With the additions of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris McCullough, and Steve Blake, and reports of Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young returning, the Nets salary picture has changed heading into free agency. Can they sign any free agents? What is their 2016 cap picture looking like? Here is the situation in brief.
The Nets have 8 players under guaranteed contract, with Deron, Joe, Jack, Bojan, Karasev, Blake, McCullough, and Hollis-Jefferson (the picks will sign under the rookie scale in July). They have four nonguaranteed contracts in Markel, Jefferson, Clark, and Morris. They then have five free agents in Brook, Thad, Mirza, Anderson, and Jordan.
If you conservatively assume the rookies sign at 100% of the rookie scale (you must sign at 80%-120% of the scale; most teams give players the full 120%), the two rookies would combine to make $2,063,100, bringing the Nets’ guaranteed contract total to $61,496,578, again for 8 guaranteed deals.
According to the great Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the Nets seek to resign Brook and Thad and are frontrunners to do so, with figures reaching 3 years, $60 million and 4 years, $48 million respectively. Free agents being signed with bird rights are entitled to 7.5% raises each season: Thad and Brook are unlikely to receive an identical $12 and $20 million per year respectively, but are likely to see their salaries increase over time (i.e.: start under $12 and $20 million, but finish over those amounts).
Assuming those contracts and raises, suppose Thad makes $10,635,387 next season, and Brook $18,463,037. That raises the Nets’ salaries to a guaranteed $90,595,002 for 10 players, and $3,891,323 for their four nonguaranteed contracts.
With the luxury tax at $81.6 million, the apron, or hard cap for any team using the full midlevel exception, is $85.6 million – the Nets will be hard pressed to fit their roster in that hard cap. Accordingly, the Nets will likely have access to one mini midlevel exception, but not the full midlevel.
Alas, the Nets should forego the use of both exceptions. History shows that the players who sign for these cap exceptions are largely reserves on 2-4 year deals. A representative sample of players on midlevel money from last summer (ignoring Paul Pierce taking less to win and Shaun Livingston being discounted due to his injury history): Josh McRoberts, Spencer Hawes, Caron Butler, Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, Trevor Booker, Marion Chalmers, Nick Young, PJ Tucker, Vince Carter, and Patty Mills. With the mini midlevel bringing players proportionally worse, are any of these players worth eating cap room in 2016, just to have now? That is doubtful, especially when players of this caliber will be available in 2016.
The Nets’ 2016 cap space represents a sincere chance to remake the roster. Why cut into the amount of money to spend, with players of this tier? Oodles of them will be free agents next summer; just grab them then.
The Nets need to be very mindful of the books: they’re filling up quicker than you think. As of now, if Brook and Thad resign at the above scales, the picks sign on the above scales (a conservative number), and Deron opts in (he’s going to) the Nets have about $60,015,451 on the 2016-2017 books (I added $500,000 for Jack’s guarantee that year and assumed he’d be waived: that guarantee is on the 2016 books unless he is traded), with a cap of $89 million, and roster of six players: Deron, Brook, Thad, Bojan, Hollis-Jefferson, and McCullough.
That leaves for a lot of roster holes, and $28,984,549 to fill the holes. When you consider a max free agent will see a salary in the $20’s, that is not as much money as it appears. The Nets simply cannot afford to further complicate their future books with a seventh man type of signing. Deron is also the only player the Nets would want to wipe off those books, but that is a tall order: would you trade for Deron and not force the Nets to assume at least some future salary?
With that, the options available to the Nets this summer in free agency will be slim. For starters, if Brook and Thad are back, that makes for 14 players under contract — and of the four nonguaranteed players, one seems sure to be back (Markel), while another seems to have a great chance (Cory Jefferson). The Nets are also looking at two undrafted free agents in Cliff Alexander (per Tim Bontemps of the NY Post) and Ryan Boatright (per Shams Charania of RealGM).
Finally, in attempting to deal Deron and Joe, given their large salaries, any deal may result in taking back more than one piece in exchange to match money. So, even in exploring free agency, the Nets will not only have little money to spend (a minimum contract, or a cap exception) but also few roster spots to fill: really no more than 4 at the high end.
With that, the idea the Nets “need” to find a good reserve center for Lopez is not true. If the Nets do not, worst case, they play Thad at the 5 when Brook sits, and use bench bigs like Jefferson and others to mop the time up: so long as Brook is not overextended, who plays when he sits is not important in a season in which sincere contention is not coming no matter what. Come 2016 (when the goal is to start building a contender), the Brook reserve concern becomes very real, but it is not an issue this summer.
SO WHO CAN THE NETS SIGN?
Given the Nets’ lack of options, free agency will not be about headlines, but will be about scraping the bargain bin for finds. Are there players who the league underrates? Players who have more to give, but have not had the chance to show it for a variety of circumstances? Fringe youth the Nets can take a look at, and see if it will stick beyond next season (as they seem to be doing with multiple young players). Those are the types of questions the Nets will look to answer in free agency.
