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Predictably, on Tuesday, word leaked that the Brooklyn Nets wanted to re-arrange their roster. Nothing’s imminent, of course, and the team isn’t looking to move into a rebuilding process, they just don’t like what they have. The Nets want to be a very good basketball team, a step up from the quite average (at best) basketball team they currently are, and they wouldn’t mind it if you’d help them out in that regard. Dealing Andrei Kirilenko for straight payroll relief just isn’t enough.
“Please take our players in exchange for your better players, via a trade that somehow works under the NBA’s salary cap rules.” It’s a lovely concept, if some other team or three would submit to it. ESPN’s Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk tossed the first lob out:
League sources told ESPN.com that the Nets, off to a disappointing 8-11 start and looking to retool after last season's $190 million roster filled with veterans couldn't advance beyond the second round of the playoffs, have let it be known that they are prepared to move any of those franchise cornerstones in what would likely be separate deals if they came to fruition because of the high salaries each possess.
We’re not attempting to devalue Stein and Youngmisuk’s work, as the Nets definitely do want to completely reshape the roster. What we’re trying to do here is devalue the work of Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, and general manager Billy King.
Prokhorov found his perfect GM in King. The former Larry Brown acolyte had previously made a career out of trading one massive contract for another, working under a pound-foolish philosophy in Philadelphia that ultimately proved itself to be penny-foolish as well. Prokhorov promised Nets fans a championship within five years back in 2010, a rather daft maneuver, one that he later doubled down on with his decision to hire King during the 2010 offseason.
Billy King goes after big names, regardless of the substance or contributions they provide. If the NBA had its own version of US Weekly, Billy King would attempt to sign or deal for the cover subject every week. This isn’t to say that former stars like Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson haven’t had their merits at some point – Garnett is just a step behind Tim Duncan when it comes to listing the greatest players of their generation – but King’s buy-now-pay-later schemes have never come close to creating a championship contender despite massive resources and that five-year window.
A window that is going to run out at the end of the season, with the Nets on pace for 35 wins and the last seed in the pitiful Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Brooklyn’s player and coach payroll neared the $200 million mark last season once luxury taxes were factored in, and the team’s payroll this season before the luxury tax hit is over $93 million. The team will have to swap its first round draft pick with the improving Atlanta Hawks next June, it owes Boston its first rounders in 2016 and 2018, and it will have to swap picks with Boston in 2017 if the Celtics end up with a better record.
All for a miserable, listless team. One that would seem to want to launch out of the gates in 2014-15 in order to spite former coach Jason Kidd, a hope that shot to bits by the time the team got to work in the season’s first month.
The Nets can’t beat good teams. They’ll do their job against bottom feeders, but by and large this is an offense-first outfit that can’t score, with too-slow players at every position and rotation spot. And they wouldn’t mind it if you’d help them upgrade at every position.
Now, it’s not completely impossible for Billy King to trade his cornerstones. He’s proven, for over a decade, that a trade that seems terrible to just about any other NBA observer feels just fine in Billy King’s head, so it’s more than feasible that King can somehow structure a series of deals that he sees as winners in his own mind. He’s never failed us in that realm.
The problem for King is that the league has changed. In years past there was always a scant series of similarly-terrible general managers that would engage with him and take his mistakes off of his hands in exchange for even heavier millstones. Not only has scouting improved, significantly, in the last decade or so, but teams have gotten smarter with their finances. There aren’t a lot of squads out there that have similar sized-contracts – even a group of medium-sized yearly contracts – to send back to King in exchange for, say, Deron Williams’ final three years and over $63 million.
Basketball analysts are correct in pointing out that no contract is untradeable, often referring to the infamous Gilbert Arenas-for-Rashard Lewis deal from 2010 as proof. The problem with that ongoing assertion is that the league has changed and evolved ten times over in the four years since that swap, and the few remaining millstones only belong to Los Angeles (who made a semi-understandable business, not basketball, decision with Kobe Bryant), the New York Knicks (a previous regime’s desperate gambit on Amar’e Stoudemire, soon to expire), and Brooklyn (Billy King).
Worse for Nets fans is the fact that King has precious little to offer by way of incentive to take on Williams’ deal, Joe Johnson’s deal (two years, over $48 million remaining), or Brook Lopez’s contract (two years, over $32 million). As noted, the Nets don’t have the rights to keep their own earned first round draft pick until 2019, which is absolutely bonkers. Mirza Teletovic is a solid player, but he’s a restricted free agent this summer. Bojan Bogdanovic has a reasonable contract, but he’s been pretty awful this season, and Mason Plumlee seems like the only reason why any team would consider taking on any of the Nets’ heavy-hitters at this point.
Plumlee’s a great athlete and improving player, but he ain’t worth taking on Williams or Johnson at this point. Or even Lopez, who is a fine scorer saddled with a game that feels more and more like an anachronism at this point in the modern-as-tomorrow NBA.
Prokhorov could dismiss Billy King tomorrow and the incoming el jefe would still be saddled with a seemingly immovable roster. There is a chance, however slight, that King could move one of these players for a litany of middling contributors with average contracts – as the Sacramento Kings did when they dumped Chris Webber on King’s Philadelphia 76ers in 2005 – but at this point it genuinely feels as if King’s best move is to just wait this crew out until their contracts expire. Either that, or hope some desperate team decides to use all their cap space this summer or the next and deal for a 30-something Deron Williams in exchange for a conditional draft pick.
That’s a shocking conclusion to the end of a story that was initially penned with championship hopes, but everyone outside of Brooklyn’s front office saw it coming. Deron Williams’ descent into mediocrity wasn’t to be expected, and the championship or bust gambit was intriguing in a weird way, but at no point during any part of King’s reign did anyone spy the Nets as a championship contender following one of his blockbuster deals. Even in the awful East. Jason Kidd was so exasperated by the Nets’ upcoming prospects that he decided to leave his adopted home town to coach the worst team in the NBA last summer.
The Brooklyn Nets have, for years, been playing with their own currency. Now they want other teams to carry the burden of their ridiculous exchange rate. That’s not going to be easy.
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