The Trade Deadline: Where do the Nets Go From Here

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The most exciting time of the year is upon us.  The regular season is fun, but everyone loves the trade deadline. Simply put, it’s fun to play armchair GM, and it’s also thrilling to watch the rumor mill develop live on Twitter.  And this year, the deadline finds the Nets in an interesting position. Sitting at 7th in the east at 24-27, 2014 has been kinder than 2013, but it is clear that the season has not gone as planned. And that leaves the Nets in an interesting position. There are multiple approaches the Nets could take to the deadline, each with their own rationale, from as quiet as doing nothing to as bold as blowing up the roster. Here is a look at the possibilities, and my recommendations for Billy King and Mikhail Prokhorov, as we approach the deadline.

DO WE BLOW UP THE TEAM?:

In some corners, it has been said the Nets should blow up this incarnation of the team. The rationale? With Deron Williams looking so gimpy that questions concerning whether he can lead this team to championship contention are becoming more common and more legitimate everyday. At its core, this is a roster that is built around Williams and Brook Lopez.  Sadly, with Lopez out for the season for the second time in three years with a foot fracture, there is concern over his long-term longevity in the league.

So with the health issues both have had, the question begins to become: is it possible to build a winner around the two players. The Nets have surrounded their cornerstones (particularly Williams) with wings in Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson who are performing, Kevin Garnett, whose come alive in 2014, and a team full of role players in Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, Andray Blatche, Mirza Teletovic, Alan Anderson, and Mason Plumlee who have been playing quality basketball for the franchise.  That leads to the following argument: if you know you cannot build around Williams and Lopez, why not “blow it up” now. Get something back for the roster’s veterans. Get a return for Williams (and possibly Lopez) and begin your march towards a brand new future.

However, there is a significant problem with that tactic.  To rebuild from the ground up requires having assets: a stable of draft picks and cap friendly contracts.  The Nets do not have first rounders in 2014, 2016, and 2018, and do not have unrestricted access to their first in 2015 and 2017 due to pick swap rights conveyed to Atlanta and Boston respectively.  We have no second rounders until 2018 (unless the Celtics convey their 2017 second rounder to the Nets, which only happens if they exercise their pick swap rights over our first rounder: (the right side of that chart is long, indeed).

In short, here is the huge problem with blowing it up: the Nets will not have their lottery pick from 2014 through 2018.  What will rebuilding even bring?

With Lopez injured again, and Williams playing the way he is playing, the Nets simply lack the assets to recover that draft pick debt.  They can pawn a few of their players surely for second rounders, but if you review recent trades around the league, teams are aggressively protecting first round picks. Williams and Lopez are the only players on the roster a team would trade one for: would we receive enough to get out of this debt.

All in all, the Nets are not in position to “hit the reset button.” The Nets are so far in the hole in regards to their pick situation and financial situation that gutting the roster would not facilitate a quick rebuild. It would lead to a long, long slog from the bottom of the standings.  For all the talk of courting Kevin Durant in 2016, or other big free agents: a time at which their cap situation will be clean, the Nets would not be in a position to entice players to come.  Struggling along near the bottom of the east, the Nets would have little to sell free agents on, outside of Brooklyn.

“Blow it up” tends to be a reflexive statement.  Some fans make it when upset at the team, annoyed and venting at a loss because the players underperformed.  Some media use it reflexively as well: “blow it up” is simply a fun thing to say.  However, it’s not the right move for the Nets.

WHAT ABOUT TRADING DERON WILLIAMS?:

Nevertheless, the “trade Williams” chatter is even louder than the “blow it up” chatter.  There is a large contingent out there that has advocated for a potential Williams trade.  Opinions of Williams across the media, and across the Nets fanbase, are extremely various.  In short, I believe the Nets should not trade Williams, but I more than understand the frustration.

It must be stated that the Williams acquisition was a significant moment in Nets history.  The quotes in this NBC piece were not solely made here, but were believed by many at the time of the transaction: “it is a brilliant move by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who stayed in the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes to drive up the Knicks price then turned around and got the better player.”  From SB Nation’s Tom Ziller, who is extremely well regarded: “Deron Williams trade means Nets get better, younger, cheaper star than Carmelo Anthony.”

