Saturday, July 2, 2022

What’s next for Nets? How Brooklyn can build a stronger title contender this offseason after playoff sweep

Winning a championship means winning 16 playoff games. In the three years since Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving arrived in Brooklyn, the Nets haven’t even gotten halfway there. A skeleton crew got swept in the first round of the Orlando bubble in 2020. A different sort of skeleton crew made it seven wins into the 2021 postseason before Durant’s gigantic foot cost them a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. And in 2022, amazingly, what turned out to be the healthiest Nets team yet found itself swept yet again. Irving’s former team, the Boston Celtics, knocked Brooklyn out of the playoffs Monday without taking a single loss.

If you’d asked any Nets fan how they’d feel about this outcome three years ago, they’d have called it an unmitigated disaster. Durant and Irving are both on the wrong side of 30. They’ve already cycled through one third banana and their second couldn’t even give them a single game this postseason. Their combined salaries and luxury-tax payments this year come out to roughly the gross domestic product of Palau.

And yet… there’s a reasonable chance the Nets enter next season as Eastern Conference favorites. That’s what happens when you employ Durant, Irving and Ben Simmons. Star power is 90 percent of the battle in the NBA. With an early offseason now staring them in the face, let’s go over the challenges and opportunities facing the Nets as they attempt to bridge that 10 percent gap.

Follow the money

The Nets can take solace in one thing: they aren’t the NBA’s most expensive team. They aren’t even close. The Golden State Warriors are approaching $350 million in combined salary and taxes thanks to their status as a repeat luxury tax offender. Things aren’t quite as bad in Brooklyn, but Joe Tsai probably isn’t especially eager to pay a combined $266 million in salaries and taxes for a team that didn’t win a single playoff game.

The excesses of Tsai’s ownership have been measured. There are owners who wouldn’t dare paid what he’s paid over the past two seasons, but unlike Joe Lacob or Steve Ballmer, his budget is seemingly not limitless. He’s made several decisions over the past two years that were unequivocally financially motivated. In that time, the Nets have:

These are not the moves of an all-in owner, and frankly, the Nets are going to need Tsai to become an all-in owner quickly if they’re going to keep this team together in the coming offseason.

Brooklyn currently has $156.5 million in salary committed to nine players for next season. That’s already above next season’s projected $149 million tax line, and even if they add no draft picks and fill out their roster with nothing but minimum salaries, they’re looking at a payroll in the $167 million range with another $38 million in luxury-tax payments. That leaves them with a bit of flexibility to finish out the roster… but not much. Brooklyn has four major free agents to consider this offseason, and it seems unlikely that they will be able to keep all of them:

  • Defensive specialist Bruce Brown is an unrestricted free agent. The Nets have full Bird Rights on Brown and can pay him anything up to his max to bring him back.
  • Mobile big man Nic Claxton is a restricted free agent. The Nets can match any offer another team makes him, and they can pay him anything up to his max to bring him back.
  • Veteran center Andre Drummond is an unrestricted free agent. The Nets can only offer him a 20 percent raise on his $2.4 million minimum salary through his Non-Bird Rights to keep him without dipping into their cap exceptions. If they want to pay him more, they could offer him the taxpayer mid-level exception, which is projected to come in at around $6.2 million.
  • Buyout addition Goran Dragic is an unrestricted free agent with the same Non-Bird salary restrictions as Drummond. The Nets are guard-heavy, but Dragic is coming off of a strong playoff showing and will have suitors among the contending class.

Drummond himself said that he did not expect to be back in Brooklyn next season, suggesting that he wants more than the Nets can offer him. Whether or not he’ll be able to get more is another matter, especially after his limitations became apparent in the second consecutive postseason. He has now played just four combined minutes in his past two elimination games. Even if he doesn’t want to make a financial sacrifice, he might not get offers above the minimum. Dragic seems more flexible. He forced his way out of Toronto hoping to land with a contender. The Raptors outlasted the Nets. If Dragic believes Brooklyn is his best bet for a title next season, he might be willing to take the minimum to stay put.

Claxton is limited by restricted free agency. A year ago, Brown was as well, and had no choice but to take the one-year qualifying offer to set himself up for unrestricted free agency this summer. As such, he is likely to be the most expensive of the trio this summer, but he is also a very specific player. Few teams have the spacing to use him as a pick-and-roll screen-setter and short-roll playmaker as the Nets have. Much of his value will rely on how much teams trust his corner 3-point shot, which he’s made at a 41 percent clip in two of the past three seasons at admittedly low volume. If the Nets don’t trust that shot, they could easily view Brown as an unaffordable luxury on a team positioned to add Ben Simmons in a higher-usage version of that same role.

