In the collective bargaining agreement, the NBA has a rule that prohibits trading consecutive future draft picks. The idea of the rule is to protect owners and bad management from themselves, so that they won’t torpedo a franchise’s entire future just to chase – often with mistaken optimism – short term goals. Even with this rule in place, the Brooklyn Nets have for all intents and purposes been able to achieve what the rule was supposed to prevent.
The Nets traded their 2014, 2016 and 2018, unprotected, to the Celtics in the Kevin Garnett–Paul Pierce trade, and also threw in a pick swap in 2017. Unprotected is the key word because most teams are smart enough to include protections in the Top 5 or Top 10 in case something unforeseeable happens. Billy King and the Nets threw caution to the wind, didn’t include those precautions and added a pick swap, meaning the Celtics get the better pick between them and the Nets.
This is an epic disaster. The Nets are now 11-29 and have the third worst record in the NBA, and if the season ended today, the Celtics would have a near 50 percent chance of snagging one of the top three picks in the lottery, including a near 20 percent chance of getting the first pick.
Next season, it’ll be more of the same, and the Nets will likely pick outside the lottery, while the Celtics will probably pick near the top again.
During the summer of 2018, the Celtics will draft a player with the Nets pick that could be 16-years old right now, being driven by his parents to his first high-school party.
All of this will end, believe it or not, during the summer of 2020, when the Nets will relay a second-round pick to the 76ers. A pick that was traded for Andrei Kirilenko and Jorge Gutierrez.
Failing to look forward
During the summer of 2013, the Nets believed they had built themselves a contender when they traded for Pierce and Garnett. Now whether or not it was reasonable to believe that their team could challenge the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals potentially, there’s absolutely no way to defend the trade that King made. The Celtics clearly wanted to begin rebuilding at the time, and would have surely accepted a far worse deal for two players over the age of 35.
There’s a reason why teams include protections when they trade picks, and why they don’t trade picks four or five years into the future. It’s because you’ll never know what’s going to happen in the future, and what is known in the NBA is always outweighed by the unknown.
Who knew that in the Brandon Jennings–Brandon Knight trade, the throw-in player, Khris Middleton, would become one of the best two-way wings in the NBA? Rudy Gobert was picked by the Denver Nuggets with the 27th pick in the 2013 NBA draft and the Nuggets thought so little of him they promptly traded him away for the 47th pick (Erick Green) and cash considerations. Green is out of the NBA and Gobert is one of the best defensive players in the league now.
You can’t leverage the future four or five years ahead because you have no idea what’s going to happen. Players improve and decline in unexpected ways. Now, Brooklyn only has one promising young player in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and literally nothing else upon which they can start building the next iteration of the team.
Endless mistakes like trading the pick that would become Damian Lillard for Gerald Wallace and the Boston fiasco have put the Nets in a deep hole – one where there’s no clear way out.
Closed avenues for a “typical” rebuild
The idea that the Nets can begin building a young core in the mold of the Jazz and the Magic doesn’t work, because they neither have the assets to get those players in the future nor are there any ways for them to acquire those high-value assets.
For the Dwight Howard trade, the Magic ended up getting Nikola Vucevic, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier and a potential 2018 Lakers’ first-rounder. The Jazz turned Deron Williams into Derrick Favors, Tibor Pleiss, Rodney Hood and a 2017 first-round pick from the Warriors.
Both teams managed to snag multiple starting-level players and assets, bootstrapping their rebuilds in a way that’s just not possible for the Nets. Thaddeus Young, Brook Lopez and the expiring contract of Joe Johnson aren’t the types of assets that get you anything meaningful.
Potentially, a team that likes either Young or Lopez could be willing to trade a heavily protected first-rounder, or a low pick in general in exchange for taking back long-term salary for one of them, but that’s about the best you can hope for. Examples being the Pelicans trading Omer Asik and a lottery protected 2016 pick, or the Thunder moving Enes Kanter and a second-rounder.
A “getting whatever you can” attitude isn’t as helpful as it sounds either. After all, the Nets are at least four drafts away from picking high-level prospects, and getting two or three of them over multiple years and waiting them to develop could add another four seasons into the process. Now, we’re in 2023 territory before the Nets could potentially look to contend.
Brooklyn is a big market, and it’s always a possibility that they’ll be able to lure a star. Even if that happens, the Nets have to start with the assumption that it won’t happen when they have no championship contending chances to offer a potential superstar. The plan to just roll over year-by-year and sell off assets for declining old guys to try and stay somewhat relevant is a strategy that should be buried once and for all.
It’s time for a new approach.
Finding creative solutions
Navigating the next three seasons with what is likely at best to be perhaps two lower-end first-round picks, and some second-rounder is going to be a challenge, and the Nets have to accomplish at least two things.