Clearly, Williams has not played basketball of that caliber in a Nets uniform, something that bothers me and something I will not dispute. However, stating that Williams was considered an established superstar, a clear top 10-12 player at the time of the trade, with no real reason to believe that he would slow down.  There was criticism of the deal due to the questions surrounding his resigning, but there was no question related to his ability.

With that said, there are questions now, due to his struggles.  Two points are facts when it comes to Williams: that he was regarded as a superstar, a clear top three point guard, on his arrival to New Jersey, and that he is massively underachieving in a Nets uniform.  The question is not those points, but is this: why is Williams underachieving, and why this much?

The theories have been wide ranging.  Some point to his flat demeanor as a sign he’s lost his passion for the game, upon signing his 2012 contract, but Williams was making upwards of $17 million and his passion was not an issue in Utah.  Some point to his game having declined, but is it conceivable that he has declined to this extent.  Williams was never truly reliant on breakneck speed, and is a plus shooter: he has skills that age well for the most part over time.  Also, Williams was awesome just months ago after the all star break and into the playoffs for the Nets.

Which leads to the most obvious place to go: injuries.  The history: Williams developed bone spurs prior to last season, and was supposed to get surgery after the offseason to clean the area up.  He struggled through last season, before receiving all star break treatment and returning a new man.  He did not get the surgery, reinjured the ankle, and has struggled more this year than he ever has in his career.  Deron described last year’s pain as so painful, it took ten minutes to climb his stairs.  So painful, that he’d make a move off the dribble, only to feel too much pain to score, or to make a second move.  For perspective, Williams is playing significantly worse basketball this year than the first half of last year.

So with that, it seems clear that the cause of Williams’ struggles is ankle injuries.  This piece describes why Williams’ struggles often are attributed to his attitude instead of his injuries: because he’s surly, short with the media, flat emotionally, and has not suffered your classic catastrophic on court injury, he does not engender any sympathy.

But beyond the cause of struggles, it must be acknowledged that the struggles will not stop unless the cause, the injuries, stop.  And when a player has had this extensive of problems with his feet, you do worry if they will stop.  And whether they will stop, and we’ll get the Williams we need, or he’s damaged, is an open question.

Except, here’s the catch: it’s a question that we’re going to have to learn while Williams is in a Nets uniform.  As I stated above, the Nets cannot rebuild right now.  Their best plan is to be competitive for as long as they can as they are in draft pick debt, until 2016, at which time they will face less debt, and also have the cap room necessary to truly overhaul.  So with that, the Nets face a choice: compete with Williams, or trade him and compete without him.

Here is the thing: it is probably true that, given Williams’ reputation, a trade of Williams may yield pieces whose play currently exceeds the output Williams is providing.  That is why Williams for Jeremy Lin Asik (a once reported, Rockets initiated rumor which has become widespread among Twitter conversation), and other deals and incarnations have become popular topics.

However, I would not deal Williams, for one simple reason.  While whether star Williams – the player we got last year after the break – is missing in action, and his return is debatable, that player is better than anything the Nets could acquire for him in a trade.  So yes, the Nets can acquire pieces better than the version of Williams that has taken the court this season, because a team acquiring him would pay a premium for his reputation.  However, such a trade would not recoup an elite piece, and would leave the Nets in a position where they attempt to compete without the services of an elite player.

The Nets only have one shot at an elite, foundational piece to lead them until 2016, when they get to overhaul their roster.  That shot is the return of a healthy Williams.  Maybe the all star break rejuvenates him, maybe he gets the surgery this time around, and maybe he gets by these ankle issues.  Sadly, maybe he does not.  I do not know the answer to the question.  What I do know is despite Williams’ always looking “like he wants to die” on the court (something I’ve said), despite his shortness with the media, despite his tendency to fall and appear unable to get up at least once a game, the smartest thing the Nets can do is keep him, and hope he returns with a vengeance, instead of short selling their stock.

THE CURRENT RUMORS: THE DPE, AND A MINOR DEAL

With all that, the smartest move for the Nets – and the most likely move – is to do one of two things: stand pat, or make a minor move and use their disabled player exception.

