By Dumping Paul, the Nets Pierced Open Their Wound

In the NBA, every single decision a team makes cannot be evaluated without context. How close are you to title contention? If you’re a 50 win team, it makes sense to dip into your future to maximize your present. The calculus changes for a 30 or 15 win team. What is your asset situation? If you are asset heavy, focus on what the trade market may bring, and rely on the draft. If not, you should be more locked into free agency as a tool to add talent.  What is your cap situation? If you’re over the cap, it makes sense to keep your talent to whom you have bird rights, because you can’t replace that talent with free agents? If you have cap room, letting those deals roll off the books to create more may be the right play.

I said it at the time, and it bears repeating. The Nets made a huge mistake in 2014 when they let Paul Pierce go. At the time they had an asset picture as follows:

-A team that finished the prior year 34-13, won a tough round 1 series against a very good team, and competed well against the East champs. Was the team great? No. But it was very good, or at least good. It was also good the year prior.

-A team without first round picks in 2014, 2016, or 2018, pick swaps in 2015 and 2017, and no second round pick until 2018. With that, you simply cannot draft the type of high upside young talent that can turn a franchise through the draft — you just don’t have the high picks or volume of picks necessary.

-You do not have tradeable assets.

-You do have a significant amount of cap space in 2016.

Yes, the 2014 Nets were not sincere championship contenders. But, bereft of picks and assets, the highest probability method of reaching that level was simple: win as much as possible, get to the summer of 2016, and use your cap space to sell free agents on being the pieces who can take a good team (or even a decent one), and help it take that next step, to being great. Therefore, the goal for the Nets should have been simple: win as much as possible, tread water, and get to 2016 with a product players want to join.

How do you do that? Recent free agency history shows us that players, on the aggregate, put winning above all else (other than money, but for solid free agents, money isn’t a determining factor because everyone is offering it). They do not make decisions based on buildings, markets, practice facilities, history, or the other factors many love to cite in free agent decisions.

LeBron’s choices in 2010 and 2014? Dwight saying later Los Angeles Lakers? CP3 choosing a once destitute franchise? Greg Monroe and LaMarcus Aldridge choosing Milwaukee and San Antonio? These are decisions based on roster attraction.

Nevertheless, rather than keep Pierce and continuing to compete (which leads to veteran signings that add to the roster), the Nets let him walk, and then it became a snowball effect. Jason Kidd was depicted as the bad guy, but did he leave because he saw this coming? The Nets could not replace Pierce with their lack of assets or cap space. They made few notable additions since, and have largely downgraded their talent.  They made no attempt to keep Alan Anderson and Mirza Teletovic, replacing them with Wayne Ellington and Andrea Bargnani — both were spun as cheaper versions of the former, but it’s clear they’re cheaper for a reason. Andray Blatche was bid farewell (Shaun Livingston left of his own accord due to CBA salary restrictions so I will not bring that issue up). There is no capable center behind Lopez.

The results of the carnage of the roster? The Nets are definitely not a decent or good team. Rather, they are well on their way to a 55-65 loss season. It is going to be an uphill battle next summer for the Nets to seal the deal with any notable free agents, a battle that would have been easier had the Nets continued to spend to win.  There is no way that this situation is better than the situation the Nets were in, in 2014.

And while the Nets have publicly pitched what has occurred as a youth movement, is that really what this is about? Getting younger? This is about dollars and cents and saving money.

Salaries in the NBA go up with service time. Young is cheap. And the Nets have gotten younger to get cheaper. If the Nets are all about getting younger, why did they trade all those first round picks just one year prior! That does not compute. Why did they trade a second round pick just to dump Marquis Teague? The sales pitch there was the acquired trade exception, but it expired — so much for that. Why did they dump Jorge Gutierrez AND a second round pick, for quickly waived Brandon Davies? Again, the pitch there was a trade exception, but that expires if not used by December 11 — I’ll hold my breath.

And is this a “youth movement” just because the Nets’ average age is lower. Let’s take a look at some of the young cores around the league, from teams choosing to build via youth movement:

-Utah Jazz: Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors

-Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton, a full complement of picks.

-Minnesota Timberwolves: Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, a near full complement of picks.

-Philadelphia 76ers: Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, more than a full complement of picks.

-Brooklyn Nets: Bojan Bogdanovic, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Markel Brown, Thomas Robinson/Shane Larkin, no controlled pick until 2019.

Youth movements are built around high upside youth; multiple players who can develop into stars, from whom you except to see exponential leaps in development. The Nets youth simply does not compare to that of other teams, and cannot, given their lack of future picks.  Rebuilding without lottery picks is not a better situation than continuing to compete and selling free agents on that vision — it is only cheaper. 

As for those who feel the roster’s bright spots could not be here if the Nets continued trying to win, that’s false. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was acquired for Plumlee — that could have been done with Pierce around, and he would have fit very well with the smallball lineups the Nets were employing. Bogdanovic was signed with a cap exception, while Pierce would have been resigned through Bird Rights – independent moves, not one of which the other would have precluded. Markel was drafted before Pierce was let go. The Nets still could have dealt Garnett for Thad if they wanted, and the other youth Brooklyn has is table scraps, capable of being snatched.

So what are the Nets left with? A youth movement, really more akin to a money saving movement for a man with $13 billion to his name. I do not know all of you reading personally, but I will assume you are not making what he is making. Perhaps you spend money on gear or tickets, or time watching games.  And yet your team’s owner took a course that is not in the team’s best interests, because it lightens his balance sheet.

The Nets were not in a great place in 2014. They had an old roster. They did not have draft picks to provide much in the way of youthful reinforcement. They were unlikely to ever be better than in 2013-2014, as players were going to continue to age. But they were in a decent position to position themselves as an attractive place for free agents in 2016.  Hit the market with a decent or good team, a team that has been relatively competitive for 4 years? There are worse situations to join, that’s for sure.

Like the situation you can join now.

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