On Pro Basketball: LeBron James’s Future May Depend on Nets’ Success or Failure

By granting Kyrie Irving his wish to be traded, and by acquiring, among other assets, the Nets’ first-round pick in the 2018 draft from the Celtics, the Cavaliers have made the lowly Nets a team to watch this coming season.

Or, more to the point, scoreboard-watch.

For as long as the Celtics held the Nets’ 2018 pick, that story line was a tribute to Boston’s wheeling-and-dealing Danny Ainge and a sad Brooklyn commentary on one of the more lopsided exchanges in N.B.A. history. But with the pick now in Cleveland’s hands, and with the draft expected to be top-loaded with skilled, athletic big men, or what the Cavaliers have lacked, the Nets’ performance this season could weigh heavily on the league’s eventual balance of power.

And certainly on the Eastern Conference’s competitive order.

To that end, when asked if he was bothered by speculation about the strong likelihood that Cleveland will get a significant upgrade via the pick, Marks said it was none of his business.

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Nets General Manager Sean Marks, left, and Coach Kenny Atkinson have set modest goals for the team.

Credit
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

“I mean, it’s not our pick, right, so if I focus on what could have been, I wouldn’t be here, Kenny wouldn’t be here,” Marks said. “Our focus is on what we have, those 15 guys. I’d be doing them a complete disservice if I was to focus on what Boston was going to do with that pick, what Cleveland is going to do with that pick.”

He’s right about that. He has no reason to care but, in Cleveland, the feeling isn’t quite mutual.

Recent speculation disguised as news has James all but shaking hands with Magic over lunch on the terrace of an oceanside bistro. But what if Isaiah Thomas, the pocket-size point guard Cleveland obtained in the Irving deal, recovers from his hip ailment and, with his fellow former Celtic Jae Crowder, helps James return to the N.B.A. finals for an eighth straight year? What if Lonzo Ball doesn’t set the league ablaze as a Lakers rookie, and Paul George and Russell Westbrook decide to extend their fledgling partnership in Oklahoma City?

What if the Nets do poorly enough that Cleveland ends up with the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in the draft?

It stands to reason that James, ever mindful of his on-court legacy and his collection of championship rings currently stalled at three, will at least be eyeing those Nets scores on his smartphone in the locker room after games this season.

The Nets had the league’s worst record last season, and may have overachieved by winning 20 games. (Their first pick in the 2017 draft had also been handed over to Boston, which traded it to Philadelphia.) Over the summer, Marks subtracted center Brook Lopez, his leading scorer and shot-blocker, and landed point guard D’Angelo Russell, who was the second pick in the 2015 draft, and the Russian center Timofey Mozgov.

To a young and reasonably athletic roster of interchangeable parts, he also added a couple of pricey wing players, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll.

Rule changes to discourage teams from tanking for draft benefits are in the N.B.A. pipeline, though they are unlikely to be adopted this season and wouldn’t apply to the Nets, anyway. With teams like Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago having traded or lost key players and considered the next wave of floppers, if not tankers, could the Nets’ youth and enthusiasm translate to more winnable games and possibly even elevation into contention for the playoffs? And, of course, a draft pick with less value.

This was another performance-enhancement question Marks deftly evaded.

“I think you got to be careful with that because as we saw last year, one major injury can derail every plan you may have had,” he said, referring to the returning Jeremy Lin. “So for us it’s going to be about staying fluid throughout the year, see what happens.”

To which Atkinson, sitting alongside, added: “My gut is I feel the momentum of where we’re going. Obviously, we want that to translate into results, there’s no doubt about it. But for me to stand here and say we’re going to win 35 games, or 32 games, that’s not how my thought process goes.”

That’s a positive thought process for the Cavaliers to carry into the season, a prelude to The (James) Decision, Part III. Who said the Nets would be irrelevant until they again had control of their picks?

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