Nets Summer: Decisions Decisions

25-38. Losers of five straight. Now 3.5 games out of the playoff picture, and fading fast.  No first round picks in 2016 or 2018.  A first in 2015 subject to the Atlanta Hawks’ swap rights (meaning the Brooklyn Nets would currently pick 29th) and a 2017 first subject to the Boston Celtics’ swap rights in 2017 means that, even with their struggles, the Nets will not pick in the lottery until at least 2019, unless the Celtics miss the 2017 playoffs (and their arrow is pointing upward).

Needless to say, the Nets are in dire straights.  And a look at their salary picture this summer reveals a major challenge: there is no cap space to materially improve.  Their talent on the books generally has negative trade value, and cannot be dealt for talent upgrades that truly impact the win column. And with the pick debt as is, together with the lack of a blue chip young player (pieces like Mason Plumlee, Markel Brown, and Bojan Bogdanovic are nice pieces: none a bonafide prospect or clear-cut core piece), the Nets lack the assets to put themselves in play for a big name should he come available this summer.

So what can the Nets do this summer? Here’s a look at the asset picture, and the decisions facing the team this summer:

THE ROSTER, WITH FREE AGENTS BY POSITION

PG: Deron Williams ($21,042,800); Jarrett Jack ($6,300,000)

-Free Agents: Darius Morris ($1,015,421 team option/nonguaranteed)

SG: Bojan Bogdanovic ($3,425,510);

-Free Agents: Markel Brown ($845,059 team option/nonguaranteed)

SF: Joe Johnson ($24,894,863); Sergey Karasev ($1,599,840)

-Free Agents: Alan Anderson ($1,333,484 player option);

PF:

-Free Agents: Thaddeus Young ($9,971,739 player option); Mirza Teletovic (Restricted free agent with $4,210,125 qualifying offer); Cory Jefferson ($845,059 team option/nonguaranteed)

C: Mason Plumlee ($1,415,520)

-Free Agents: Brook Lopez ($16,744,218 player option); Jerome Jordan (Restricted free agent with $1,147,276 qualifying offer)

With the above commitments, the Nets have a guaranteed salary total of $58,678,533, for just six players: Williams, Jack, Bogdanovic, Johnson, Karasev, and Plumlee.  The 2015-2016 cap is projected at $66.3 million (http://www.fearthesword.com/2014/9/8/6121569/nba-salary-cap-news-should-benefit-cavs), which gives the Nets approximately $7,621,467 in cap space, were they to renounce every one of their free agents, and were Lopez, Young, and Anderson all to decline their player options for next season.

As for the player options, anything is possible.  My prediction: Lopez in a close tossup opts in, on faith he will stay healthy and get paid during the 2016 cap rise bonanza.  Young opts in so he can cash in, in 2016.  Anderson, on a minimum salary, opts out to get a raise or join a contender.

The cap space the Nets could have is a mirage.  Were either Lopez or Young to opt in, the Nets would not have any cap space this summer: the opt in deadline for both players is likely sometime in June, prior to the start of free agency (it is typically June 30 or June 15).  In addition, it is likely the Nets keep Brown and Jefferson, which cuts a little into their cap space as is.  The Nets will also likely extend the qualifying offer to Teletovic to retain matching rights in his restricted free agency (the rights do not require the Nets to keep him, but permit the power to match any offers).  That offer will tie up cap space in the form of a cap hold, too.  Also, with the TV deal coming, and Teletovic’s value being down due to his blood clotting ailment, there exists the possibility Teletovic accepts the qualifying offer so that he can become an unrestricted free agent during the 2016 bonanza (rather than locking in now under a lower cap, coming off a substantial medical problem).

The point: in even the most flexible scenario, the Nets have under $8 million in cap space, and in all likelihood they will have less, and even more likely none.

But then, another question arises.  How will the Nets use the cap space, even if it is available?  The Nets are clearly planning on entering 2016 free agency with as much cap space as possible, in the hope that they can use that free agency class to reshape their entire roster.  Do the Nets want to cut into that this summer? For $8 million, the Nets are likely able to add a low rung starter, or bench player, on a 3 year deal: is that worth cutting into the wad of cap space coming?  Perhaps the Nets use their cap space this summer on smaller one year deals to younger pieces they hope to move forward with, or they just add expiring deals.

With eight free agents and under $8 million to spend, free agency fireworks are unlikely.  With nothing but minimum salaries and the taxpayer exception of $3.376 million available if Young opts in (or the $5.464 non-taxpayer exception, but that would hard cap the Nets at the apron of $85 million, and staying under that figure if Lopez and Young stay would be a considerable challenge).  The talent available at those numbers is slim.

Eight free agents, but a franchise perhaps not committed to a single player under contract: Williams, Johnson, and Jack on the move? 

