Restricted free agency and and unearthing draft gems are a must to brighten the bleak future of the Brooklyn Nets.
The Brooklyn Nets are completely and utterly screwed. Billy King’s 2013 fiasco, where he went all in by trading a treasure trove of draft picks to the Boston Celtics for then 35 year old Kevin Garnett and 37 year old Paul Pierce, certainly has something to do with it. While you’d think common sense would tell you to not mortgage your team’s future for a one year championship shot with a few washed up Celtics, apparently to King it was not. Sean Marks, his replacement and new Nets-interim GM, is left with the impossible task of assembling a somewhat competitive team out of one of the scarcest possible stash of draft picks I’ve ever seen.
As a part of that now infamous deal, King and the Nets traded away the team’s (unprotected!) 2014, 2016, and 2018 first round picks, with the addition of a 2017 pick swap that is looking to be the worst part of the entire deal. The hugely bloated contract of Joe Johnson – who was bought out and returned no value to the Nets – prevented them from signing any free agents recently. The Nets are currently 19-50, which is the fourth worst record in the NBA. But their fans, unlike those of the other bottom dweller teams who are looking to their youth or high draft picks of the future, cannot share the same optimism.
The Nets possess neither of these reasons for hope and are left to deal with an extremely bleak future devoid of high upside young players, with the exception of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The 2017 Celtics pick and late second rounders are the only options to work with. But the Nets have to decide on a path forward and get lucky with their late draft picks to come close to competing in 2019 (when they get their own first round pick again). Therefore, I will outline the two prevailing strategies and debate the merits of each.
The easiest option to point to rebuilding teams is to sell all their assets and lose. The Nets do not have their own first round pick until 2019, so every loss they take only improves the Celtics’ draft options. Hollis-Jefferson is exactly what the Nets need: he is a young and flawed, but high upside, player who can eventually contribute to the team on court or via trade and should be relatively untouchable. Brooklyn’s other main trade assets, who could net a first round pick, are Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young.
Lopez is on a $22 million dollar annual contract for the next two seasons, a figure that is in line with his production after the cap rises in 2016. While Lopez is a very solid center, putting up a PER of 22.2 (7.0 above the league average) with averages of 20.6 ppg and 8.0 rpg, he possesses two glaring issues to his potential suitors.
For one, his salary will still be comparably high to similar skill players next season because only some, but not most NBA players, will be 2016 free agents and receive the corresponding TV-inflated contracts. NBA trades require salary matching guidelines, meaning that many of the players who could be traded for Lopez are much older (and not beneficial to a rebuild) than the other few similarly skilled players that will enter free agency in 2016. Second, Lopez’s long injury history is a huge red flag to teams and may prevent him from being worth more than a mid first pick at best.
Young is playing on a relatively affordable 4-year $50 million contract and is averaging a very solid 15.3 ppg and 9.2 rpg as the Nets starting power forward. Yet what really holds Young back is the question of whether his current success would translate to a different situation, as his lack of versatility and 3-point shooting (23%) can be a liability.
Furthermore, his $12.5 million average salary makes him too expensive as a bench player, so it seems unlikely a team is willing to give higher than a top 20 pick in return for his questionable and limited services.
Shane Larkin, Thomas Robinson, and Wayne Ellington all have player options for next season at around $1 million, so depending on their decisions they could possibly net Brooklyn a second round pick at the trade deadline next season. Bojan Bogdanovic and Jarret Jack are under team control for one more year and might net similar value next season.
Above all, if the Nets hope to build through the draft in the next few years they must acquire picks through trades and do their absolute best to find the Draymond Green gems of the draft.
The crippling Deron Williams‘ contract still leaves the Nets with $5.5 million in dead money for the next four years, but the Nets will regardless still have plenty of cap room this summer to splurge and likely overpay free agents. With the salary cap projected to rise to around $90 million dollars due to the new TV deal and the team’s current 2016-2017 payroll being about $57 million the team could have up to $35 million to spend in free agency, depending on player options.
The issue with the free-agency option is that the type of player who would sign with the Nets is very limited. The Kevin Durants, Demar DeRozans, Dwight Howards, and Mike Conleys of the league who are looking to chase a ring will not even give the Nets the slightest glance in free-agency. However, Brooklyn’s advantage is that it can hope to price-out some of the young restricted free-agents (think Harrison Barnes, Jordan Clarkson, Evan Fournier).
The Nets can offer these players near-max or max contracts around $20 million annually that the other teams are unwilling or unable to match. These players possess All-Star potential, but albeit they come with the risk of overpaying for an unproven youngster. At least these players contracts will expire by 2020, meaning that they could come off the salary books in time for the hypothetical contention window.
Fans of the Brooklyn Nets are in store for a very painful four years. Regardless of which rebuilding avenue they take, they still possess very few draft assets or the necessary talent to attract free agents. In order to position themselves for a strong rebuild and possible contention in the near future, the Nets absolutely need to maximize their minimal draft picks, but also attract free agents to flip for assets at the trade deadline to a contender.
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