Briefly, with dealing Williams or Lopez (you will not get fair value for him either) not making sense, there also is no clear deal for most of the team’s rotation players.  Nobody will want Joe Johnson’s mammoth contract, so the Nets are better off paying for his services than turning him into (gulp) more long term money – the only thing a team would deal him for.  Garnett is under contract for next year and the Nets would have a hard time replacing him adequately via trade.

Pierce has value as an expiring contract, but has performed well as he’s adjusted to the team, and the only good deal for him would be for a longer contract, while also finding a player who would fit with the roster as well as Pierce currently does at the four.  That would be a challenge.  And while Pierce is a free agent, he came here to attempt to win a last ring with Garnett, and Garnett is under contract for next year – an extension the Nets gave him at his insistence.  Pierce is a better bet to return than has been reported and speculated.

As for Mirza Teletovic, Mason Plumlee, and Bojan Bogdanovic, it makes sense for the Nets to retain what little youth and upside they have on the roster.  As I’ve said throughout this piece, the Nets will be intensely reliant on this core of players, or whatever this core could be swapped for in deals, over the next three years, without much help from the draft.  Accordingly, having players who could help the team by developing and improving individually is very valuable to the Nets, and while none of these players will be stars in the NBA, the Nets should hang onto them for that reason.  While these players are not as good as DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry, or Terrence Ross, in looking at all four, the Raptors improved this year because of similar internal improvement – not any signature acquisitions.

As for Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, and Andray Blatche, given the production of each player relative to their salary (you have to match salaries in deals), the Nets would be hard pressed finding fair value for them in a deal.

So, what are some deals the Nets could do.

THE DPE:

The Brooklyn Game provides an excellent breakdown of the DPE here.  In short, the Nets can use it to acquire, without sending anything out, one player who makes $5.25 million or less and is in the last year of his deal, or use it to sign a free agent (though, realistically, how helpful can a player be if he’s not good enough to be in the league at the moment).  The piece lists the players acquirable for the DPE, but cautions that some of those players will not be available for obvious reasons (why for example would the Pacers just give Lance Stephenson away).

The problem with using the DPE is the tax hit for Prokhorov would be exorbitant: nearly 17 million for acquiring Jordan Hill as was rumored yesterday, for example.  While I would love him to spend the money if it helps, with all the spending, I could understand him choosing to show restraint.  A quick look at the list indicates that Hill is one of its best candidates.  Essentially, using the DPE would allow the Nets to acquire a rotation player off the bench without giving a piece up in return.  Hill for example is a capable defender and would provide a dimension in that regard that Blatche and Teletovic have not.  The Nets defense has tanked when Garnett has sat, and perhaps Hill could help ameliorate.

A MINOR TRADE:

The other thing the Nets could do is attempt to make a minor trade, using players off the edges of its roster.  That was something the Nets looked into yesterday, with rumors of a Jason Terry for Jarrett Jack swap.

This Terry rumor is the blueprint for the type of deal Brooklyn could try to make.  As Zach Lowe explained, under the tax teams receive a cut of Brooklyn’s tax payment, and are also looking to dump salary. Dealing some combination of Terry, Reggie Evans, Alan Anderson, or Marquis Teague for better players with longer and/or larger salaries would boost Brooklyn’s goal of maximizing its talent base through 2016, while helping another team cut salary.

A trade like Terry to Toronto for Steve Novak and Julyan Stone, for example, saves Toronto a sliver of money next year and takes Novak off their 2015-2016 books. Deals like this do not significantly move the needle, but are the types of deals the Nets can look into.

So, over these next two days, when all of us live on ESPN Trade Machine, focus on proposals that involve three things, which is how I invented the above Novak trade (it is not a rumor). Terry for Jack fits this mold:

  • The Nets trading the above players I mentioned in some form
  • The Nets acquiring players whose contracts are longer than these players, and perhaps for more money
  • The Nets avoiding players whose contracts run through 2016-2017 (check the Hoopshype.com salary page for guidance)

A LOOK BACK AT “THE TRADE”

With the Nets under .500, it is easy to say that the trade with Boston has been a failure.  However, such a sentiment comes without closely looking at the situation, or the Nets record against teams above .500.