With so much salary committed for next season, the Nets face a big problem this summer.  There is no money to spend on free agents that can make the team materially better.  Good luck materially improving through the draft with such a late first rounder.  Tank with no pick in 2016, especially when free agents do not want to join bottom feeders? Improving via trade? It’s likely the only option, and also likely presents little of value to Brooklyn.

The Nets tried to trade Williams, Johnson, and Lopez this season.  Those three players have the only eight figure salaries on the roster: you must match salary in trades, so the only way for the Nets to even try to deal for a good or elite player was to try to deal one of the three.  They learned that Williams and Johnson can only be dealt at a net negative, production wise, for good reason: think about how badly you want them gone, then imagine being asked as an opposing GM if you wanted to bring them in.  Would you deal more than bad contracts? Wouldn’t you ask for assets in the deal? Given Lopez’s foot, and the best offer clearly being for the struggling and maligned Reggie Jackson, he also may not be tradeable unless it is done at a loss.

The Nets figure to at least test the Williams-Johnson trade waters this summer.  What they can get for either remains a mystery.  Do they bite a bullet, and use Plumlee, Bogdanovic, or Brown or Jefferson (assuming their options are picked up) to try to dump either.  In the case of Johnson, who expires in time for the 2016 bonanza, is that even worth doing?  With how little youth is coming down the pike, can Brooklyn afford to trade youth that has the makings of at least rotation pieces, if not starters or stars?

With Williams, the Nets really have a problem on their hands.  He gets worse, really, every year.  He went from elite in 2011, to very good in 2012 (he was a malcontent in New Jersey and was not elite because he was not mentally engaged, but by virtue of his talent at the time he was still very good), to ok in 2012-2013 with a very good late flourish, to ok in 2013-2014 (he was essentially a game manager who could run the offense and hit his jumper), to a total mess in 2014-2015.  Nobody wants him, and with his declining play comes $43 million over the next two seasons.

And while there is plenty of 2016 flexibility even with Williams in that fold, if Brooklyn want to retain that flexibility while adding to their in-house under contract 2016 core, they only can do so if Williams is dealt for expiring money.  That seems impossible, and likely requires dangling youth to get the deal done.  Can a team lacking young assets dump that youth because it is trying to, essentially, create more future cap space.  Do the Nets use the stretch exception on Williams and spread his payments over five years (essentially paying him on the cap to go away)?

The decisions with Johnson and Jack are easier.  Neither affects the 2016 salary picture.  So the Nets may explore to see if either can be traded for younger pieces, and if not, simply keep them and move on.  Lionel Hollins likes Jack, but there is a league wide premium on guard play, and many traditional basketball people (not the advanced metrics community) like Jack because he has a reputation for making big shots, he has a good attitude, and he seems like a good teammate.  The Nets may at least see what they can get for him from the type of front office that may bite (i.e.: one with less of a predilection toward analytics).

As for Bogdanovic, he seems unlikely to be shopped, but again, could be attached to Williams if the Nets feel that would help them dump Williams on another team (don’t hold your breath).  Karasev was a throw in in the Jack trade and that was before he tore his MCL: he has little value on the market.

And then there’s Plumlee.

Brook Lopez or Mason Plumlee?

NBA fans love rookie contract youth, because rookie deals are cheap.  NBA fans tend to dislike non superstar youth when it gets extensions in restricted free agency: those players tend to get overpaid on potential and due to the salary matching market, and fans hate overpaid.  NBA fans love athleticism.  NBA fans love players who show their emotions when they play, because they have passion for their team and want to see that come out of their players.  NBA fans love rim rattling dunks.

All of which explains why Plumlee is a fan favorite, whereas Lopez, overall, is not.  Plumlee’s cheap. He can run, jump, and dunk.  He gets fired up.  He’s not a “max” contract.  Lopez: he’s not an athlete, he does not have Plumlee’s on court bravado, he is slow, he appears to lack energy because of those factors, and he’s expensive.

It is a known fact that lineups pairing both Lopez and Plumlee have been brutal for Brooklyn.  The reason is simple: Lopez plays his best around the basket as a post up option, cutter off curls, or pick and roll dive man: Plumlee is at his best as a dive man.  Both are worse when drifting outside, so their skills are not complementary and they take one another’s real estate.  Defensively, Lopez cannot guard 4’s, so Plumlee is forced to guard 4’s, an area where he struggles.

The problem?  If the two centers cannot play together, how can you provide starters money to both and commit to both.  Committing nearly $25-35 million annually at the center position (Plumlee will not be on his rookie deal forever, and productive centers are expensive), especially when the players cannot share court time, makes it extremely difficult to build a roster around the players.

