In the meantime, don't give up on the vision of bumping some ket with Mikal Bridges at House of Yes for Never Hungover's magnum opus. (Editor’s note: Bridges has not responded to any of Never Hungover’s multiple overtures)
The above conversation was lightly edited and condensed for clarity and to ensure neither conversant’s permanent ban from the Barclays Center. You can follow Lucas on Twitter here.