Deron, Plumlee, and Rebuilding Through the Middle in Brooklyn as a 2015 Resolution

Pick your favorite sport. Imagine that you play this sport, on a full time basis, professionally. You’re clearly great at it. You’ve always been the best of your peers, and you’re now an elite pro. You have a cockiness, a swagger about you.

Now imagine, you seriously injure your knee (or some other body part). You cannot walk, let alone run. You rehab. But you have lost your explosiveness.

From suffering from back injuries myself, I know how this is. It wears on you. It’s not easy to step on the court against people you were once better than, and be physically unable to beat them because you cannot do things you were once able. That makes the sport less fun.

It’s not fun to go up to dunk when you were once able, and be forced to lay it in. To jump lower on a rim foray and be unable to finish as a result. It’s not fun to get on the court and be unable to do the things you once could. What’s even less fun? To repeatedly injure the same part of your body. To say “I’m going to go out there and get back to who I am,” only to get hurt again. To see a player on the other side you once abused, now abusing you. To be unable to make it change because of once not there physical limitations. For large parts of life to be defined by rehab.

Much of this has seemed to happen to Deron. He cannot do much of what he was once able to do on a basketball court, and it has affected him in every way, really has completed deprived his joy for the game. His comments here, about getting back to having fun? (http://espn.go.com/new-york/nba/story/_/id/11606427/lionel-hollins-says-deron-williams-poised-strong-season-brooklyn-nets). Reading them now, it seems as though he was trying to convince himself of that, rather than saying it with any belief.

To an extent, none of this matters. For close to 80% of his Brooklyn tenure, Deron has not played like a max player. And, at this point, “why” does not matter. Only that fact, matters. And with this being his second consecutive failed season to get back to what he did to close 2012-2013, waiting for him to evolve back into a max piece is likely a lost cause.

It’s just worth noting that Deron was once universally regarded as a top 10 player, and much of what is said of him now (he doesn’t have “it,” he never cared, etc) is largely revisionist history. What’s happened can be boiled into a single sentence: “he was great, but injuries have taken his game away, and have also killed his spirit.” But again, the why is not nearly important as the what.

Which brings me to the subject of Mason Plumlee. There has been some chatter around Brooklyn, along the lines of trading him with Deron as a means of purging his money off Brooklyn’s books. I think that is a mistake.

First, I will open with this: Mason Plumlee is not untouchable. If you’re not a top 10-15 player, you are not untouchable because there is something that you can be traded for. Andrew Wiggins isn’t untouchable: if the Thunder dealt Durant or Westbrook to Minnesota for him they would do it right? Plumlee is a very good young piece, but is not untouchable for a simple reason: there are things I would deal him for. One should not confuse “the price tag is high” with untouchable: I would not deal Wiggins unless I received an elite player; that means Wiggins has a super high tag, not that he’s untouchable.

Still, the Nets price on Plumlee should be high. Plumlee is playing like a legit starting center in his second pro season. He can easily be an important piece of their 2016 and beyond. Or, if he continues to develop, he could be a key piece in a deal for a star, or a significant piece going forward. Either result: Plumlee making under $3 million as a starter (which allows for more spending elsewhere), or Plumlee being dealt for a true top 25 piece, beats using him as a carrot, just to coax someone into taking Deron off the Nets’ hands.

Remember: given the cap always rises a smidge, and in 2016 could rise much more due to the new TV deal, the cap in 2016 could be anywhere between $70-$92 million (depending on how conservative the increase is). The implications? If the Nets truly want to pare the roster down, and go into the summer with Deron, Plumlee, Bojan, and their 2015 pick as their sole pieces, they’re looking at $40 million in cap space — as a minimum! 

Numbers vary. The Nets could extend Karasev with his team option, add another pick, or do any number of things between now and July 2016 (and the released numbers may vary), but no matter what, the Nets are looking at oodles of cap space, even in the most conservative of cap projections.

It’s one thing to choose to deal Deron at all costs if the Nets needed to, as their sole means of prying space open. The Nets are not in that position, in the slightest.

Mason Plumlee is playing like a legitimate starting center, and for all the talk that older draft picks don’t develop, he and Damian Lillard (albeit on a different level of star) are doing just that.

If the Nets keep Plumlee, they are set at 2016 starting center with a piece making $2.3 million. If they do not, they will have to pay a starting center closer to $10-15 million — that right there cuts into their space. Couple the fact that even the most generous of Deron trades likely only reduces his $22.3 million hit in 2016 rather than extinguish it, and you’re left with this: trading Plumlee, a starting center at just $2.3 million and who could potentially be traded for a legitimate anchor like piece down the road, as a means of dumping a contract to open up cap space … when the team already has an absurd amount of cap space.