With the Lopez trade lined up at the deadline, it seemed the Nets made their minds up, and chose Plumlee over Lopez.  And Plumlee does have his attributes.  The NBA game is built around the dribble drive, and a dive roll man who can finish in the pick and roll and hit shooters if doubled in the pick and roll is very valuable: Plumlee can do both, and if the Nets had solid guard play those skills would show themselves more.  While Plumlee is Lopez’s age, he has considerably less NBA experience and thus, theoretically, more time to learn NBA defense.  Plumlee will also make just $2,328,530 in 2016-2017 (it’s a team option the Nets would definitely pick up if he’s on the roster), while Lopez will clearly be making close to 10-13 million more than that.  Accordingly, choosing Plumlee over Lopez leaves the Nets that much more cap space to invest in the rest of the roster during the 2016 bonanza.  And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that Plumlee has not suffered season ending foot surgery twice.

That’s not to say there is not a case for Lopez.  Lopez started 2014-2015 extremely slowly.  He had just suffered a second devastating foot injury (after other minor foot injuries), wherein medical personnel quite literally moved the location of bones within his foot, in the hope the resultant weight distribution would help  him stay upright.  He had to relearn how to walk and clearly lacked confidence early this season planting and moving aggressively, often seeming ginger in regards to where he was placing his feet.

However, Lopez has gotten better with each month that has passed, and has played very good basketball for about 1-2 months now.  He has also, flat-out, been a better player than Plumlee during that stretch: the sample is growing every day, and the gap is actually widening as Lopez continues to gain on court comfort in the wake of his injury.  He is scoring as always.  His rebounding appears to have gotten better, having clearly taken to Hollins imploring him to crash the offensive glass.  Defensively, he may struggle in the pick and roll, but when in position, his size affects shooters.  As the season has worn on, Hollins has leaned on Lopez more and more, and with good reason: you can argue he is the best player on the team, across games 1-63.  It is not uncommon of late to see Lopez play 30-35 minutes, with Plumlee merely getting the minutes where Lopez is sitting.  Lopez is simply much better offensively, and close to Plumlee’s equal on the other end if not better.

Plumlee may seem much younger, but there is only a two-year difference because he entered the league late.  And while the salary disparity now is out of line, Plumlee is a free agent in 2017, and is likely to command close to $8-9 million that summer (big men get paid, and teams always pay for potential in free agency).  Lopez? He is unlikely to get a raise from what he is making now, and may even take a small pay cut due to his injury history, in the pursuit of longterm security.  Lopez making $14.4 million more than Plumlee sounds cartoonish.  Lopez making $5 million more, when Plumlee is as suspect defensively and struggles to score beyond diving to the rim for dunks?  Does not seem as outlandish.

The Nets likely cannot move forward with Lopez and Plumlee.  They may choose one path this summer, especially with Hollins having gone away from the Lopez-Plumlee tandem.

Score my vote for Lopez. But this is a close issue, and this choice is one of Brooklyn’s defining moments this summer: that and whether they look to deal Williams and/or Johnson.

Free Agency Notes on Everyone: Some Predictions, and Options

-Williams: likely to be shopped aggressively this summer. Do not be surprised if the stretch exception or a buyout is considered. Prediction: Gone

-Johnson: likely shopped once again, but likely back in Brooklyn. Prediction: Back

-Lopez: likely to be shopped if the Nets choose Plumlee over him.  If he opts out, the Nets will likely commit to keeping him or getting something via sign and trade. Prediction: Gone

-Young: likely opts into his deal to cash in bigtime in 2016. Prediction: Back

-Plumlee: Billy loves him he’s a clear rotation player, and I believe the Nets will choose him over Lopez in a mistake: Prediction: Back

-Jack: perhaps shopped, but figures to be back in the fold. Prediction: Back

-Teletovic: will become a restricted free agent who tests the market, but Nets likely do not pay up. Prediction: Gone

-Bogdanovic: not likely to be shopped, but not valuable enough to not at least be part of potential deals. Prediction: Back

-Karasev: under contract and has a torn MCL. Prediction: Back

-Anderson: a nice role player who fits on a contender. Likely looks to make more money next season or join a contender.  Prediction: Gone

-Brown: a fan favorite already.  Not a bona fide rotation player yet because he cannot shoot the ball, but has tools to become a Patrick Beverley type player: Prediction: Back

-Jefferson: can do boneheaded things, but plays hard and could become a low-end rotation player if he develops a decent jumper or becomes a defender: Prediction: Back

-Jordan: one of the Nets smallest issues this summer. Prediction: Gone

-Morris: clearly the last man off the bench. Prediction: Gone

Overall, predicted Nets returning: Johnson, Young, Plumlee, Jack, Bogdanovic, Karasev, Brown, Jefferson.

Overall, predicted defections: Williams, Lopez, Teletovic, Anderson, Jordan, Morris

With all the issues facing the Nets, one thing is for sure.  This will be a busy summer for ownership and management in Brooklyn.

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