2002 Nets

Remembering the 2002 New Jersey Nets and Their Improbable March To the NBA Finals

The NBA Finals kicked off last Thursday night and for the elder statesman of the defending champions, a return trip was nothing new for Cavaliers’ forward, Richard Jefferson. After all, it was his rookie season back in 2002 when the soon-to-be 37 year old, who played a significant role in last year’s finals, got his first taste of the sport’s grandest stage as a key member of the New Jersey Nets.

Everyone loves a Cinderella story and 15 years ago we were in the midst of one of the more improbable turnarounds in sports history. For over two decades, the New Jersey Nets were the epitome of ineptitude, compiling a winning percentage of 39.7% (812-1,216) while averaging 32 wins per season. To give some perspective of how bad they were, think of the Cleveland Browns since 1999 or the first ten years of the Tampa Bay Rays/Devil Rays existence. The success, or lack thereof, is quite comparable as Cleveland and Tampa Bay have/had respectively won 30.6% and 39.9% of their games.

Surely there were small pockets of success, but no real achievement to hang their hat on. This two and a half decade period featured only seven winning seasons while never placing higher than third place in the Atlantic Division and ten postseason appearances, albeit only one series win during the 1984 playoffs. Some like to memorialize those teams during the early 1990s featuring the likes of Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson, and the late Drazen Petrovic, but those teams peaked at 45 wins and were never higher than the six seed.

It’s one thing to be bad, but it’s another to be insignificant as the Nets were irrelevant not just around the league but locally as well. With the exception of a few years during the early 1980s, the Nets routinely finished in the lower half of the league — in many cases among the bottom five worst — in terms of attendance. It was never shocking to see and hear more of the opposing fans than true New Jersey fans. Playing in the shadows of the Knicks didn’t help, as New Jersey was the red-headed stepchild in the New York Metropolitan hoops scene. To make matters worse, donning tie-dyed uniforms and seriously considering changing their name to the Swamp Dragons didn’t help their cause or credibility as a professional basketball entity.

With the organization now in Brooklyn and seemingly cutting all ties to their franchise’s history, how many people recognize that 2017 marks the 15-year anniversary of that 2002 New Jersey Nets team that amazingly ascended to the upper echelon of the NBA. Just the previous season, (with many of the same players), New Jersey won 26 games under rookie head coach, Byron Scott, and statistically ranked amongst the worst teams in the league in both offensive and defensive metrics. Fortunately for them, no one was making the trek to East Rutherford as they finished 28 out of 29 terms in attendance.

That all changed when Jason Kidd was acquired in a summer blockbuster deal with Phoenix for Stephon Marbury. Kidd’s arrival proved to be the NBA’s version of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, taking roster of nobodies and not just leading them to the top seed in the East, but doubling their win total from the previous season in the process and advancing all the way to NBA Finals. Although their showing against the Lakers there was hardly memorable, this team is one that shouldn’t be forgotten, because what they accomplished was so unique and something we rarely see in sports.

The NBA has always been a star-driven league and championship caliber teams tend to have past or current All-Stars on the roster. Aside from Kidd, Kenyon Martin was the only other Nets player from that roster to ever earn All-Star distinction, although it happened once and it occurred two seasons after that magical run for New Jersey.

The elite teams historically have always had either a prolific or at least a reliable scorer on the roster to carry the load whether it was Jordan, Olajuwon, Shaq, Wade, Kobe, Malone, Bird, etc. What’s amazing is that not one player on that 2002 Finals team averaged 15 points per game. The top three offensive producers during that regular season for New Jersey were Martin, Keith Van Horn and Kidd who averaged 14.9, 14.8, and 14.7 points respectively. Was their success all smoke and mirrors then?

In a sport where players are sometimes criticized for being too egocentric, the Nets played the ultimate brand of “team basketball” — averaging over 24 assists per game as a team which was tied for the the second best mark in the entire league. Kidd was the requisite superstar all really good teams need to have, and his approach on the court led to the rest of the team to value ball movement, unselfishness, and hard work. If a player was willing to run the floor when the point guard pushed the pace, there was a good chance that player would be the recipient of either an alley-oop pass or an easy layup opportunity.

The team first mentality wasn’t just on the offensive side of the court. Despite the lack of a ferocious rebounder — unless you consider Van Horn’s team leading 7.5 per game average to be one — the Nets ranked 8th best in the league, which is even more impressive when you realize Van Horn’s other two starting front court mates, Todd MacCulloch and Martin, averaged 6.1 and 5.3 rebounds respectively.

The Nets were an athletic group whose greatest strength was their ability to defend and create turnovers, since transition defense was so vital to their success. Statistically, they were middle of the pack in terms of offensive metrics, however, they were the league’s best in defensive rating and held opponents to the fifth lowest point per game total. Overall, the Nets forced the third highest turnovers and only five teams were better them in terms of opposing field goal percentage.

A resilient bunch, the Nets responded each time their doubters had reason, and there were plenty of opportunities. First, they dropped Game 1 on their homecourt during the opening round to the more experienced — and arguably more talented — Pacers team, who were two years removed from the NBA Finals themselves. Then there was Reggie Miller’s buzzer-beating, game-tying heave during the decisive Game 5, the type of moment that swings momentum that dramatically that teams usually don’t recover from. Who could forget them blowing a 20 point, fourth quarter cushion in spectacular fashion against the Celtics during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals? In each instance, the Nets responded to prove the cynics wrong.

The clock struck midnight on the Nets’ magical run during the 2002 Finals, but even though they were swept out of the Finals, three of the four games were actually decided by six points or fewer. The matchup was the NBA’s version of David versus Goliath, but the Nets had no way of stopping Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Lakers’ quest to capture their third consecutive title.

What New Jersey experienced that season was no fluke and just the beginning of the franchise’s only successful run since emigrating from the ABA, earning six consecutive playoff appearances including four Atlantic Division titles and a 56.9 winning percentage. The following year saw them steamroll their way through the Eastern Conference field — highlighted by a ten-game winning streak — and come up just short of forcing a Game 7 in The Finals to a San Antonio team that had the league’s best record. In 2004, they may have failed to advance beyond the conference semifinals against the Pistons, however they did take the eventual NBA champions the distance and proved to be their biggest road block that postseason.