First, to begin operating with a real and smart plan like a proper organization. Secondly, the bigger challenge is to keep up fan interest and a certain Russian owner from completely losing patience. To sell the fact that the organization has changed and that the future holds promise – creating the illusion of hope.
This summer, the Nets will have roughly $45 million in committed salaries though their actual cap number will be higher because of cap holds to their own restricted free agents, and depending on what Thomas Robinson, Andrea Bargnani and Wayne Ellington do with their player options. The salary cap is projected to hit around $89 million, meaning the Nets will have at least one full-max salary slot to offer, and if they can move on from Young without taking on additional money, they’ll have something close to two max-salary slots.
Unfortunately, so will many other teams, and if you thought players were getting huge contracts last summer, just wait and see what is about to hit the NBA this summer in free agency.
What’s often missed in free agency is the value of timing. If you spend your time chasing superstars, of which there are just a few every season available, that takes away from your ability to sign other players, since teams have to save their salary cap space to sign those guys.
The Nets have the opportunity to chase Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan and Al Horford, but are very unlikely to hit on any of them, and their team is so bad getting one still wouldn’t make Brooklyn a contender. They’d have to get one of the best free agents this summer, convince him to wait before there’s a real chance to compete in 2017, where the Nets might have the opportunity to snag another one.
The bigger temptation comes with the second tier of free agents. Someone will pay Nicolas Batum max-money, and Kent Bazemore and Ryan Anderson are likely to entice big money as well. Pau Gasol is a big name and perhaps the best example of a player the Nets could decide to go all-in on with terrible consequences, given that Gasol turns 36 soon and has shown significant signs of decline this season.
Generally, the problem with going after unrestricted free agents is that most high-quality players reach that part of their career at 27 or 28 years of age, after their rookie contract and first long-term extension has ended. Timing becomes an issue for the Nets because they can’t add young players through the draft on cheap contracts to help support a core that is aging.
Perhaps going after younger restricted free agents just coming off their rookie contracts would fit the Nets’ timetable better. By the time they start drafting again, those players will be right in their prime and presumably have the highest value for the Nets as players or trade chips, in case the opportunity arises to then support the rebuild with by having established pieces and drafting around them or moving those players for additional assets to jumpstart the rebuild again.
The Dallas overpaid Chandler Parsons and offered him a player-friendly contract of three years, with the last year being a player option to lure Parsons away from the Rockets. This screwed over the Rockets a couple of different ways. First, yearly salary was probably beyond what Parsons is worth in a vacuum, and the Rockets weren’t comfortable giving him that type of contract. Secondly, the luxurious contract of “2+1” years, allowed Parsons to get paid and have an insurance third year in case he suddenly declined or was injured in a way affected his career negatively. Thirdly, if Parsons was playing well, it allowed him to hit unrestricted free agency earlier, right in the middle of his prime and maximize his earning potential.
The Nets have the opportunity to do the same, and this season’s batch of restricted free agents includes very gettable players like Jared Sullinger, Meyers Leonard, Evan Fournier, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and perhaps even Harrison Barnes if a max offer was extended to him.
The Nets have to hope that group includes at least one player whose team can be scared away with a big and well-structured offer, and then hope whomever they choose to chase after grows into a better player than is expected. Two players stand out to me as potential targets among this group.
Motiejunas has suffered from back problems, and the Rockets want to maintain flexibility, meaning he could be easily pulled away from the Rockets with the right offer. During the 2014-15 season, Motiejunas was one of the breakout young players, and finished among the most efficient post scorers in the NBA. Motiejunas is a great passer for his position and has shown signs of potentially being able to stretch the floor.
Fournier started the season hot, but has now dipped back to production levels closer to what he’s shown in previous years. Fournier is a career 38 percent shooter from the three-point line, and while he’s been below average defensively, he has the physical tools to be better. The Magic already have Victor Oladipo playing the same position as Fournier, along with Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon taking time on the wing. The Magic won’t have the resources to pay multiple shooting guards, making Fournier a solid choice to go after.
Hit on one or two of these free agents and at least the Nets will have a very good young asset. With the new TV money coming in, the salary cap is rising at an unprecedented level, and Brooklyn will luck into having tons of room again during the summer of 2017. If the Nets are able to hit on the right restricted free agents and make offers that their own teams are unwilling to match, they’ll have something resembling a young core to build around. The team will probably still be bad, but as those players come into their primes, perhaps there’ll be light at the end of the tunnel.
Additionally, with the few picks that the Nets do have, they should really pour all possible research into maximizing the drafted player value.
If none of this works, at least the Nets will have tried to execute a real strategy for team-building for once, killing time until the Nets get the first pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.