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Brooklyn Nets not much closer to contention before 2018-19 season opener

A wealth of salary cap space next summer could bring change, but that's a long way off for a team very similar to last year's underwhelming group.

D'Angelo Russell enters the 2018-19 season as the

D'Angelo Russell enters the 2018-19 season as the focal point of the Nets' offense. Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

The Brooklyn Nets' slow journey back to contention continues. They could be less than a year from a quick fix, though.

A three-season playoff drought is expected to continue at Barclays Center without a bona fide star in tow. Under the guidance of third-year head coach Kenny Atkinson, progress hasn't been measured in wins and losses. Looming next summer is a massive amount of salary cap space the Nets can use as they try to woo big names like Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving to Kings County.

Read on for what to expect from this year's Nets ahead of a pivotal offseason.

Russell's last stand

D'Angelo Russell may be the only player on the Nets roster capable of becoming a star. Whether that comes to fruition in Brooklyn or elsewhere could hinge on his 2018-19 campaign.

The former No. 3 overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers, acquired last summer for franchise leading scorer Brook Lopez, is expected to become a restricted free agent after this season. 

Injuries have stymied his growth the past two seasons, but he has shown flashes of brilliance with his all-around game. He'll be looking to put it all together over a full campaign for the Nets as he plays for a big contract, which the Nets would have the option to match.

Useful youth

The Nets have a few talented young players, in addition to the 22-year-old Russell, who could be part of the long-term plan.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen all begin the year age 24 or younger. All have played their way into meaningful minutes in Atkinson's rotation, and none seem like the type of players who would be jettisoned if the Nets succeed in acquiring two max-contract stars next summer. 

Fans invested in the long-term outlook of the Nets should pay keen attention to this trio's development. A strong supporting cast will make Brooklyn a more attractive free-agent destination.

Playoff ready?

The Eastern Conference is considerably weaker than the West, but teams aren't waltzing into the postseason field with sub-.500 records anymore. That means the Nets likely must improve by 13 victories or more off a 28-win season to be in the running. Probably, that's too much to ask for a team that didn't make any major offseason additions.

If the Nets are to defy the odds and finish in the top eight, veterans such as Spencer Dinwiddie, Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll must continue to be reliable contributors even as the young players step up their game.

Player to watch: Spencer Dinwiddie

Spencer Dinwiddie fell through the cracks of the NBA. The Nets must be glad he did.

The 25-year-old point guard started just 19 of his first 105 games over three NBA seasons. Injuries to D'Angelo Russell and former Nets guard Jeremy Lin paved the way for Dinwiddie's first real opportunity in the league.

He made the most of it. Starting 58 of 80 games, the 2014 second-round pick out of Colorado averaged 13.8 points and 7.2 assists in 30.6 minutes in his starts. He also picked up a win in the All-Star Weekend's Skills Challenge and finished third in balloting for the Most Improved Player Award. 

While Russell can handle the ball, he's more of a scorer than a distributor. That would seem to make Dinwiddie the go-to ballhandler for the Nets once again this coming season.

However, Dinwiddie will need to improve his shot if he hopes to make himself a part of the Nets' future. His 3-point percentage dipped to 32.6 last season, with 38.7 percent accuracy from the field. 

Dinwiddie will be a free agent after the season, so it will be critical for him to repeat his impressive performance over the next six months.

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