Timing is everything in life and perhaps that 2002 squad simply existed in the wrong era as a dominant post presence was practically needed and the Nets didn’t have a solution when facing Shaq or the duos of Tim Duncan/David Robinson and Rasheed Wallace/Ben Wallace. With athletes along the wings (Martin, Jefferson, and Kerry Kittles), a stretch-four in Van Horn, and a point guard pushing the pace, perhaps New Jersey arrived 15 years too early.

Luckily for Jefferson, this year’s appearance won’t result in the same ending as it did when he first experienced The Finals…being on the wrong side of a four-game sweep.

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Why the 2016 Knicks Are the New “Worst Team Money Money Can Buy”

For the New York Knicks, the 2016-17 season is one that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Make no mistake, they were never in the consideration as a championship contender, but how many people could truly have predicted the level of underachievement and embarrassment that took place inside (and outside) of Madison Square Garden this past year.

Perhaps we all should have seen it coming, after all, parallels occur all the time when it comes to sports. Although it is a completely different sport, this edition of the Knickerbockers closely resembled another New York team from years past — one that coincidentally donned blue and orange as well — the 1992 New York Mets. How fitting for the self proclaimed “Super Team” would mirror “The Worst Team Money Can Buy”, on the 25 year anniversary of the dumpster fire at Shea Stadium nonetheless!

Like the the Mets before them, the Knicks had been three years removed from their last postseason appearance. The Mets were coming off of a 5th place finish in the NL East when they went all in on the 1992 season with a new manager (Jeff Torborg), a free agent spending spree that included Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray, and Willie Randolph, and a blockbuster trade for Brett Saberhagen. The influx of talent hardly materialized and the Mets finished the 1992 campaign 18 games under 500 and a consecutive fifth place finish.

Now consider the disastrous season the Knicks just completed. Coming off of a disappointing 2015-16 season, Phil Jackson’s attempts to revamp the roster included big name signings in free agency (Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, and Brandon Jennings) as well as dealing for former All-Star guard, Derrick Rose. On paper the Knicks appeared to have upgraded their personnel with enough brand name talent to be an interesting team in the East who could return to the postseason, although you would be hard pressed to find someone who would’ve considered them a threat to LeBron and the Cavaliers.

Murphy’s Law states: anything that could go wrong, will go wrong. Like the Mets from 25 years ago, the Knicks recent campaign will be one that lives in infamy. It’s one thing to be a colossal disappointment on the field/court, but it’s another to be an embarrassment off it as well.

Although it may be buried in the back of their memories, baseball fans probably haven’t forgotten about Saberhagen spraying bleach at reporters in the Mets clubhouse as well as Vince Coleman igniting and throwing a firecracker at fans outside of Dodger Stadium. Then of course was free agent bust, Bobby Bonilla, threatening Bob Klapisch who covered the team for the team for the New York Daily News and co-authored the aforementioned book, “The Worst Team Money Can Buy”.

How do the Knicks’ public relations nightmares stack up to those committed by the Mets? It’s possible these forgettable moments are worse than what occurred two decades ago. Just to rehash them, there was the Rose rape trial and his eventual going AWOL from the team, Charles Oakley being arrested and banned from The Garden, James Dolan getting into a verbal altercation with a fan, Noah’s 20-game suspension for using a banned substance, Phil Jackson’s end of year press conference, Carmelo Anthony’s extramarital affairs, Kristaps Porzingis blowing off his exit meeting with Jackson, and so on.

The Mets’ nightmares would spill into the 1993 season as they would bottom out and finish with the worst record (59-103) in all of MLB. We still have a ways to go, but you get the sense Knick fans are headed for more doom and gloom as their embarrassments have carried over into the offseason and in some cases have overshadowed the playoffs. Whether it’s the standoff between Phil and Melo, the letting go of John Longstaff, or falling back to eighth in the NBA Lottery, the ominous clouds figure to hover above 32nd and 7th for another forgettable season.

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How The Nets Dodged A Major Bullet When They Couldn’t Land Phil Jackson In Brooklyn

It was a little more than four years ago when Brooklyn Nets head coach, Avery Johnson, was dismissed after 28 games and replaced by his assistant, P.J. Carlesimo. As an interim, Carlesimo did an admirable job — coaching the Nets to a 35-19 record over the final 54 games and into the Eastern Conference playoffs. Despite the successful first season in Brooklyn, Mikhail Prokhorov, had his sights set on another “PJ” — Phil Jackson.

After months of rumors and rumblings in the New York media about the likelihood of Jackson becoming the next Brooklyn head coach, it was reported that Jackson was seeking a role more similar to what Pat Riley had in Miami rather than returning to the bench. If their five month courting of The Zen Master was successful, the 2013-14 Nets would’ve most likely been led by Brian Shaw on sidelines and his former coach looking from above.

There’s no knowing if the series of blunders by Billy King and the rest of Nets’ management would’ve taken place had Jackson been successfully recruited to Brooklyn, but looking at how the professional basketball landscape has been the past three seasons in New York, Prokhorov may have dodged a major bullet. It may have taken the Russian billionaire longer than he wanted to land the savvy executive he so desperately desired, but he fared better in the long run, as substance over style tends to lead to better results.

Just look at the differences between the respective leaders of both the Knicks and Nets, as they couldn’t be any more on opposite ends of the spectrum. Whereas Marks is in touch with the modern NBA, embracing the role of analytics and fast paced style of play, Jackson has evolved very little – if any at all – insistent on living in the past and implementing the triangle offense at all costs.

Marks has not only traveled with the team but has trekked overseas to scout potential foreign players who Brooklyn can realistically target in this year’s draft. He has shown a full commitment to the organization and has communicated a clear message to the media and fans. Jackson, on the other hand, has hardly shown the same type of effort or transparency.

While Marks gave rookie head coach the freedom and flexibility to tinker and experiment with lineup regardless of wins and losses, Jackson clearly imposed his will by essentially forcing first Derek Fisher and then Jeff Hornacek to coach a certain way, not to mention employ Kurt Rambis. This lurking in the background even prompted Larry Brown to speak up about Phil’s meddling.

