The Brooklyn Nets are on pace to go 22-60 in 2015-2016. Given the talent level, that, sadly, sounds right. Most projections for the Nets fell in the 20-30 win range, and that was before Jarrett Jack got hurt, and Joe Johnson showed that his decline has furthered.
It is without dispute that the goal in Brooklyn should be to take these Nets from 21 wins, to a product that can consistently compete for 45-55, or even 55+, wins per season. It is also without dispute, to anyone who reviews the NBA market, that only 3 players on the current roster have anything more than marginal trade value — Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brook Lopez, and Thaddeus Young – and that nobody believes the Nets should be looking to trade the first of that trio.
So the tempting question for Sean Marks as he begins his tenure becomes: should the Nets deal Lopez, on a $20 million per year contract, or Young, on a $12.5 million per year contract.
That conversation, necessarily, starts with a judgment of what Lopez and Young are. The NBA, if you think about where players sit in its hierarchy, has multiple classes of player. You have superstars, who essentially guarantee that they will drag your team to W’s: there are very few of those. You have stars, players who are not quite superstars, but are certifiable great players, and will play a huge part of a team winning games. I like Lopez and Young, in the interest of full disclosure, but they do not fit within this class of NBA player, and there is no argument to the contrary here. Lopez and Young are not great players. That is the simple truth.
From there, you have many, many more players. There are players competing to make NBA rosters. There are players who definitely belong on rosters, but are not rotation players. There are fringe rotation players, who would qualify for some rotations, but not for others. Then you have clear rotation players, and then you have sixth men who excel as the prime piece off a bench: Lopez and Young are better than that (Young has started the majority of his career, and has been an important piece on multiple playoff teams: narratives to the contrary are lazy).
Above your rotation players and sixth men, you have your good players, for lack of a better word: solid NBA starters, and “fourth” or “fifth” starters, who may vacillate between situational starters around 4 clearly better players, due to fit, or fit on a bench. Lopez and Young? They’re good NBA players. And if you look at the key players on playoff teams, placing them there is certainly warranted. For context, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside (possibly), Pau Gasol, decrepit Derrick Rose, Monta Ellis, George Hill, Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder are arguably the second and third best players on the east’s non Cleveland playoff teams. You can certainly argue that Lopez can be the second or third best player on a playoff team (he was the best player on a playoff team last year!) depending on who else is on the roster, with Young as the fourth or fifth piece (or perhaps third, but that is likely a reach).
You might wonder. “Can they really be that good if the Nets are a losing team?” But just because a team is losing, does not mean all its players are not good. Has Carmelo Anthony as a Knick vacillated from decent, to great, to mediocre, to terrible, because his team has? Are Greg Monroe and Giannis Antetokounmpo bad players? Is Damian Lillard average? Is Anthony Davis not a star? Brandon Knight? Danilo Gallinari? These are all good or better players, players who clearly can be part of a winner with the right group around them, but just do not have that, at the moment. And just because their teams are losing, or pedestrian, does not mean that their teams would be no worse off without their salaries: replace these players with players who are worse, and their teams would win less games. Replace Lopez and Young with nobody, or with players who are worse, and the 14-40 first half would be closer to 9-45, or 5-49.
It also should be noted that if you want to allege that Lopez and Young are overpaid at $20 and $12.5 million annually, respectively, you need to study the free agent market with the context of an increasing cap. Contracts, first off, must be valued as a percentage of the cap, not a dollar figure, simply because the cap began rising significantly due to the new TV deal. That makes contracts given out in 2015 and beyond incomparable with contracts given out in 2014 and prior to then. The salary cap in 2016 jumps from approximately $67-$90 million, at least, and then to $108 million in 2017 – that’s a near 62% increase from 2014, and that absolutely changes what players should make. Take a look at a representative sampling of the 2015 free agency market:
-Contracts in the $5-6 million range: Alexis Ajinca, Derrick Williams, Mirza Teletovic, Brandan Wright
-$6-7 Million Range: Patrick Beverley (whose team tried to relegate him to the bench), and Marco Belinelli, Ed Davis, and Aron Baynes (all clear career reserves, although Beverley may be able to start if you have superstars around him, as a fifth starter perhaps; still, the Rockets acquired Ty Lawson because Beverly was not the answer at point guard)
-$7-8 Million Range: Lou Williams, Cory Joseph, and Al Farouq Aminu (a career reserve, and two young players only starting to become rotation players prior to the new contract)
-$8-$9 Million Range: Arron Afflalo and Kosta Koufos (Afflalo has struggled sticking with teams and has been mildly disappointing, Koufos is a career backup center)
-$11-$13.5 Million Range, players getting what Young is getting: Monta Ellis, Amir Johnson, Omer Asik, Tyson Chandler, Khris Middleton. – it can’t be said that Young does not stack up well with this group, r at least in its conversation, especially given Chandler’s regression. Simply put, players of this caliber, more or less, are worth these salaries, unless you just want to sit out free agency.
