There’s no basketball team as boring as the Brooklyn Nets. They’re so generically bad that they don’t even matter. No one gets angry at them like they do the Philadelphia 76ers or wonders how good they could eventually be like they do about the Minnesota Timberwolves or Milwaukee Bucks. Their terribleness comes with no redeeming qualities.
In terms of cap management, roster building and asset gathering, however, there’s no franchise as fascinating as Brooklyn. Because of past mistakes, the Nets have reduced their rebuilding possibilities so severely that they’re about to enter a period in which their fate seems as tied to free agency as Philadelphia’s is to the draft.
The Nets have the 14th-best record in a suddenly competitive East and almost no shot of making the playoffs. There are no franchise-changing young talents on board. They’re bad enough that under normal circumstances, they’d simply blow things up and chase a high draft pick. Only they owe the Celtics their 2016 and 2018 picks as well as the right to swap picks in 2017. While other teams can find comfort in being terrible by thinking about Ben Simmons, Brooklyn doesn’t get to derive hope from its awfulness.
The strange thing about the Nets is that they kind of have blown things up already, at least from a salary cap perspective. Not that he would’ve helped much, but the Nets bought out and waived Deron Williams to get under the luxury tax line to avoid the repeater tax. Mason Plumlee was traded for a guy that would be cheap for longer in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and the only acquisitions made were bargain-bin deals to Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and Andrea Bargnani.
Brooklyn did retain Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, but only because letting them go would’ve left them with even fewer assets. The temptation to move the recently re-signed big man duo for young players or picks during the upcoming trade deadline is probably significant. They’re both only 27 years old, so a team trying to make a push would love them, but they’re too old to be at their peak when the Nets finally turn things around. Yet going forth with a trade would be the worst thing Billy King could do.
Now that Williams is gone and Joe Johnson’s contract is about to expire, the Nets will finally be rid of terrible, unmovable contracts. The worst part will be over after this season. They’ll enter the summer of 2016 with as much as $45 million in cap room. They don’t need more, especially considering no elite free agent will consider them.
The only scenario in which it makes sense to move Lopez and/or Young is if a desperate team overpays for them, which doesn’t seem likely. A couple of late lottery picks don’t really move the needle for Brooklyn, not if acquiring them means saying goodbye to arguably the only two above-average players on the roster. It would if they could be bad and get their pick next year but, again, that’s not an option.
So the Nets need to stay the course this season, as bleak as things have been. They need to get Johnson and Jarrett Jack off the cap sheet and use that space to add capable players. Not stars — since they won’t lure any anyway — but solid veterans who can give the team quality minutes. As crazy as it sounds, they need to do exactly what the Kings did this season: get a point guard on the comeback trail (Brandon Jennings? Rajon Rondo? Ty Lawson?), add some shooting and frontcourt depth and make a run at the eighth seed.
Someone might say that the Nets claimed that final playoff spot last season and that didn’t change their fortunes for the good. The difference is that barely making the playoffs when you’re capped out and with no realistic chances of improving your roster in the short term — which describes the 2014-15 Nets perfectly — is a recipe to forever be in the treadmill of mediocrity. Getting there with a fringe All-Star in Lopez, a quality starter in Young, some decent depth and a lot of cap flexibility could make Brooklyn a possible landing spot in free agency in 2017.
The Los Angeles Lakers are living proof that having a bad team with a couple of promising youngsters is simply not enough to lure stars, regardless of locale. You need to have a viable team. The only way for the Nets to do that is by holding strong this season and adding talent the only way they can: through free agency. They’ll need to aim lower than usual for one offseason and simply get a solid supporting cast without committing long-term money. If they do that, they could stop being a huge anomaly and become just another big-market team trying to find its way. From then on, who knows what could happen?
The Nets dug themselves into the hole they’re in right now by going all in on losing hands. Now they can either decide to put all of their chips, however few, in the pot and hope for a miraculous draw or rebuild their bankroll slowly and hope for better cards down the line. Only one course of action makes sense. For the sake of the franchise, Billy King better make the right decision.