The Nets have never been the model franchise by any means, but from the moment he was hired, Marks has spoken about the importance of developing a certain culture and strong relationships. Brooklyn finished with the worst record in the league, although it’s evident that wouldn’t be the case had Jeremy Lin not been so seriously injured earlier this year. As Adrian Wojnarowski reported a few months ago, players and agents around the NBA have taken notice at the positive environment the Marks regime has cultivated in Brooklyn, which could play a major factor in the upcoming offseason.

There’s no doubt that James Dolan is at the epicenter of New York’s toxic atmosphere, but Jackson is certainly accountable for the Knicks’ dysfunction as well. How many other team presidents around the league tweet cryptic messages that passive aggressively attack the face of the franchise, Carmelo Anthony? Then again there’s the suspicion that Charley Rosen has been the unofficial mouthpiece for Jackson when the writer is issuing harsh criticism for some (Anthony) and questionable praise for others (Sasha Vujacic).

Sometimes you are better off in life, although you may not see it right away, when you are dealt a rejection. Prokhorov viewed Jackson as a pathway to respectability and success when he initially purchased the team, and although others before him led the Nets down the wrong road, Marks seems to have headed in the right direction moving ahead. The same cannot be said about the team from New York’s other borough.

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The 5 MLB Players Who Have Brought Fiction To Life

Sometimes when fictional sports movies are made, characters are obviously based off of real personalities.  Was there any doubt that Pete Bell (Nick Nolte) from Blue Chips was inspired by Bobby Knight?  How else do you explain the chair throw in the opening scene?  Then of course is the entire Rocky concept where Sylvester Stallone essentially stole Chuck Wepner’s fairy tale story and gave us the Hollywood version of Muhammad Ali in the form of someone named Apollo Creed.

Could the opposite occur in which life imitates art?  Don’t laugh but there are a handful of modern day athletes that have taken on the persona of some memorable fictional characters, whether they realize it or not.

Here are five examples from the world of baseball:

Noah Syndergaard

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Who is he?

Steve Nebraska (The Scout)

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Why?

Equipped with a fastball that routinely hits 100 mph and a K/9 rate of over 10, the 6’6”, 240 pound hard-throwing righty has quickly become one of, if not the, most intimidating pitcher in all of baseball.  How could he not with those long, flowing blonde locks and the Norwegian Viking heritage to justify the Thor nickname?

What if we’ve been wrong all along in comparing the Mets pitch to the Asgardian God of Thunder?  Surely he has the look of the son of Odin, but if you dig a little deeper you will quickly realize Syndergaard is the real-life version of another New York pitcher, albeit one who pitched for the crosstown Yankees.

You remember Steve Nebraska, don’t you?  The tall, right-handed fireballer from The Scout may have had a small sample size of dominance but who else in MLB throws consistently over 100 mph and could conceivably strike out 27 batters in a game?  Not to mention both pitchers aren’t shy about throwing at someone to send a message — Syndergaard at Alcides Escobar and Chase Utley during the 2015 postseason.  Nebraska, although it was dishes, at the New York media outside of Al Percolo’s apartment.

It’s not just the pitching dominance either.  Earlier this 2016 year, Syndergaard cracked two home runs in the same game against the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda and later on in the summer against Arizona’s Braden Shipley.  How often does a pitcher display that type of power in a ballpark not known to favor hitters?  Well if you recall, after embarrassing Keith Hernandez during the pitching segment of his famous audition, Nebraska absolutely obliterated Brett Saberhagen in front of league scouts and executives. Lastly who could forget in that opening game of the World Series it was Nebraska’s tape measure bomb off of Bob Tewksbury that proved to be the difference.


 

Justin Upton

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Who is he?

Bobby Rayburn (The Fan)

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Why?

For nine years, Justin Upton has displayed the kind of power and speed MLB teams covet. When a player averages 25 HR and 15 steals per 162 games with a career batting average of .271, handing out a lucrative multi-year deal is not one bit outrageous.

Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong for Upton after signing a 6 year, $132M contract with the Detroit Tigers last offseason.  With a lineup that featured the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and JD Martinez, Upton had plenty of protection and the opportunity to have his best season yet.

At the midway point of his 2016 campaign, the 28 year old was hitting below .230 with an on-base percentage south of .300. A perennial 30 home run threat was on pace for fewer than 20 home runs and 70 RBI, and to make matters worse, he was striking out at an alarming rate of more than 30%.

This type of drop off may not have been seen before in real-life but it did happen once to a very prominent former Atlanta Brave.  Surely you remember Bobby Rayburn, who scored a big-deal on the open market with the San Francisco Giants. It seemed like the perfect situation for the star outfielder as his boisterous agent, John Leguizamo, predicted a .400 batting average prior to the season. Unfortunately for him, his Giants career couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start.

Rayburn at least had the excuse of colliding with his teammate on Opening Day for getting off to such a sluggish start, so what was Upton’s reason?  Both players did change uniform numbers but for Upton, that was his choosing.  As for Rayburn, he had no choice with teammate Juan Primo already claiming the number 11.  Eventually Rayburn got his season on track although it required him to wear his Braves uniform underneath his Giants one and for his biggest fan to savagely murder his fellow outfielder (Primo) over the jersey number.

As for Upton, he did experience a sudden surge in the second half of the season to finish with 31 home runs, but the season as a whole was a disappointment. Was it simply adjusting to the American League or was it digging his old Atlanta uniform out of his closet? Whatever the reason, luckily his teammates’ safety was never in jeopardy.  RIP Juan Primo.


 

Matt Bush

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Who is he?

Ricky Vaughn (Major League)

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Why?

After being selected first overall in the 2004 Draft by the San Diego Padres, Bush experienced nothing but personal and legal problems.  After pleading no contest to a drunk driving incident in 2012 and sentenced to 51 months in state prison, his career was in serious question.