-$15-18 Million Range: DeMarre Carroll, Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson, Greg Monroe, Wesley Matthews, Enes Kanter, Goran Dragic (who is struggling this year). Given these deals at this threshold, how much merit to the idea of Lopez as overpaid is there? Some of these pieces may be better than Lopez, but most are not, and they make just a bit less.
-$20 Million: DeAndre Jordan – a third piece on a contender.
It is true that, often, it is smart for a rebuilding franchise to trade players of Lopez’s and Young’s caliber – and players listed above who may be of their caliber – for future considerations. That way, you can launch a sincere, deliberate rebuild, through the draft.
Alas, this is why the Nets CAN’T trade Lopez and Young, absent being blown away with an offer – the Nets cannot rebuild through the draft! The following is the current draft pick situation in Brooklyn:
-2016 and 2018: no picks at all, in either round
-2017: a first rounder subject to Boston’s right to swap (and Boston, if they keep this up, will ensure that this pick falls in the 20’s); a second rounder IF Boston swaps first rounders with Brooklyn, but then the second only conveys if it falls between 46-60. So, essentially, the Nets will have a late first, and late second, in all likelihood in 2017
-2019: a first rounder
-2020: a first rounder
-2021: the Nets finally have their full complement of picks
The short, critical translation of the above is as follows: the Nets have one non lottery
first over the next three drafts, and perhaps one second rounder in the 46-60 range. That’s it. With them in the lottery in the east? The Sixers have multiple young players with upside and a full complement of picks. Nearly everyone in the lottery has young players in house with more upside than any young (under 25) Net, and their full complement of picks in house. The Knicks are the exception, given they do not have a 2016 first, but already have Melo and Kristaps in house.
With the dramatic dearth of picks, and lottery picks, the Nets have, they simply cannot decide to rebuild through the draft. A rebuild through free agency? That is always wrought with difficulties, as getting free agents to play for you, no matter how hard you try, is simply difficult. But rebuilding through the draft with one non lottery pick over the next 3 years, RHJ, and Bojan Bogdanovic (no offense to any of these players), when your lottery bound competition features two teams over .500, Melo and Porzingis, Wall and Beal, Giannis MCW Jabari and Monroe, and Noel Embiid Saric and a 2016 top 5 pick on the horizon? That is suicide. You cannot keep up with those teams in the draft with those types of deficits: you have to take another course.
Of course, the counter to this by some is, “just replenish the draft pick deficit by dealing Lopez and Young.” In no uncertain terms, good luck with that. Thaddeus Young was traded in 2014 (forget the KG deal; the Wolves were hell bent on bringing KG back given his meaning to the franchise, so that was an out of context deal in all respects), and Young likely has value at a similar level now as he did in 2014. The return in 2014? A lottery protected pick unlikely to convey for 3 years, Alexey Shved, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. The market for Lopez? While he nearly netted Reggie Jackson, the Thunder backed off the deal. Lopez is a good player, but a team would be taking on his contract, and, yes, his injury history. Lopez is not a star, and a team is not going to deal a lottery pick for his services: that just does not make sense. For context, look at the trades made at the deadline. In the Jackson/Enes Kanter trade the first rounder traded by the Thunder was lottery protected until 2018: an asset like that is a possibility for Lopez. In the Isaiah Thomas deal, the first dealt was a Cavs pick protected top 10 through 2018, and thus unlikely to convey until 2019 given LeBron’s presence in Ohio.
Is Lopez worth much more, in a deal, than protected first rounders of that nature? It does not appear that this is the case. So, suppose that is what the Nets fetch for Lopez and Young: two mid first rounders, and perhaps a fringe rotation player or 2 – not unreasonable returns, both for the opposing teams and the Nets. That leaves the Nets with the current roster, minus its best two players – the Nets without Lopez and Young would be embarrassingly bad. As for replenishing their picks – their lottery picks the next three years are gone, and the Nets would have three mid to late firsts over the next year, plus perhaps an additional young reserve on the roster and a fringe rotation player.
