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How the Nets Became the NBA’s Most Moribund Franchise

Associated Press

When the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets — or should I say the Lost Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Net Losses — met on Nov. 7, the stakes were high low. The winner got the right to not be called the worst team in the NBA. And the Nets lost that battle — at home — as Lakers fans cheered on.

It was an anti-coronation of sorts. The culmination of bad decisions doubled down and multiplied until the Nets became what they are now: A team that isn’t competitive now and has no chance to be in the near future.

How bad are things? Basketball-Reference.com tracks “Simple Rating System” (SRS), which is a statistical analysis based on the strength of schedule and margin of victory. The Nets have an SRS of -16.58, which is the lowest of any team in the NBA.

And while there’s a small sample size disclaimer warranted here, that’s putting them on pace to be the worst team in the history of the NBA.

And they’re bad on both sides of the ball. Brooklyn owns the fifth-worst defense and the worst offense in the league, which presents the conundrum, “could the Nets’ defense stop the Nets’ offense?”

And in an age where “stretching the court” is all the rage? Stephen Curry has made more three-point shots in his last four games (27) than the entire Nets team has made all season (22)!!! So much for acknowledging the modern age of basketball.

So how did they get to this point? The Nets are bad. They’re awful. They’re horrible. And the worst part is they’re not getting any better. But to understand why they’re going to be stuck in the basement, we have to understand how they got there.

On May 11, 2010, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov became the principle owner of the then New Jersey Nets and promised to make them winners. Money would be no object. And he hired Billy King to run the team. Short version, Prokhorov spent a king’s ransom on a basement efficiency thinking he could turn it into a penthouse condo.

It was midway through the first season that Prokhorov and King made their first big move with a stunning deadline-day trade, acquiring star point guard Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz. At the time, it seemed like a great move. In practice, it turned out not to be the case.

Mark Halmas/Icon Sportswire

Mark Halmas/Icon Sportswire

To get Williams, the Nets paid a hefty price which included Derrick Favors, a 2011 first-round pick (Enes Kanter was taken) and a 2013 first-round pick (the Minnesota Timberwolves would eventually use the pick on Gorgui Dieng).

In five seasons with the Nets, he totaled just 24.6 win shares (64 players in the league had more than that in the same span). After seeing him in and out of the lineup for years, the Nets finally used the stretch provision on him and bought out his contract. The Nets will be paying up to $5.5 million per year until 2020. A portion of that can be offset against the cap, but only if he’s playing and not all of it.

But, going back to 2011 now, Williams was on a deadline. His contract was going to expire. So a year later the Nets doubled down and made a swap for Gerald Wallace — the key to that one being a pick that turned into Damian Lillard.

The Nets’ next big move was to trade for Joe Johnson, who was in the middle of one of the more inexplicable max contracts in the league. In all, the Nets traded Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, DeShawn Stevenson, Jordan Williams, a 2013 first-round draft pick (Shane Larkin was later selected) and a 2017 second-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Johnson.

The real cost, though, was in the cap flexibility. Between that trade and the max contract they gave to Brook Lopez, the Nets burned their entire $41 million in cap space and had little to show for it. With the 15.3 points, 3.3 assists and 3.8 boards he’s averaged in his four seasons with the Nets, Johnson has hardly justified the move.

The Nets, in the same summer, also used the rest of that cap space on an ill-advised max contract for Brook Lopez, who was coming off a season in which he’d just played five games. When he’s played, he hasn’t been bad, averaging 18.6 points and 7.1 boards during the present contract, but he’s missed 83 games in the three seasons — essentially a full year of the contract.

So to that point in time, they’d given up a host marginal players, Derrick Favors, a pick which became Enes Kanter, another which became Damian Lillard and $41 million in cap space for two players (Williams and Wallace, not to be confused with William Wallace) who they threw away and one (Johnson) who will shock the world if he finishes the season in Brooklyn.

But wait! There’s less!

The Nets, not content to pile two years of stupid together and let things get sorted out, decided it was time to triple down on dumb and made their most idiotic move yet.

Up north, the Boston Celtics realized that the title window with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce there had not just been shut, it had been nailed shut, painted over and boarded up. That thing was not going to get re-opened. And if you want to find a sucker, look no further than Brooklyn, where bridges get bought and sold every day.

Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The Nets gave up a 2014 first-round pick (used on James Young), a 2016 first-round pick and a 2018 first-round pick for the legends of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett more than for what they could still do. The Nets were suddenly the most expensive team in the history of the NBA after taxes were assessed. They managed to get to the second round of the playoffs one time. That’s it. Of all the players they traded to get, only Johnson remains, and his days are numbered.

But hey, they’re still spending money. They’re $13 million over the cap right now. Next year, they’ll have $26 million in cap space, but with the number of teams that have money to spend, there’s not a lot of reasons to think that any quality free agent will relocate to a team with no building blocks.

And that’s where you start seeing the real damage. The crops weren’t just razed; the soil was salted. Nothing can grow here anymore. The Nets don’t have a single young player to build around. And worse than that, they won’t have one for years to come.

Since 2008, when they drafted Lopez at No. 10, the only top 10 pick they’ve had was Derrick Favors, and they traded him away in the Deron Williams swap. Since 2010, their highest pick (not counting Favors) was Mason Plumlee, who was traded away this summer.

And while they’re the worst team in basketball right now, don’t take that for tanking, because, as noted above, there’s no advantage for them to do so. The worse they are, in fact, the more it benefits Boston, who gets the Nets’ pick in 2016 and 2018 and can swap picks in 2017.

So, in theory, the Nets could “win” the lottery three years in a row, only to see Boston get their pick, each and every time. And Boston could be a playoff team each of those seasons. How’s that for a way to build a contender?

If you’re a Nets fan, I don’t know how to break this to you. This is the light at the other end of the tunnel; you’re just going into it. The darkest days remain ahead.

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