Following his release this past October, Bush signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers and eventually got promoted to the big leagues.  Following his debut on May 13, Bush flashed the type of dominance that once made him a highly touted prospect worthy of being selected first overall.  With the Rangers he has averaged nearly a strikeout per inning with a average fastball velocity of nearly 97 mph.  He became a vital part of the Rangers’ bullpen and has the type of stuff to easily emerge as the team’s closer next season.

Although he was incarcerated for a different crime (grand theft auto), Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn pitched in the California Penal League prior to receiving a Spring Training invite with the Cleveland Indians.  There are differences between the two, as Vaughn was primarily a starter, but who could forget the heat he brought in relief against Clu Haywood of the Yankees in that one-game playoff.


 

Chris Carter

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Who is he?

Pedro Cerrano (Major League)

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Why?

Although this burly slugger didn’t defect from Cuba nor does he practice voodoo, he is possibly the closest thing we have to the the slugger portrayed in the film, Major League. Over the course of his seven-year career, Carter has hit his fair share of tape-measured bombs, but those home runs have come with an obscene number of strikeouts. If you prorate his statistics at a 162 game pace, he has averaged 35 home runs but 206 strikeouts, which makes you wonder if his bats are afraid of curveballs as well.

Carter has found himself on three teams already in his career – Oakland, Houston, and Milwaukee. He just completed a one-year, $2.5M deal with the Brewers, so a small market team in need of a little oomph in the middle lineup should consider the 29 year old free agent. It’s too bad the Cleveland Indians were successful in signing Edwin Encarnacion. Had they failed in their quest to land the former Blue Jay, perhaps Carter would’ve been their consolation prize. If the big slugger ended up with the Tribe, it truly would’ve been a case of fiction becoming reality.


Kevin Pillar

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Who is he?

Ben Williams (Angels in the Outfield)

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Why?

You probably don’t recognize the name Ben Williams, but this was the forgettable role played by lesser known actor at the time, Matthew McConaughey. Williams may have had assistance from Christopher Lloyd’s team of angels, but regardless there’s no other human on Earth who can cover that much ground in the outfield aside from Pillar. There’s a reason why he’s been nicknamed, Superman, by the Toronto faithful.

 

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Are Defensive Minded Head Coaches a Dying Breed in the NFL?

With the recent firings around the league, there may be evidence that this group is in danger of becoming extinct.

“Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”

It’s the cliche heard with all sports, but more so when it comes to the NFL. The problem is, this old adage may not be the reality on the 21st century gridiron. A stout defense is helpful but it doesn’t guarantee a Super Bowl ring not to mention a postseason appearance. Football has evolved over the past decade and policy changes have tilted the balance in favor of the offensive side of the ball. In looking at the recent data and hiring/firing trends over the past few years, there may be evidence to suggest that defensive minded head coaches may a dying breed in the NFL.

At the beginning of the 2016 season, 17 of the 32 head coaches came from an offensive pedigree and of that group, ten of them finished the year with a winning record. Collectively, these coaches compiled a 138–131–2 record, good for 50.9% winning percentage. The 15 teams whose head coaches came from a non-offensive background, including John Harbaugh, finished the season with record of 116–122–2, which equates to a winning percentage of 48.3%, and of this group, only one-third of them were above .500. Translation, teams like New England and Oakland carried the load.

Like anything else, entries within a data set can skew the overall results, therefore it’s important to dig a little deeper with these numbers. For example, the offensive coaches included the win totals, or lack thereof, from Hugh Jackson and Chip Kelly, who inherited arguably the two worst rosters in the league and finished with a combined record of 3–29! It’s safe to assume that even a coaching legend couldn’t work miracles from that dealt hand. That being said, if you were to factor those two out of the equation, the other 15 coaches won at a rate of 56.5% (135–102–2).

How about those gurus with a defensive pedigree? There’s no doubt that the list includes some impressive names with Super Bowl championships on their resume, specifically Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll. Aside from those two, there are several ones from this list that have greatly benefitted from having a top tier quarterback. Jack Del Rio may have led Oakland to a 12–4 record, but much of the Raiders’ return to relevance was due to the breakout of MVP candidate, Derek Carr. If you recall, Del Rio had a losing record during his nine-year tenure in Jacksonville. Even with the Steelers, Mike Tomlin’s success could be questioned, as Pittsburgh has only won the AFC North in five of his ten seasons there with hands down the best quarterback in the division. If you omit the teams (New England, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Oakland, and Seattle) with a true franchise quarterback, the rest of the bunch on the list had a putrid winning percentage of 36.3% with a combined record of 58–101–1.


Since 2012, approximately seven head coaches have been hired on an annual basis. This past offseason, all seven hires came with an offensive background and more than half of them are not only experiencing success so far, but appear to be solid long-term solutions to lead their respective teams into the future. This list includes Adam Gase, Ben McAdoo, Dirk Koetter, and Mike Mularkey. Even Doug Pederson showed promise with Philadelphia despite their 7–9 record when you consider the Eagles were starting a rookie quarterback in arguably the NFL’s best division. The offseason before saw six of the seven hires come from a defensive mindset and coincidentally (or not) some of these coaches have long been fired (Jim Tomsula), recently dismissed (Rex Ryan), or find themselves on shaky ground (John Fox and Todd Bowles) moving into the future.

During this timespan,15 of the 36 coaches hired came with a defensive acumen, and already nine of them (including Jeff Fisher, Gus Bradley, and Ryan) are no longer employed. There’s a good chance that number balloons to thirteen at this time next year if Fox, Bowles, Chuck Pagano, and Mike Zimmer underachieve with their respective teams. Of the 21 offensive minded coaches, only eleven remain after the recent firing of Mike McCoy, the shocking dismissal of Chip Kelly, and the unexpected retirement of Gary Kubiak. A retention rate of 52% for the offensive guys is that much more impressive when you realize that over 85% from the other group could potentially be let go when the dust eventually settles a year from now.

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This is not saying that a defensive minded head coach can’t be successful in the NFL, but to go all in on defense seems to be the equivalent to an NBA team building around a center and ignoring the importance of perimeter shooting in today’s era. This seems like an antiquated way thinking for an organization and any type of success seems unsustainable. The bottom line is, you must be willing to evolve the way Belichick and Carroll have done and have a strong offensive coordinator to lean on the way Dan Quinn can do in Atlanta.

