Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets have seen firsthand the dangers of going all-in on a short window of championship contention. In 2019 they signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. They added James Harden soon after that. The trio shared a roster for exactly one playoff run which culminated in an injury-induced second-round loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2021. Harden was gone one year later. Durant and Irving followed a year after that. That left the Nets floundering. All of their draft picks belonged to the Houston Rockets as part of the Harden trade. Without Durant and Irving, they had no pathway to immediate contention.

The Nets spent last season trying to split the difference. The goal was to remain reasonably competitive with a roster full of role players led by Mikal Bridges in the hopes that they could eventually spin some of the assets they got for Durant and Irving into a new superstar. But after missing the playoffs in 2024, things don't look optimistic for the Nets on the star front. While this offseason is expected to feature plenty of star movement, the A-lister Brooklyn seemingly had its eye on, Donovan Mitchell, is now reportedly considering a contract extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers. There are no other players with that combination of youth and talent known to be available, so the Nets have been forced to reconsidering their long-term plan.

On Friday, team owner Joe Tsai acknowledged where the team is at J.P. Morgan's Global China Summit in Shanghai. "I want to build a winning mentality and culture that's sustainable," Tsai said. "Those two are very different things. If you just want to be win-now you could ruin your future by trading away all of your assets but I think what I want to do with the Brooklyn Nets is take a longer-term approach and build a sustainable, winning culture."

So what exactly does that mean? Likely no more get-stars-quick schemes, for one, but that still doesn't explain where the Nets plan to find their core players. If they aren't going to trade away all of their assets as Tsai alluded, their other options are to find their leaders in free agency or the draft. Free agency simply doesn't generate the sort of star movement that it did back in 2019. The modern model for stars who want to change teams is to get lucrative extensions from their incumbent teams and then force a trade later.

That leaves the draft. The Nets have plenty of draft capital to work with from other teams, but their own first-rounders through 2027 belong to the Houston Rockets. That makes a traditional rebuild difficult. The Nets could remedy that by re-engaging the Houston Rockets, who reportedly offered them their own picks back at the trade deadline in exchange for Bridges. Should they make Bridges available, his versatile skillset and bargain contract would make him one of the most sought-after players on the market. They could target their own picks or use Bridges to get control of someone else's. Even if they don't trade Bridges, role players like Cam Johnson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Cam Thomas would have trade value if the Nets wanted to take another step back.

Right now, the Nets have a group of players that appear destined to hang around the middle of the standings so long as it is kept together. Their path out of the middle will require an aggressive move up or an aggressive move down. Tsai indicated that he isn't too keen on another costly attempt at going up, so it certainly sounds as though the Nets are considering potential pathways in the other direction. That may mean some short-term pain, but if the Nets want a sustainable winner, that's usually the right place to start.