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It’s hard not to pile on. Trust us, we tried to be nice with this one.
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The Brooklyn Nets had to recover to win 38 games this season, in a campaign spent working in the lacking Eastern Conference for two-thirds of the schedule. The team, genuinely, shocked everyone by merely acting competent against the struggling Atlanta Hawks in the first round – and yet the squad still wasn’t entertaining enough to let us forget that a 45-win Thunder team featuring Russell Westbrook was left to watch from home.
Nobody was paid more to play basketball than the Brooklyn Nets this season. The team actually went on a payroll-cutting mission last summer and still ended up with a payroll that neared $88 million. That’s prior to luxury taxes, mind you.
The owner, reportedly, is done with his toy. The team’s general manager, the hilarious Billy King, may have been tasked with spending as much money as he could right away, but there are dozens of general manager candidates that would be better suited to build a win-now stunner. Yes, King’s Rolodex is stuffed with good contacts, but when other teams know that you’re in the business of dumping assets for current relief, you’d be shocked at how many numbers start reaching out to you.
He blew this. Yes, owner Mikhail Prokhorov may have created a monster based on his outsized expectations. Yes, Deron Williams may have fallen off the face of the earth, and it’s possible that all manner of rotation players could have worked alongside each other in a more swimming fashion under different coaching circumstances, but this is on Billy King. At no point during any of this run, starting back in Newark and working up to the team’s first round loss from Friday, did any sound basketball mind hear word of a Billy King deal and think … “nice.”
We tried. The hope entering 2013-14 was that Kevin Garnett, Pierce and Williams could lead Brooklyn into a one-off – an approximation of what Boston managed some six (!) years before when KG and Pierce were fearsome but still past their respective primes. That pitch failed badly, a nice first round win followed by an anonymous loss to the Heat that nobody remembers less than a year later. An attempted coup from Jason Kidd ran quickly after that, all prior to a season that saw the Nets pile up a nine-figure payroll for a team that would have finished with 30 wins in the West.
You know the drill by now. Let’s look over the rubble.
For the services of employing Joe Johnson for over $89 million from the ages of 31-to-35, the Nets will swap draft first-round picks this year with the same Atlanta Hawks team that just topped the Eastern Conference; working with a payroll of over $30 million less than Brooklyn’s. For the chance at KG, Pierce and Jason Terry, the Nets will send its first-round draft pick to Boston in 2016, it will swap its first-rounder with Boston (who, while rebuilding, have already worked up a better record than Brooklyn) in 2017, and it will give its first-rounder to Boston in 2018.
For Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Five years prior. Nicolas Cage as John O’Brien, wielding a shopping cart full of well vodka and Canadian whiskey, showed better foresight.
There genuinely is no “out,” here. Brook Lopez could and should leave as a free agent this summer, and the Nets would still be above the salary cap. Thaddeus Young could opt out of his player option and take the same route, and in doing so the Nets would still be just an average salary below the cap. Good thing the Hawks’ pick won’t cost all that much money.
Thaddeus Young, mind you, is the only holdover from the Garnett and Pierce deal, a transaction that is still less than two years old. Pierce was left to wander last summer, KG was sent back to Minnesota, Terry was exiled to Sacramento last season, and yet the Nets will still be feeling the aftereffects of this transaction in 2018 when they have to send a draft pick to Boston. Damian Lillard, the potential draft pick the Nets effectively sent to Portland in 2012 for Gerald Wallace’s past-prime days, will likely be making his fifth All-Star Game during that campaign.
The Nets don’t have much to build on. Young and Lopez are possibly gone, unless the Nets overpay (and why wouldn’t they, with no draft pick to plan for?) to keep them around. Bojan Bogdanovic is a nice player, he’s about to enter his prime and he’s on one of the NBA’s best deals, but he is at best a seventh man on a championship team. Mason Plumlee seems like a per-minute comer, but he’s already turned 25 and the Nets saw fit to play him just eight minutes a game in the playoffs.
Brooklyn, even with the re-signed Lopez and Young on board, will have cap space in 2016, but so will seemingly every other team outside of the squad in Oklahoma City that can sign Kevin Durant to way more money than anyone else. Even if Boston continues its slow ascent, it had already rushed past the Nets and will have the better of the team’s two first-round picks in 2016 and 2018. Lionel Hollins is a sensible coach, but it’s very well possible that he has extracted everything he could from this Nets roster. Joe Johnson thinks that changes will be made, but who is trading for Joe Johnson or Deron Williams at this point? Does Billy King run a second NBA team?
And the end result was 38 wins. And what’s worst is what could come next.
Complications surrounding the sale of his stake in the Barclays Center could delay Prokhorov’s selling of the team. Already an absentee owner, this would leave King in charge of the outfit – the exact opposite of when Geoff Petrie was allowed to run the Sacramento Kings under the penny-pinching guise of the loathsome Maloof brothers. With no incentive to bottom out and earn a good draft pick, King would then be charged with sustaining that mediocre run, again turning one bad veteran contract into another one as the Nets chase that eighth seed.
Then again, King may not have any candidates to chase down. Because the NBA has left general managers like Billy King behind, there may not be any more bad contracts to grab onto. This has nothing to do with the NBA’s next television deal, and the skyrocketing salary cap.
This has everything to do with the fact that there aren’t any Billy King-like contracts waiting to be dealt for. Joe Johnson is already on the Nets. So is Deron Williams, at $22.3 million in 2017. So is Brook Lopez, potentially, on another max contract on two feet that are one bad break away from retirement.
King has to stick it out until 2018-19 because of moves he made in 2011, 2012, and 2013. And, potentially with Lopez and Young, in 2015. He saw no reason to put protection on his draft picks or pay attention to the shifting NBA culture, and as a result the Nets will enter 2020 after spending an entire decade as the NBA’s laughingstock. The franchise that seemed set to Jay-Z its’ way into acting as the NBA’s hottest – LeBron-wielding, cash-spending, cachet-having – team has the biggest hole to dig out of as any NBA team. And it is likely three or four years away from even being allowed to handle its own shovel.
We told you that we tried to be nice. The facts got in the way of that.
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