Recent history suggests there will be at least seven vacancies to fill and to no surprise, two offensive coordinators, Kyle Shanahan (Atlanta) and Josh McDaniels (New England) are already the hottest names on the list of candidates. Even before Buffalo’s firing of Ryan, there was speculation that they wanted to replace him in-house with their offensive coordinator, Anthony Lynn. Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator turned interim head coach, Doug Marrone, is rumored to replace Sean Payton in New Orleans in the event the Saints deal their current head coach to Los Angeles. It’s also worth noting that the Rams plan on interviewing Washington’s offensive coordinator, Sean McVay, as well. Don’t dismiss the possibility of Jon Gruden or Jim Harbaugh returning to the NFL sidelines one day. It may not be this year, but as time goes by these two figure to have teams (perhaps Indianapolis) willing to pay any price.

The question then becomes, where are all of the defensive guys to fill these job vacancies? With the direct correlation between quarterback play and team success, it’s no wonder why organizations are opting to staff their teams with coaches who can maximize the competencies of the game’s most vital position. Just look how Tampa was in the think of the NFC playoff picture until the very end under first year head coach, Dirk Koetter, whereas last year they finished with a less than stellar record under Lovie Smith.

Heading into 2017, we could be looking at a league where roughly two-thirds of its head coaches are of the offensive mindset and a new list of seven names will find themselves on the hot seat if and when their teams stumble out of the gate. In a sport where the word “parity” is quite often heard, the disparity between the number of offensive and defensive head coaches seems likely to increase.

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Searching for the Franchise Quarterback and the Cautionary Tales of a Small Sample Size

Don’t believe the hype, when it comes to NFL QB, size does truly matter.

It was Week 5 during the 1993 NFL season and the Miami Dolphins had just lost their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Dan Marino, to a season ending injury against the Cleveland Browns. Coming on in relief was Scott Mitchell, a former 4th round draft pick out of the University of Utah, who led them to victory over those Browns on that day and push the Miami record to 4–1. The Miami backup would start the next four games, leading the Dolphins to a 3–1 record and doing so in impressive fashion, by averaging just over 245 yards and throwing six touchdowns with only two interceptions.

With a 7–2 record and in the midst of the AFC playoff hunt, Mitchell suffered a separated shoulder which sidelined him until the 14th game of the regular season. The Dolphins would lose those final three games upon his return to drop their overall record to 9–7 and be on the outside looking in during the postseason. Mitchell’s audition during that 1993 season resulted in a 3–4 record with an average of 237 yards per start with a total of 12 touchdowns and a rating of 84.2 in all of his appearances . It may have been a limited sample, but the quarterback who only threw eight passes during his first two seasons in the league had done enough to capture the attention of an organization — the Detroit Lions.

The Lions were coming off of a 10–6 year in which they won the NFC Central but lost during the Wild Card round to the Green Bay Packers. That February saw incumbent starter, Erik Kramer, sign with their division rivals, the Chicago Bears, and Detroit found themselves in the market for a new quarterback. Despite the limited sample, the Lions inked the former backup to a three-year, $11M contract, which was nearly $3M more than what Chicago gave Kramer. With fellow quarterbacks, Andre Ware and Rodney Peete, also departing via free agency, Detroit was making a full commitment to the big southpaw to lead an offense that also featured stars Barry Sanders and Herman Moore.

After a promising debut during the opening week of the 1994 season, in which he threw over 200 yards and three touchdowns in a victory over the Atlanta Falcons, Mitchell found himself struggling over the next several weeks. The prized free agent made only nine starts that season and the Lions’ record in those games was 4–5. The disappointing record was accompanied by a few alarming statistics such as a completion percentage south of fifty percent (48.4%) and a touchdown to interception ratio just below 1 to 1 (10 TD, 11 INT). Detroit did qualify for the postseason for a consecutive season, as veteran backup, Dave Kreig was able to lead them to a final record of 9–7.

The following year was more of what the Lions envisioned out of Mitchell when they signed him. He threw for more than 4,300 yards with 32 TD and only 12 INT, as he led them to a 10–6 record and a third consecutive playoff appearance, albeit another quick exit. With that success came more disappointment in 1996 as Mitchell’s performance regressed once again as 17 TD were matched by 17 INT and the Lions found themselves with a 4–10 record with their franchise quarterback as the starter.

Despite the up and down play (mostly down), the Lions front office decided to reupp with their franchise quarterback that offseason on a 4 year — $21M ($8M guaranteed) deal. Detroit found themselves back in the playoffs in 1997 but a putrid performance in the Wild Card round against Tampa Bay (10–25 for 78 yards) was an indication that Mitchell wasn’t the right guy to lead this organization to the upper echelon of the NFC. This became even more apparent in the early stages of the 1998 season when an 0–2 record and poor play sent Mitchell to the bench in favor of Charlie Batch. It would be the last time he threw a pass in the Motor City and after five seasons the Mitchell Era would be marked by a 27–30 record while posting an underwhelming quarterback rating of 79.2.

So why is the story of Scott Mitchell relevant 23 years later? Back in the early 1990s with free agency was in its earlier stages, Mitchell’s contract represented a lucrative investment. Just the previous year, Green Bay signed Reggie white to a four-year, $17M deal. It may have been a different era but little has changed in the NFL — the teams with the true franchise quarterbacks have the best chances of winning the Super Bowl. You either have one or you don’t, and if you’re one of the unfortunate teams without an elite signal caller, a sense of urgency and desperation to find one can set in, especially when other components of your roster are strong.

The Detroit Lions were left disappointed from their big spending on an unproven quarterback with a limited track record, but that didn’t prevent other teams from following the same path. Just four years after Mitchell’s initial deal, the Buffalo Bills not only traded a first and fourth round pick to Jacksonville for backup quarterback, Rob Johnson, but then signed him to a 5-year, $25M contract. Keep in mind that the former fourth round quarterback out of USC threw exactly seven passes in his first two seasons before getting a spot start in relief for an injured Mark Brunell. It may have only been one start, but Johnson was able to dazzle with his performance and seduce at least one NFL front office to go all in as him as the new face of the franchise.

