The Brooklyn Nets are 10-51. Sure, Jeremy Lin has missed most of the season. Alas, the Nets’ record speaks for itself. At 10-51, it has to be admitted that the Nets, at this time, are far off from playoff contention.
In addition to being far off from contention, the Nets’ record dictates two truths:
1: they are not going to be contenders in 2017-2018, either
2: they are not going to be able to build a contender through free agency.
A quick look at every champion since 1991 (taking Michael Jordan’s breakthrough as a time marker, and a method to build a larger sample) is revealing. 24 of the 26 NBA champions in that span either won the championship the year before, or went no worse than 47-35 the year before breaking through. The lone exception was the 2008 Boston Celtics, who went 24-58 before breaking through. However, the Celtics did that largely by trading a cadre of young assets for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, in Al Jefferson, Jeff Green, Gerald Green, Sabeastian Telfair, Ryan Gomez (all assets at the time) and two future first round picks. The Celtics STILL had Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, to grow in house.
The Nets, simply, are not close to as good as any of those teams. Even the 2007 Celtics, at 24-58, won more than this Nets team figures to win, and it had infinitely more valuable young assets to throw into deals, as well as a star in house in Paul Pierce.
Translation: do not expect the Nets to build a contender in the summer of 2017. That simply is not reasonable. Unless you are a near contender already, or have a superstar in house with a horde of assets to acquire a second superstar and a third star, you are not going to build a contender in one offseason.
In addition, history tells us you cannot buy a contender in free agency. Just look at the roster of all of the title winners since Jordan’s 1991 breakthrough. Jordan’s six championships were won around Jordan (drafted), Pippen (acquired as a draft pick before playing a NBA game), Horace Grant and Toni Kukoc (drafted), and Dennis Rodman (acquired via trade). The 1994 and 1995 Rockets were built around a draft pick in Olajuwon, and a slew of role players they traded for (and later Clyde Drexler, who was traded for). Otis Thorpe, a role player, was the biggest free agent add. In more modern times, the five Spurs titles were built around Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and Leonard, all of whom were drafted. The 2015 Warriors, similarly, drafted every core component. The more modern Lakers two peat was built around Kobe and Bynum (drafted) and Gasol and Odom (traded for). The 2006 Miami Heat drafted Wade and dealt for Shaq. The 2004 Pistons acquired everyone by trade other than Tayshaun Prince, who they drafted. The aforementioned Celtics surrounded the drafted Pierce who Garnett and Allen, both acquired for draft picks and young talent. The 2011 Mavs surrounded drafted Dirk Nowitzki with role players.
In reality, the only champs arguably built via free agency were LeBron’s Heat and Shaq’s Lakers. Even then, look at the facts. LeBron and Bosh came to Miami to play with Wade, who the Heat drafted. The Heat acquired a transcendent superstar and a second superstar in free agency by using a drafted superstar as a carrot. And Shaq’s Lakers drafted star 2, in Kobe, another transcendent star. Sure, the Warriors may win it all in 2017, but they added a superstar to a 73 game winner.
Translation: if you want to build a champion around free agency acquisitions, you better have a superstar in house, and then acquire a transcendent superstar; or you need to add a superstar to an already title level core.
Translated more clearly: that is not something to bet on.
All of this shows that the Nets likely trade Brook Lopez this summer. For starters, the Nets are two years away from contending for even a playoff spot, at best. More concerning: we are in the era of talent wanting to play with other talent, not wanting the largest role. That killed the Nets last free agency, and likely would again next summer.
Just look at what happened last summer, using this ranking of free agents as a guide. The premier unrestricted free agents on the list did not even consider the Nets: they wanted to win. Kent Bazemore and Marvin Williams considered, but turned down, the Nets. That left the Nets in a precarious position. The Nets decided hey, if the best unrestricted free agents to talk to us are bench players, then we may as well try our hand at restricted free agents: the worst that can happen is we miss out on eighth men. However, as fans saw last summer, the problem with restricted free agency is that typically, when push comes to shove, teams decide, when faced with keeping or losing their asset, to keep their asset.
Sure, Marks and Atkinson are more entrenched in their roles now than last year. But free agents pick wins, not coaches and GM’s. It is hard to expect Marks to dive into this summer’s free agent class, and secure a better result. Just look at the free agent class and ask yourself: how can the Nets be expected to build a contender around Lopez. The Nets are currently TWENTY games worse than the East’s 8 seed. Even if one assumes that gap does not grow (it should grow, as the Nets lose more often than the Pistons), the Nets would need to make up twenty games in free agency just to become a playoff team. How does one expect that to happen?