Translation? Trade Lopez and Young, and the Nets are most likely looking at a historically bad roster (particularly if the seemingly inevitably Joe Johnson buyout comes), and no lottery picks to escape the abyss. Imagine having a young rookie with a fractured ankle, with offensive limitations, as your only pseudo known rotation player, and no lottery picks over the next 3 drafts? That would be the Nets if they traded Lopez and Young to rebuild – the Sixers, minus the big name prospects and upcoming lottery picks. The Nets also would take whatever limited appeal the current roster has in free agency, and destroy it (the roster only has little appeal: nobody is saying this is LeBron James on South Beach. But that limited appeal would become a zero).
And while deals may open cap space, what does cap space do for you with nothing on your roster: free agency has persistently shown since 2010 that name talent goes where it can win; the Knicks and particularly the Lakers have done nothing significant with substantial cap space in recent seasons because they headed into free agency without any players already in place. The Nets have $44 million or so in cap space with Lopez and Young in place – they do not need more space than that to add legitimate talent, and weakening their talent base to open more space when they already have plenty of space is counterintuitive: cap space is the one thing the Nets actually do have. Perhaps the Nets could then sell free agents on “here’s a blank canvas, make your roster,” but what free agent has ever defected to a team on that premise, given the volatility of teams’ plans. That is simply something that has never happened.
Having players in place is what intrigues players and that requires the Nets – and all franchises seeking gold in free agency — to walk a balance between space, and talent in house. Right now, the balance is too far in the cap space direction, and not far enough in the talent in house direction. Why further skew the balance?
Again, the current roster is anything but a free agent magnet. But at least with Lopez and Young entrenched in the 4-5 spots, and RHJ as a known rotation wing, there is at least a chance of free agents looking at the roster, and seeing the outlines of a team that can compete. A good team? Of course not. But you can see the outlines, however faint. You can perhaps imagine, as a guard, coming in and being a significant upgrade, and having talented frontcourt players to play with. And then, as Brooklyn, you hope that upgrades take you from 21 wins, to maybe 30-40 wins (unless you hit a home run). Then, in 2017, you try to step from 30-40 wins, to 40-50 wins, or maybe even the 50 win range (although that likely could not come that quickly. Those building blocks and steps will be much harder to make if the Nets revert backwards, by dealing away the only good players they have for modest future considerations.
The typical cliché in NBA circles is that if you are bad, that means you must rebuild. Rebuilding is popular, and often seen as the safe route. Collect assets! Do it the “right” way! But here’s the rub: there is no cardinal rule for building an NBA team. All situations require individualistic review pertinent to the particular circumstances. And the circumstances here do not warrant a rebuild.
Is relying on Lopez and Young being in house, and trying to add to that core, the world’s best plan? By no means: not even close. But it is simply the best plan available to the Nets, given the current asset situation. The Nets HAVE to add to this roster over the next two-three years by free agency, there is no other viable option. While their sales pitch is not exactly Brad selling me this pen right here in Wolf of Wall Street, to destroy the one basketball related pitch they have with the pick situation as it is nothing but a death march for the organization.
There is one caveat to everything I have said in this piece. I am never averse to the Nets trading anyone on the roster, no matter how good, at the right price. The Phoenix Suns were willing to give up a vaunted asset last trade deadline in the Lakers’ 2016 pick, only top 3 protected, for Brandon Knight. If a team is willing to do THAT for Brook Lopez, then, by all means: thanks Brook for all you have done here, but have fun at your next stop. However, the flip side to my willingness to trade any player for the right price, is my staunch unwillingness to trade any player for the wrong price. In all likelihood, the price Lopez and Young will demand, given the Nets’ asset situation, will not justify dealing either.
The Nets need to take a step back and realize where they are. If they had their full arsenal of future draft picks, or close, perhaps a Lopez or Young deal, to go young in a full and complete sense, would be smart, but it simply does not make sense under the current asset circumstances. The Nets went 17-13 last season after acquiring Young, by surrounding Lopez and Young with average point guard play in Deron Williams (as opposed to the poor play of this year – many including myself do not like Deron, but facts are facts), average wing play in Joe Johnson (whose taken a noticeable step back) and Bojan Bogdanovic (who has failed to replicate his success of last year’s second half), and a pretty deep bench of rotation pieces: rotation pieces matter, and the Nets replacing so many of them with fringe NBA talent has clearly affected the roster.
The hope in Brooklyn has to be that, over time, they can surround Lopez and Young, instead, with better and more athletic perimeter players than they did during last year’s 17-13 run.
It’s the only choice they have.