If you recall, the Johnson tenure in Buffalo was filled disappointment, injuries, and an obvious quarterback controversy, as the team clearly performed better with Doug Flutie under center. The Bills did qualify for the playoffs during Johnson’s first two years there, but that was more due to the play of Flutie than his. When his time ended in Buffalo following the 2001 season, Bills fans were left to remember their “franchise quarterback” with a 9–17 record and failed expectations.


Which brings us to the present day. Fresh off their embarrassing postseason appearance to Kansas City in last year’s Wild Card round, Houston felt the missing piece that would elevate them to the likes of New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, etc. was the man under center. An intriguing candidate was on the market and Texans’ general manager, Rick Smith, signed Brock Osweiler to a 4 year $72M contract ($37M guaranteed in the first two years) to lead Houston forward.

Like Mitchell and Johnson before him, Osweiler had a limited resume before cashing in on his big deal. Prior to taking over for an injured Peyton Manning, the former second round pick from Arizona State threw 30 passes over three seasons. Now given a seven-start audition, Osweiler was able to keep the Broncos afloat by leading them to a 5–2 record, but in actuality his record was 5–3 when you consider the he played much of Denver’s Week 9 loss to Kansas City. Overall, the Denver backup averaged 260 yards with 10 touchdowns, 6 interceptions, and a 86.4 rating. The numbers were respectable but perhaps what caught most observers’ attention was his victory over New England in a prime time matchup. Once again a small sample but enough to entice one front office and parlay it into a large payday.

Here we are 12 games into the 2016 season and if there was ever a case of buyer’s remorse, it has to be coming from the Houston’s front office. The Texans currently stand at 6–6 and in first place of the AFC South, however with the talent on both sides of the ball, this record is an underachievement and much, if not all, of the blame should fall on the shoulders of their gawky quarterback. Out of all NFL starters, Osweiler ranks worst in yards per attempt (5.8) and only ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick in terms of rating (74.2). As for the metric, yards per attempt, his rate currently places among the likes of Blake Bortles and Blaine Gabbert. If throwing for 131 yards on 41 attempts against his former team in Week 7 wasn’t bad enough, Osweiler failed to crack the century mark last month in Jacksonville when he threw for 99 yards on 27 attempts.

With any big signing comes risk, but Houston’s offseason splash is proving to be another chapter in the cautionary tale of small samples for the game’s most vital position. Competent and/or superb play could be nothing more than fool’s gold, and with the NFL being a hard salary cap league, you just can’t whiff the way the Texans have with their high priced quarterback. The same was the case for Detroit with Mitchell, Buffalo with Johnson, and more recently for Arizona and Seattle with Kevin Kolb and Matt Flynnrespectively.

Each of these five organizations over the past two decades all had the same thing in common — they were in dire need to fill the most important void on the roster and were somewhat crazy enough to go all in on an unproven entity. It’s like the guy/girl who gets married after dating a few months because they feel the need, pressure, and desperation to get hitched. In the case of the Texans, they didn’t even meet Osweiler in person before tying the knot with the new face of their franchise. Talk about the football version of a mail-order bride.

Unfortunately for the Houston organization and its fans, they find themselves in the midst of a bad and costly marriage that can’t end soon enough. They say that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The Texans fell victim to this old adage this past offseason but the history of the NFL says they won’t be the last to be burned.

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Without the Attention, Brooklyn Can Build the Right Way

It wasn’t too long ago when there was a buzz in Brooklyn. With a wardrobe upgrade, a new logo/color scheme and a sparkling arena to call home, there was an element of intrigue about the Nets for the first time in a long time. The rebranding of the team couldn’t have done better and the organization finally appeared to provide the Knicks with legitimate competition in the New York basketball landscape.

Fast forward to the present day, nearly five years later, and it’s never been clearer that the party is over, as reckless trading and spending has left the Nets in one of the worst situations in all of professional sports. Little did everyone know that it would get this bad this quick as Brooklyn went from the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference in 2014, albeit with 38 wins, to 21 wins and the third-worst record in all of the NBA last year. To matters worse, Norman Oder of the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report blog recently reported that the Nets averaged only 11,622 fans per game last season, which was 23 percent less than the announced official attendance figure. In their first season in Brooklyn, the Nets ranked 16th overall in attendance but a steady decline dropped them to 27th a season ago.

Per SportsBook.com, the Brooklyn over/under win total for the upcoming season has been set at 18.5, which is six fewer wins than the Philadelphia 76ers’ projected win total. ESPN recently reported the championship odds set by Westgate Las Vegas SportsBook, and it’s no surprise that the Nets are tied with the Phoenix Suns with the worst odds to win the title at 1000-1. Is this a recipe for the Nets to end up with the worst attendance out of the thirty NBA teams? To add insult, a recent trailer for the popular video game NBA 2K17 failed to include the Nets in the preview. For the record, nearly every NBA team was depicted in this two minute video. It’s one thing to be bad, but it’s another to become completely irrelevant.

So with the bleak outlook and little box office appeal heading into the 2016-17, one has to wonder how bad things could get for the Nets from an attention standpoint, both locally and nationally. Yes, Jeremy Lin may possess a large, dedicated fanbase but the power of “Linsanity” can only do so much, right? After all, New York has always been a Knicks town and it doesn’t help matters that their splashy offseason additions just made them much more interesting, even if they aren’t true title contenders.

With all that being said, could being off the grid be exactly what this team needs from a basketball operational standpoint? Brooklyn seems to have the right people in place and considering the circumstances, this could end up being a successful season (relatively speaking) for general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson. The goal is to begin to build something sustainable and with so little expected and eyeballs looking elsewhere, this reboot figures to go unnoticed… and that’s a good thing.

