July 4, 2012
The franchise formerly known as the New Jersey Nets seem intent on shelving the reputation and the losing mentality along with the name. That much has become crystal clear in the scant few days that have taken place since the opening of free agency on July 1. Whether it leads to prolonged success on the court will remain to be seen but the buzz around the Nets is a positive one for the first time since the team went to back to back NBA Finals in the early 2000s.
For starters, with the team’s move to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn marking the first time that the team will call the city of New York home since the end of the 1976-77 season, the disdain for the state of New Jersey no longer is a factor. Instead, the Nets have become relevant playing in the league’s largest media market and may supplant the Knicks as the best team in the city depending on how things pan out with the rest of free agency and potential deals.
On top of the move to the Big Apple, there is the fact that owner Mikhail Prokhorov has no issue spending the bucks to bring in talent. The Nets were always seen as a secondary or tertiary option if they were considered at all by premiere free agents. More often than not, New Jersey was a team, much like the Clippers with owner Donald Sterling has been, that a free agent knew would offer big dollars to try and lure a marquee name to the club. The free agent would then take the offer that he received from the Nets and use it to leverage more favorable terms from the team he wanted to play for. This course of action is not as feasible now with Prokhorov spending money like there is no tomorrow.
Last season the Nets suffered through a 22-44 campaign, marking the fifth straight losing season the Nets endured. The team lost Brook Lopez for all but five games, while fellow big man Mehmet Okur played in just 17 of 66 games. Kris Humphries posted respectable numbers with 13.8 points and 11 rebounds per game but was dogged constantly for the dissolution of his reality show marriage to career killer Kim Kardashian. The Nets dealt their first round pick in the draft this year to the Trail Blazers to get Gerald Wallace, who was able to become a free agent after the conclusion of last season.
Meanwhile, their focal point for the latest version of the rebuilding process that circles the Nets constantly, Williams, struggled. He missed 11 games with a multitude of injuries and shot just 40.7 percent from the field. Sure, he led the Nets in scoring and dished out 8.7 assists per game, but he took more than six three point attempts per game. That’s okay if a player is a sharpshooter from the perimeter, but Williams’ game is more as a slasher to the bucket and creating mismatches that way. He hit on 33.6 percent of his three point attempts last season and is a career 35 percent shooter from downtown. Talk about whether he would leave town or stick with the Nets swirled around him all season long as well.
The Nets had been rumored to be the frontrunner for acquiring the services of disgruntled Orlando center Dwight Howard, going back as far as last season. The rumors intensified recently when Howard reiterated to new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan that he wanted out of Orlando and the only team he would re-sign with if traded was Brooklyn. As of yet, that deal has not been consummated; whether it will remains to be seen. New Jersey has put an offer on the table of Lopez, Humphries, swingman MarShawn Brooks and three first round selections in exchange for Howard. The cap logistics and circumstances involved to try and work a deal like this are complex to say the least.
Wallace was slated to become a free agent and if Brooklyn was unable to work out a deal with him, the team would have dealt away a lottery pick for a player that was essentially a rental on a team that missed the playoffs. That sort of result would be what was normally expected of from the franchise. Instead, in what may be a precursor towards future events, the two sides worked out a deal for four years and $40 million that will keep Wallace with the team through the 2015-16 season. It was the first domino to fall into place.
The team then went and addressed another major need, striking a deal with the Atlanta Hawks. Brooklyn added shooting guard Joe Johnson, who averaged 18.8 points per game last season for Atlanta. Johnson is a gunner who has broken the 20 points per game plateau in four of his NBA seasons, including the 2006-07 season when he averaged 25 a night. The Nets didn’t get that kind of production combined from the crew that filled the shooting guard role last season; DeShawn Stevenson got the most starts out of a group that included Sundiata Gaines, Gerald Green and a collection of other no names, never weres and has beens.
Impressively, the Nets managed to keep Brooks, who was decent as a rookie playing the small forward position and also held on to their first round pick in 2013. The package that went to Atlanta included Stevenson, who had to sign a new contract to be dealt, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow and Houston’s first round pick in 2013, which is lottery protected. It’s pretty safe to say that none of those pieces were going to make the Nets a viable playoff contender this season, or any season for that matter. The biggest issue is the amount of money Johnson is due in coming seasons: he’ll make $24.9 million in 2015-16. However, that’s down the road and the Nets are worried about right now.
In a deal that didn’t make the waves in the media that the Johnson deal did but is equally important, the Nets made a move with the Los Angeles Clippers and added Reggie Evans. Evans isn’t a sexy name or a dominant offensive force; he attempted just 72 field goal attempts in 56 games last season, but he knows how to do something the Nets need help with. He can rebound and he is an effective interior defender. Evans ripped down 11.5 rebounds a game in 26.6 minutes a night for the Raptors in 2010-11; he grabbed 4.9 rebounds per game in less than 14 minutes a night for the Clippers. That translates to better than 17 boards per 48 minutes of court time. He’s gritty and physical, two other traits that Brooklyn can use. On top of that, he’s cheap; Evans signed a three year deal worth $5 million.
The biggest piece of the puzzle so far fell into place on Tuesday when Williams, who was a free agent that was considering the Dallas Mavericks as well as the Nets, reached his decision. Rather than go to Dallas on a four year deal worth in the neighborhood of $75 million, Williams opted to stay with the Nets, agreeing to a five year deal worth $98.8 million. Many argue that Williams could have made up the difference in his next deal, whether it be with the Mavericks or whoever, but the fact remains that the Mavericks are a team in decline. Dirk Nowitzki is 34, Jason Terry has a deal in place with the Celtics and there is a lack of pieces in place. Shawn Marion is 34 and injury prone, while Vince Carter will turn 36 midway through the 2012-13 season and is more a role player than a star these days.
The Nets have also agreed to terms with power forward Mirza Teletovic, who has spent the last several seasons playing for Caja Laboral in the Euroleague. He is 6’9 and 254 pounds with impressive range for a big man; Teletovic has connected on better than 40 percent of his three point attempts in 120 career games. He averaged 11 points and 4.3 rebounds during his time with Caja Laboral. He took a 2 million euro buyout to be able to play in the NBA for 2012-13. The Nets originally were planning to use their full mid-level exception (worth about $5 million per season) on Teletovic, but are attempting to work a deal for the mini mid-level exception, worth about $3.09 million per season. This move would be massive for the Nets if it can be worked out: should Teletovic accept the mini mid-level exception, the Nets can exceed the $74.3 million salary cap, which would open up the possibility of the team still acquiring Howard or at worst, throwing more money to Lopez and Humphries to keep them on the roster.
The Nets were committed to making a concerted effort to make a splash in their first season in Brooklyn, which meant that they would have to be proactive in attempting to upgrade their roster. The early results are promising, as they’ve made moves to retain some of their key free agents, while making a pair of deals that will help improve the team on both ends of the floor going into next season. Whether the Nets can sustain that momentum and find a way to either land Howard or re-sign Humphries and/or Lopez while staying under the cap remains to be seen. Still, the fact that there is room for optimism around the team is something to be impressed with.
How improved are the Nets and will they supplant the Knicks as the Big Apple’s top team in 2012-13?