Here are this summer’s free agents. Durant and Curry are not moving, and Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap, Dwyane Wade, Pau Gasol, and Andre Iguodala, and JJ Redick, if they move, will move to a winner (unless Wade decides to go back to Miami). The same likely goes for Jrue Holiday, but if he cannot win with Cousins and Davis, he is going to win with Lopez? Serge Ibaka is starting the downside of his career, and is not boosting the Nets to win 20 more games. Jeff Teague is overrated. Greg Monroe has never fit on a good team; and Rudy Gay has often disappointed in that regard. Dirk Nowitzki is staying in Dallas.
George Hill also is not the answer, despite the fan love at the moment. Hill, in any event, would seek $25-$31 million a year from the Nets, who have $38 million in cap space before accounting for team options. He is a nice complementary part who fit perfectly in Utah, a team that had everything but a point guard. The Nets on the other hand need everything. Hill has never carried a franchise, and would be expected to carry the Nets, who would blow their present and future flexibility just to add him. A team built around Hill, Lopez, and filler is not winning more than 30-35 games at best; capping yourself out with that is not the plan. And all of this assumes Hill considers Brooklyn anyway.
Is any other restricted free agent on the list even worth discussing, as far as “needle moving” is concerned? From there, the Nets can turn to restricted free agents, but teams always match those. The Wizards figure to win a playoff series this year, and maybe two. They will match all Otto Porter offers; that pipe dream should die today. Mason Plumlee and Nerlens Noel were acquired this February to be retained; they’re going nowhere.
There are other restricted free agents to look at. I expect the Pistons to match any offer on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but unlike as with Porter, I do not see that as a 100% certainty. Caldwell-Pope, however, is likely the BEST free agent the Nets can obtain, and he is on a sub .500 team that has more talent than these Nets have. He will help, but he will not bring the Nets into the realm of competitive. JayMychal Green and Tim Hardaway Jr are nice young pieces to look at, as is Kelly Olynyk: none are making these Nets competitive. The Thunder manage their balance sheet so Andre Roberson may be worth a look, but his warts would be exposed even more here than with the talent he’s played with in OKC. Nikola Mirotic may be poachable, but has not been good; the same goes for Shabazz Muhammad. And I suppose the Nets can try to reacquire Bojan Bogdanovic but we know he does not make these Nets good. Jonathan Simmons is a reserve. Alex Len? Yikes.
Translation: there is no clear path from 10-51 to the playoffs if the Nets decide “let’s build a winner in free agency around Brook Lopez.” The reason is stunningly simple: good free agents want to play for good teams.
With that, the Nets strategy should not be to build a winner in free agency around Lopez. Rather, their strategy should be about replenishing their bare cupboard of assets. As history tells us, if you are going to build a winner, you are going to do it through a mix of drafting elite talent, and trading for elite talent. Free agency is not going to be your source of elite talent, but, rather, a source of supplementing that elite talent with good fits. Even IF you build a winner through free agency, you are only going to do it by surrounding an elite player, or elite group of players, that you acquired previously by other means. Do NOT EXPECT to hit free agency with Brook Lopez or worse and hit it big.
The Nets, therefore, must fill the cupboard of assets this summer. Trade Lopez for draft picks and kids. See what the market may or may not bear for Trevor Booker, and Jeremy Lin, even if the calls are only exploratory.
As for free agency? The Nets should not sit out. But on a market where non superstars get $25-$30 million, their $38 million is not worth much. Use the money on under 25 pieces whom you believe can grow with your kids over the years. Suppose you add a Tim Hardaway Jr. You have him for his age 24-28 seasons. He can grow with what you grow.
The Nets, after identifying pieces like that, should consider: why spend all of the salary cap space on free agents? Rather than waste funds (aside from a couple of “show the kids the ropes” veterans) on non under 25 pieces, the Nets should see if they can use their cap space to acquire bad contracts, in exchange for draft picks, a la the Wizards trade this deadline. By taking Nicholson’s poisonous deal on the Nets nabbed another first rounder. In that regard, the Nets need to scour the league: who has bad contracts they may need to dump?
Furthermore, second round picks matter. Sure, most of them fail. But if a second round pick succeeds, you have a cost controlled young talent that can grow with your core. Should the Nets deal Lopez for a second rounder? No! But, if they can cheaply acquire second round picks — OR first round picks — they should. Teams are always facing financial crunches in team building. If a team decides we need to dump a second round pick, the Nets should take advantage.
The Nets did that last summer: with so much talent in house and being added last summer, the Utah Jazz simply could not afford to add a 42 pick in the 2016 draft. Accordingly, the Nets effectively swindled Isaiah Whitehead for nothing but Marcus Paige, who has never played a NBA game, and cash. The Nets need to look at deals like that.
So the plan this summer for the Nets is clear: look at young free agents. Look to take bad deals on for assets. Look to acquire picks at low cost.
And look to trade Brook Lopez to get significant assets for the rebuild.