 

SEATTLE, WA - MAY 28: Starting pitcher Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on May 28, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)


ARLINGTON, TX - MAY 17: Carlos Carrasco #59 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 17, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. The Texas Rangers defeated the Cleveland Indians 5-1. (Photo by John Williamson/MLB Photos via Getty Images)


CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 14: Trevor Bauer #47 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning of their game on May 14, 2015 at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. the Cardinals defeated the Indians 2-1. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)


SEATTLE, WA - MAY 31: Starting pitcher Danny Salazar #31 of the Cleveland Indians pitches against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on May 31, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Are The Cleveland Indians This Season’s New York Mets?

Cheap, elite pitching to go with potent bats is making the Tribe look like a very dangerous October threat.

Is 2016 the year for Cleveland? After years of misery for “The Mistake on the Lake,” things are finally looking up. The city recently captured its first major sports championship in 52 years courtesy of LeBron James’s greatness, the Indians are leading the AL Central, and, oh, by the way, the Browns sent Johnny Manziel packing.

In the afterglow of the Cavaliers’ improbable comeback in the NBA Finals, attention has been stolen away from their neighbors at Progressive Field. The Indians’ record currently stands at 63–47, with a three-game cushion on the second-place Detroit Tigers. And make no mistake, this is no fluke. The Tribe are averaging the fourth-most runs per game (4.99) in the Majors, trailing only Baltimore, Colorado, and the Chicago Cubs. They have a run differential of plus-83 after 110 games.

When the Indians dominated the AL Central from 1995–2001, it was the offense led by the likes of Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Kenny Lofton that guided them to six first-place finishes. Not to say Charles Nagy and an elder Orel Hershiser weren’t effective on the mound, but those Cleveland staffs were never among the American League’s elite.

That isn’t the case with the Indians of today.

When you look closely at the Cleveland rotation that is dominating American League hitters, there’s a similarity to another team that caught fire and rode that momentum all the way to the World Series: the 2015 New York Mets. Led by an arsenal of young power pitching, the Amazin’s won 37 of their final 59 games en route to capturing the NL Pennant. Is Chief Wahoo’s crew also destined to be playing baseball come late October?

Consider the chart below and note how similar the pitching numbers compiled by the 2015 Mets are to the 2016 Indians. (For the sake of this comparison, Jonathon Niese was replaced by Steven Matz and his statistics over 26 starts since last year since Matz’s pedigree aligns with Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer.)

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The parallels between the two pitching staffs runs much deeper than just being supremely talented. They both have de facto aces, Harvey and Kluber, but you could make the case that the next two starters in the rotation are worthy of such distinction. In fact, each team’s third starter, Syndergaard and Salazar, were/are the most dominant in the rotation. Heck, even the outputs by each team’s back end of the rotation are virtually the same.

The price of such tremendous production also is a similarity. In today’s MLB, elite starting pitching is one the most expensive commodities. This past offseason alone saw Zack Greinke and David Price sign contracts that will pay them, on average, $34.4 million and $31 million per year, respectively. Now, consider the following chart, which omits Bartolo Colon but adds Zack Wheeler, who is working his way back from injury but has been viewed as another foundational piece of the Mets’ starting rotation.

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Assembling a cost-effective pitching staff isn’t easy. There’s an element of luck when scouting and developing your homegrown talent: Harvey, Matz, and deGrom for the Mets; Salazar and Tomlin for the Indians. Luck also pertains to overcoming health obstacles, as Carrasco, Tomlin, Salazar, deGrom, Harvey, and Matz all had to work their way back from Tommy John surgeries.

Some of it comes from the payoff of previously being a seller. Remember Cliff Lee being dealt to Philadelphia? Well, that’s how Carrasco landed in Cleveland. Kluber was just a Double-A prospect from the Padres when Cleveland, St. Louis, and San Diego completed a three-team deal centered around Jake Westbrook and Ryan Ludwick. Wheeler isn’t in Queens if the Mets didn’t deal Carlos Beltran to San Francisco.

Then there’s being a shrewd trading partner. Cleveland nabbed Bauer, a highly touted prospect when Arizona grew tired of his antics and immaturity. The Mets essentially robbed Toronto when they flipped reigning Cy Young winner and one-hit wonder R.A. Dickey for Syndergaard (and Travis d’Arnoud).

The Indians’ surge has come earlier than the Mets’, which was launched after dealing for Yoenis Cespedes at the July 31 deadline last season. Since starting the season with a record of 17–17, the Indians have won nearly 62 percent of their games to catapult them into the upper echelon of the American League. Barring any major injuries or a monumental collapse, playoff baseball is a near lock for Northeast Ohio come this autumn, and the rest of the baseball will have a legitimate reason to be afraid. After all, power pitching tends to shut down power hitting. Just look how the Cubs’ hitters fared in the 2015 NLCS against those Mets.

The Indians have hit their stride without acquiring a middle of the lineup force like Cespedes, but you have to wonder if they did enough at the MLB non-waiver trading deadline to bolster their roster to make a deep playoff run. Certainly the acquisition of Andrew Miller fortified the bullpen, but there may be some legitimate questions at third base and in the outfield that weren’t addressed. The current starting outfield of Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin, and Rajai Davis has been a pleasant surprise, but wouldn’t it have been wise to upgrade with the likes of Carlos Beltran or Jay Bruce, who were available on the trade market? As for third, Jose Ramirez recently replaced 37-year-old Juan Uribe in the starting lineup, but Ramirez lacks the power you hope to get from the hot corner. In nearly 400 plate appearances, he has only six home runs and 44 runs batted in.

Cleveland has benefitted greatly from Francisco Lindor’s breakout, Mike Napoli’s resurgence, and Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana entering what appears to be the prime of their careers. With the uncertainty of Michael Brantley’s shoulder and the inexperience of the aforementioned outfield, the Indians need to explore adding a legitimate offensive threat who will lengthen and provide protection the rest of the lineup.

There’s still a few more weeks until the non-waiver trade deadline and there should be names available who would help more so than Brandon Guyer, who the Tribe acquired recently from Tampa Bay. Yes, it may cost a prospect and would mean adding payroll, but with the pieces already in place, including one of the best managers in Terry Francona, the Indians need to go for it now in an attempt to bring home their first World Series since 1948.