And that leads to another point. Suppose the Nets dump Plumlee in a Deron deal, and that deal makes Bojan, and the Nets 2015 first rounder (from the Hawks, and in the 20’s) as the sole pieces on the roster. Now, free agents are faced with a scenario where they are signing next to … absolutely nothing. Do free agents even want to join that?

Cap space is beloved by fans in today’s “sell them on hope” era, but history shows it means nothing if players don’t actually want to sign into it. That leads to 1 of 2 scenarios. The first is the 2010 Nets: underwhelming signings designed to roll the cap space into the future. That led to the 2011 Nets (same thing) and 2012 Nets, who, clearly, used the space on the wrong pieces, and now desire cap space again. That is the second scenario: the 2009 or 2013 Pistons. Using the accrued cap space on the wrong players. The result of that: waiting for future cap space in the hopes of a mulligan.

The Nets should not stop their shopping of Deron. He’s not worth his contract, clearly. But to sell Plumlee short, and deal a potential cheap starter going forward (the Nets aren’t exactly flush with youth with his upside, or the draft pick options to replicate him), or potential blue chip trade piece going forward, just to open up more cap space when there is already a ton of space? What’s the sense?

The Nets, right now, are trying to rebuild from the middle. Such a build is not impossible: but it is critical for the Nets to maximize their short term successes, and roster base in 2016, to accomplish those things. Looking around the league at similar (not the same, similar) rebuilds from the middle is instructive).

The Mavericks? They struck out on big names in 2011 2012 and 2013. Players saw a weak base around Dirk and did not want in. Signings of Calderon and Ellis were criticized by the media (they overpaid!) but what they did was improve the roster’s base, while retaining enough flexibility to improve. The result? Chandler, Parsons, and Rondo saw Dallas as places to be.

The Pacers? Having gone 37-45 in 2010-2011 was viewed as “this is your classic 8 seed with no chance; you’re better off missing the playoffs to rebuild properly.” But it’s always forgotten: being mediocre IS bad if you’re also expensive, but is NOT bad if you’re flexible to improve: because you’re trying to take a moderate step up with the flexibility for that step. The result? David West signed that offseason, in the belief he could be the missing piece to take the team up a level.

Similar stories are abound: the Nets can rebuild from the middle, but it’s going to require talent in the league believing in Brooklyn as a place to be. The Rockets? Dwight Howard laughed at them. Then James Harden was acquired in a fluky manner, and he was invested. He saw his presence as the missing piece.

Others rebuilt from the middle as well. The Hawks used their middling status as an attraction for Millsap. The Blazers never bottomed out. Boozer in Chicago did not work but their 8 seed middling status attracted him in 2010.

The bottom line: rebuilding from the middle is possible, despite the media love for tanking. But flexibility is not enough. You need to be attractive to free agents. They need to believe that you have something nice in place that they can augment. To attach Plumlee to a Deron salary dump is to deal a significant future piece, and a piece who, while not nearly as good as his contract, expectation, production to sacrifice proportion, or any measure, is still a roster piece: a part of the production of a playoff team (albeit nowhere near the part he was or should be).

And again, that’s such a meager return for Plumlee.  His status as a trade piece for something much more is valuable. Also: he can be the team’s 2016-2017 starter, at just $2.3 million. Dealing him deprives flexibility from working on the other pieces, because you would have to pay a veteran 8 figures to get your starter at his position.

Deal Plumlee and Deron? Brooklyn becomes a literal wasteland. There would be nothing in place except Bojan, the 2015 first, and any pieces acquired for Deron. What free agent sees himself as the missing piece…to a roster with no pieces? At least right now, with Deron in place, Plumlee in place, free agents can see something of the bones of a potential unit. Give me that, and a lot of cap space, over a barren wasteland, and “a lot plus some more” of cap space. The Nets have basically been a top 4-6 east team since moving to Brooklyn, and the more guts of that they can retain, the more likely free agents are to say “I can be what they’ve been missing.”

Critically, dealing Plumlee for flexibility is deceiving because he can conceivably make $2.3 million as a starting 5. Deal him, and you’re paying closer to $10-15 million to fill the position.

Mason Plumlee is not untouchable. Few are. But Mason Plumlee should not be included in a deal as a salary dump to coax someone to take on Deron Williams.

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