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Vaughn’s Initial Challenge In New Nets Era: Picking Winners & Losers In Camp Competitions
Nets General Manager Sean Marks and Head Coach Jacque Vaughn held their annual preseason press conference on Tuesday and much of the discussion centered around Ben Simmons, the club’s much-maligned, highest-paid player. “What’s he up to? How’s he feeling? What position will he play?” Definitive answers to those questions won’t be known until Simmons actually performs on the court following another lengthy rehab on his ailing back.
Simmons, though, is only one piece to a veritable jigsaw puzzle facing Vaughn when training camp commences next week. To me, his most honest answer came on a question on how he will navigate a team that consists of many players who will be on expiring contracts.
“We’ll kind of enter the year as individuals and my goal is to finish the year as a team,” Vaughn said. “That is the challenge.”
Well said, but awfully difficult to achieve. Vaughn indicated earlier how he understands that many of his players will be coming to camp with minutes expectations, but they will be distributed based on performance.
And that’s where it gets tricky. In his club’s first full season of the post Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving superstar era, Vaughn will need to quickly identify the players who he trusts will provide the highest degree of reliability. It’s not like he can go with a 13-man rotation for very long.
Oh, there will be some constants initially, starting with wings Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, aka “The Twins”, along with center Nic Claxton. After that, and I would even include Simmons and guard Spencer Dinwiddie here, the process of forming a rotation could be fairly fluid.
As I noted in several prior posts, Marks has put together a roster that begs competition, whether it’s Lonnie Walker IV versus Cam Thomas as the scoring guard off the bench, Dennis Smith Jr. versus Simmons/Dinwiddie for the second unit point guard, or the half dozen or so forwards in the 6-foot 7 to 6-foot 9 range battling for fixed minutes. I’m not sure I could even nail Vaughn’s starting five for the October 25 opener against Cleveland at this point.
The roster construction isn’t perfect—besides being short on go-to bucket-getters, the center position is frighteningly thin (I cringed when Vaughn mentioned giving Day’Ron Sharpe a long look as Claxton’s backup)--but overall, there’s probably more balance at this camp than in most prior years during Marks’ tenure.
Vaughn, like many coaches, stated his preference for having a roster blessed with this amount of versatility. That’s until he has to make difficult choices and then live with the outcomes, including the negative ones. Forget about the second-guessing from outsiders; he’ll find it challenging to explain to certain players why they’ve been relegated to the bench without igniting distractions like trade requests.
Unfortunately, that’s Vaughn’s job. From my own perspective, here’s a way-too-early status report:
Starters: Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Nic Claxton, Dorian Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie
Bench rotation: Royce O’Neale, Ben Simmons, Cam Thomas, Trendon Watford, Lonnie Walker IV
Other reserves: Dennis Smith Jr., Darius Bazley. Day’Ron Sharpe Dariq Whitehead, Noah Clowney,
Two-Way Players: Jalen Wilson, Armoni Brooks, TBD (Harry Giles III?)
Notes: Based on his press conference responses, Vaughn doesn’t seem to be concerned about pairing dual non-shooters Claxton and Simmons. But I am. So for this purpose, let’s just assume that he’ll have Simmons start the season as a sixth man until he gets his basketball conditioning up to a full-game level. I also expect Sharpe and Smith to have assigned roles off the bat, but I don’t expect the addition of two more players who are incapable of commanding the respect to space the floor to go well. Without Sharpe, the second unit might get pounded on the glass, though Vaughn mentioned with some glee that he’s always been a proponent of small ball. Having Simmons run this group while surrounded by capable playmakers like Thomas and Walker is probably a better use of the team’s talent mix than if Smith were the lead guard. Bazley could make noise here with a strong preseason, possibly supplanting one of the guards in the rotation to get more size on the floor. As for the others, all signs point toward their needing to bide their time. I’m looking forward to seeing Whitehead most of all, even if Marks gave no timetable for his return from foot surgery. Anyone remember waiting for Caris LeVert? Hopefully, we’ll get the same mid-season payoff.
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