As we learned with this year’s Mets, the future is uncertain no matter how promising it may appear. The notion of the Mets missing the 2016 postseason was ludicrous considering the level of talent expected to be toeing the rubber on a daily basis, but with Matz and Syndergaard dealing with bone spurs in their elbows, Harvey undergoing season-ending surgery on his shoulder, and Wheeler still rehabbing from his own Tommy John surgery, there’s a possibility the Mets will be on the outside looking in come October.

It’s important the Indians don’t take for granted how special this quartet of pitchers are. Good fortunes can change, and although he’s been a workhorse over the years, the reality is Corey Kluber has thrown 235 and 222 innings each of the last two seasons, and there has been a noticeable drop in his velocity this year. Meanwhile, Danny Salazar had to have a start skipped in early June due to shoulder fatigue, and was recently placed on the disabled list with right elbow inflammation.

For both the Mets and Indians, these pitchers ultimately will command hefty pay raises. When that time comes, odds are that many of them will be pitching elsewhere. So, with the stars aligning over Progressive Field just like how they were above Citi Field a season ago, Indians ownership owes it to itself and the team’s fans to adopt the Cavaliers’ battle cry of “All in 2016” and go for it now.

This article was originally published  on The Cauldron.

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Analyzing the Nets’ Offseason

“I’ve never heard of half these guys and the ones I do know are way past their prime.”

This was heard in the opening scene of the movie, Major League when the Cleveland Indians’ front office was discussing players who have been invited down to Spring Training. In a sense, this line could be applied to summarize how the Brooklyn Nets’ offseason has played out.

Nets’ general manager, Sean Marks initially targeted restricted free agents in Portland’s Allen Crabbe and Miami’s Tyler Johnson, but those plans were foiled when both players’ four year contracts were matched by their respective teams. It was a setback for the Nets’ rebuild as both were viewed as players who could grow and develop in Brooklyn under Kenny Atkinson’s tutelage. Pivoting to “Plan B” has left Nets fans with some familiar faces, albeit in the twilight of their careers, and a few names the casual fan has probably never heard of, specifically Joe Harris and Justin Hamilton.

Since he was hired, Marks has stressed the importance of patience and rebuilding with players who will help transform the culture in Brooklyn. The reality is the Nets were not going to be a playoff team even if Crabbe and Johnson were signed, so it’s important that Marks didn’t panic and lock the Nets into bad deals with other free agents on the market.

Aside from Jeremy Lin who was signed to a three-year deal, all other free agents were either signed for two-years (Harris, Anthony Bennett, Trevor Booker, Justin Hamilton) or one-year (Greivis Vasquez, Luis Scola, Randy Foye). This will ensure the Nets will have flexibility moving ahead in future offseasons, which was smart. Who knows if an expiring contract like Vasquez’s or Foye’s can be used to acquire a draft pick from a playoff team this season as the year progresses, thus giving Marks another asset for next June.

Even if their final record isn’t good, there’s an element of intrigue with this team. With rookies, Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead, and second year players, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough, there seems to be a nice blend of youth to go along with the veterans who were brought in. Additionally it will be interesting to see if Atkinson’s staff can develop something out of Bennett, the top pick from the 2013 draft who may be down to his last chance with an NBA organization.

The 2016-17 Nets may not be Eastern Conference contenders but this season figures to be an important one as they attempt to develop a culture and identity under a new regime. The official campaign for this season is “We Came to Play”. With a young, athletic,and hungry roster now in place perhaps the Nets can become a feisty team and turn some heads this season…just like those Cleveland Indians from Major League.

 

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It’s Make-or-Break Time For Bojan Bogdanovic

When you are projected to be one of, if not the, worst teams in the entire league, the notion of a “make or break” year may come off as sounding ridiculous. This clearly isn’t the case at the macro-level for the Brooklyn Nets, but for one player in particular, Bojan Bogdanovic, the 2016-17 season may be a crucial one. The 27-year-old Croatian is entering his final season under contract, and has a chance to prove to the Nets that he’s a building block in their future.

Since arriving from Fenerbahce Ulker of the Turkish league, Brooklyn has become accustomed to the Jekyll and Hyde qualities of their Small Forward’s game. In his rookie season, he struggled mightily during the first half of the year as he adjusted to the NBA and life in America. Things finally seemed to click following the All-Star game, as over the second half of the season Bogdanovic upped his scoring output and shooting from 7.6 points per game (ppg) with a 41% field goal percentage to 11.6 ppg on 51.3%. Most impressively, it was his 28-point outburst in the final game of the regular season against Orlando that led the Nets to a comeback victory, clinching the Eastern Conference’s final playoff seed.

For whatever reason, the same cycle seemed to continue during his sophomore campaign, as Bogdanovic struggled out of the gate but turned his season around over the final 25 games. Prior to the All-Star break, the Nets’ forward averaged 9.4 points, a number that increased to 15.1 ppg while also shooting 40% from beyond the arc. It’s also worth noting that he averaged roughly 17 ppg in 14 games during the month of March as a starter, highlighted by a 44-point explosion against Philadelphia.

Aside from Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin, the Nets start the upcoming season with a lot of question marks and unproven talent up and down the roster. With Thaddeus Young gone and the Nets unable to obtain guards Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson in free agency, Brooklyn must turn to Bogdanovic for some much-needed offense, especially on the perimeter. His ability to stretch the floor will be crucial for the style of play Kenny Atkinson hopes to execute.

Some fans have written him off, but Bogdanovic is still a player who has shown flashes of potential during his brief career in the NBA. In fact, he helped the Croatian national team qualify for the 2016 Olympics in this summer’s FIBA Qualifying Tournament by averaging 24.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. With a new head coach, offensive system and point guard, the upcoming season is a chance for Bogdanovic to tie it all together from day one and validate the hype he generated when many considered him a sneaky Euro-stash pick during the 2011 NBA Draft, where he was selected 31st overall.

For Nets general manager Sean Marks, this year is about building a sustainable culture in Brooklyn and developing young talent. With other young players on the roster — notably Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, Isaiah Whitehead and Caris LeVert — Bogdanovic is entering this season somewhat under the radar, and perhaps that’s a positive. Sometimes good things come when you least expect them.