First, the Nets took a highly unorthodox step when building this roster.  Most teams in the NBA do not wish to be in a situation where a star player wishes to bolt, in the belief that they will face losing the player. The Nets, however, embraced that situation.  After striking out on multiple free agent superstars in 2010, then losing the Anthony chase, the reality was clear: if the Nets were going to get a star to build around, they were going to deal for a disgruntled one or draft one.  When Williams suddenly became available, it must be noted that he had the reputation that I described above.  This was an elite player in the NBA: a player teams undoubtedly sought after.

So the Nets bet that Williams would make for a better foundational piece than anyone they could have acquired in the draft.  And if you look at the draft since the trade, only three players even arguably approach that level: Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, and Damian Lillard.  The first two players were never going to be Nets because we were not bad enough to pick one, the third is a player nobody expected to be this good.

The time from the deal through the 2012-2013 season can be described pretty simply: the Nets overpaid pieces to ensure a commitment from Williams.  The moves have been questioned – and they do appear questionable individually, but how could the Nets sacrifice what they did for Williams, then watch him walk? If keeping him required moves that would be otherwise suboptimal, they needed to make them and did.

After the 2012-2013 season here is what the Nets faced: they had a team, per Mike Mazzeo, which went 15-27 against .500+ teams: the 49-33 record was a product of dominating the league’s doormats.  They were over the salary cap and tax, and were so through 2016.  That meant that, barring a trade like “the trade,” the only avenue toward improvement was one mini midlevel exception a season, and minimum salary players.  Kirilenko came via mini midlevel, but only did so via trade: this is the list of players that have signed via this exception.  Not exactly a whose who of franchise changers – and Vince Carter was never leaving Dallas.  Players that have signed for the minimum? Obviously $1,400,000 and less is not bringing in anyone notable.

So here is the thing. Armed with a roster stuck in place, the sole avenue available to King to improve the Nets, and attempt to take a notable step forward, was a trade. He was going to have to trade some of the Nets draft picks in order to add better talent to the roster.  Stuck with last year’s team through 2016 – a clear noncontender, or a trade that could bring a contender, he chose a trade.  It’s hard to blame him.  It’s easy to point to 49-33, but imagine this year’s team with Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries in place of the Boston guys?

Simply put, the choice to go all in on Williams in 2011 despite his lack of desire to be a Net led to the choice to overpay talent to keep him (and deal our 2012 pick), two big decisions which necessitated “the trade.” To me, a stronger argument would be “you should not deal for a star who does not want to stick around,” even though the Clippers did so with Chris Paul and it worked.  Or the argument should be “do not let the acquired player have personnel power and if he walks, he walks.”  An understandable position, but tough to pull off for a GM.

The early results in games against good teams: the Nets are 10-13 against .500+ teams this year, a mark significantly better than last year’s. For all the grief the Nets got for “the trade,” the move is also why Kirilenko, Livingston, and Anderson are here.  A look at the Nets shows that the Nets struggles are not because of the players they traded for: those players are performing.

In reality, it comes back to this.  The Nets are 24-27 despite receiving virtually nothing from its two best players.  One is playing like a shell of himself (even compared to last year’s shell of himself), while the other is injured for the season.  And while the NBA is a no excuse league, how many of its teams would be chasing a playoff berth if it got nothing from its two best players.

So for all the talk of the trade, those players were brought here to complement the Nets in house stars – to provide them with support.  Instead, those players are carrying the team, because there is nothing around to support.

A close to .500 team that has shown enough upside to beat the league’s elite and good teams, the Nets are in a position where they could have something going forward.  What if they actually get production from their best player?

And the reality is this: Williams is truly the key to judging a lot of what is going on in Nets land.  If this team is .500 without him, it’s a really good team – a better one than last year – if he gets back to what he did within the past year.  In that case, why trade him? Why rebuild? And having Garnett and Pierce will then prove to be the huge addition it was billed as – in last year’s playoffs Williams played well, but the one thing he lacked was any semblance of floor spacing.  He would have that around this time.

The trade deadline will be as interesting as always.  For the Nets, the questions and answers, for better or worse, boil down to what fate holds for number eight.

And one reason none of us can agree on the answer is because there is no clear answer.

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