None of the names below are going to make the back page. None are going to be on billboards, or in splashy pressers. But no frills were made when the Hawks signed DeMarre Carroll. Or the Spurs Danny Green. Indeed, the best organizations tend to be great at finding low cost, “no name” pieces in the bargain bin, and uncovering legitimate rotation players, rather than overpaying those players once established. The most likely result of the Nets summer spending: that they sign players in the scrap bin, and those players stay in the scrap bin. Still, the Nets have nothing to lose in trying.
So, who may be available that is perhaps better than meets the eye? The Nets are not going to fill a true need with the little free agency money they have (forget replacing Deron Jack or Blake at point), but can try to address their needs for size and shooting with low cost additions.
-Aron Baynes: With Mason Plumlee gone, the Nets can use a reserve center. Baynes was a solid rim protector last season, with players shooting 48.4% with him in the vicinity at the rim, per nba.com stats. And, with the Spurs trying to pry open flexibility to make a sincere run at LaMarcus Aldridge (or Marc Gasol or the like), a player like Baynes is likely an afterthought in their plans (as typically occurs with reserves when the focus shifts to larger targets). Baynes could provide toughness behind Lopez, and should come economically.
-Richard Jefferson: Jefferson of course brings feelings of nostalgia to the Nets’ fanbase, but bringing him back would have nothing to do with his name. According to NBA.com’s tracking stats, Jefferson shot 43.2% on catch and shoot 3’s this season, on two attempts per game. He does not have much to offer at this stage, but every team needs to hit the 3, and RJ is a competent rotation player who shoots the ball well in his now old age (an attribute the Nets’ roster can use). The concern: the Nets should not deprive Hollis-Jefferson or Bojan minutes to give them to a player like Jefferson. With Dallas in an underdiscussed state of flux (Rondo and Ellis are gone, and Chandler’s return is to be determined) Jefferson is a player a team may easily grab amidst the smoke. If used correctly and not taking too many minutes from Brooklyn’s youth, he can be a nice veteran leader off the bench who hits the 3.
–Wayne Ellington: Ellington had a down season shooting the ball for the Lakers, but there is one thing he knows how to do: shoot the basketball. Ellington shot above 42% from 3 from 2012-2014, and could help the Nets in that area as a catch and shoot player when Lopez (or Deron or Joe if they return) is doubled. The Lakers are trying to score big this summer, and Ellington is likely an afterthought.
–John Jenkins: Jenkins has been a disappointment in Atlanta. He is a streaky shooter, who was supposed to be a very good one. He does not guard. And he found himself out of Atlanta’s rotation. Still, Jenkins has upside as a shooter, despite bouncing from the Hawks to the D-League. Is he someone who can develop into a rotation player? Maybe. Maybe not. But he is only 24 years old, and a chance on him would be consistent with the types of chances on youth Brooklyn is currently taking. The Hawks are saving all the cash they can to retain Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll; Jenkins should be readily available.
–Will Barton: According to NBA.com stats, in about 683 minutes with Barton on court last season, the Nuggets had a defensive rating of 102.1 — that number plummeted to 109.2 in 825 minutes with Barton on the bench. Barton may provide a boost to the Nets defensively on the wing next year. And with the Nuggets in a rebuild, he likely will not be a priority this summer in Denver, as the team has larger issues to deal with. Mike Malone may like him, but he could be obtainable.
–Jeff Withey: Withey has no offensive game to speak of, but plays hard and defends, and at 25, fits into the Nets’ goal of stocking fringe youth to see what sticks. Per NBA.com stats, players shot 10.8% worse within 6 feet with Withey defending than around other defenders. He is a big body on the interior who can defend, and at least provide six fouls. Perhaps he becomes a useful backup behind Lopez next season. Whether the Pelicans want him back is unclear.
–Quincy Acy: Acy is a bruiser who plays with toughness and reckless abandon, and rebounds the basketball. The Nets are suddenly small up front, and he may provide some toughness and grit for a team (believe it or not) in the hunt for a playoff berth. Many of the Nets’ options now at the 4 position revolve around going small. Acy is barely a rotation player, but is one, and provides a larger option.
-Ish Smith: Clearly, Ish Smith is not a name that rolls off the tongue. On 8 teams in 5 years, he is the definition of a journeyman. However, according to NBA.com stats, Smith ranked third in the NBA this season during his 25 games as a Sixer in team points per game off of drives to the basket — something the Nets do not do enough of. Smith may be worth giving a one year deal, even with Deron, Jack, and Blake on the roster. Smith is not an NBA starter, but perhaps has value off the bench, and is a low risk, cheap addition on a one year deal.