Claxton’s offensive limitations (and health) could hold him back as well. He’s athletic enough to be a nightmare lob-catcher, but he has poor hands and still hasn’t mastered the intricacies of navigating the tight quarters near the basket. None of that mattered in the Celtics series, where he largely excelled in all areas except free-throw shooting. He shot 4 of 22 from the line against Boston. Not coincidentally, the Nets literally lost the series by the exact number of points, 18, that Claxton left at the line. Forget about closing games. If Claxton can’t improve at the line, he’s going to struggle to even stay on the floor in the later minutes of any quarter.

Brooklyn is going to have to make choices here. Add $10 million to the $167 million “nine incumbents and six minimums” projection and you get over $250 million in salary commitments once taxes are factored in. Make that $20 million and the total crosses the $300 million threshold. We don’t know where Tsai will draw the line, but it’s likely to be in this neighborhood. And then of course, there’s a much bigger financial decision the Nets need to make.

Will the Nets take the plunge?

All of the salary projections we’ve used thus far assume that Kyrie Irving picks up his $36.5 million player option. He has been adamant that he plans to stay in Brooklyn, and despite his, umm, inconsistent history with such promises, we should probably take him at his word that he would at least like to stay with Brooklyn. The greater question is how committed the Nets are to keeping him.

As far back as October, reports indicated that the Nets did not plan to offer Irving a four-year max extension in the neighborhood of $190 million. How could they? In three years Irving has proven the most enigmatic of the NBA’s superstar class. He has given the Nets just 103 regular-season games. He’s missed games due to injury (a career-long problem that only figures to get worse with age). He’s missed games for personal reasons which he may or may not have disclosed to the team. He’s missed games because of his refusal to get vaccinated, which may or may not have cost his team James Harden and a chance to win the 2022 championship. Irving might be the least reliable All-Star in professional sports, but that has made him no less demanding. As he noted after Tuesday’s Game 4 loss, his commitment comes with a caveat. “When I say I’m here with Kev, I think that really entails us managing this franchise together alongside Joe and Sean,” Irving explained.

Suffice it to say that the Nets might not be so enthusiastic about treating Irving as a full partner. Can they afford to play hardball with him? He’s not exactly untradable, but getting fair value for a player who might retire at the drop of a hat seems impossible. Durant and Simmons are locked into long-term deals, so their ability to influence the proceedings is fairly limited. Simmons just punted away a year. He’s not sacrificing another. Durant is 33. He doesn’t have enough years left to give any more away. No matter how many times the player empowerment era has suggested otherwise, Irving doesn’t really have much leverage here. He’s almost certainly not departing Brooklyn for a cap space team like Orlando or Detroit. If he wants the Nets to pay him, he might have to earn it next season.

Is there a possible compromise here? There’s not exactly a precedent for Irving’s eccentricities. Joel Embiid‘s first max contract included language that triggered only when he reached a certain threshold for minutes played. Chris Paul‘s 2018 max contract in Houston guaranteed him only four seasons rather than the five stars can typically demand. These are ideas, but the Nets might have to get more creative to reach a satisfactory compromise with Irving. This is not the sort of player who deserves a “no questions asked” max anymore. If a deal is reached, it’s going to be one that protects the Nets from Irving’s impulses.

Maximizing their assets

Aside from Claxton, the Nets traded basically everything that wasn’t nailed down to land Harden. Considering the price they’ve paid, they’ve done a remarkable job of recouping assets in the 15 months or so since. Harden’s steep decline means that Simmons might be the more valuable player of the two next seasons. In the swap, the Nets also picked up Seth Curry, a possible starter next season, and two first-round picks. One won’t come until 2027 at the earliest, but the other could convey as soon as June. The Nets can choose to either take Philadelphia’s No. 23 overall pick now, or defer that commitment to next season. Either way, those picks are both tradable. So is their own 2029 first-rounder. 

They’ve also done a good job of restocking their bench with talented youngsters. Cam Thomas can do little aside from scoring… but scoring is probably the most important NBA skill. He had 10 20-point games as a rookie and nine of them were off the bench. Day’Ron Sharpe flashed similar upside in a limited role at center, and two-way standout Kessler Edwards will almost certainly be back on his team-option for next season. All told, the Nets needed only a bit more than year to recover enough from the Harden trade to dive back into the trade market again.

Their obvious need would be a center that can shoot. That center doesn’t necessarily need to be able to close games, but he needs to be able to play minutes alongside Simmons. Shooting big men exist, but those that can defend are rare and tend to be fairly expensive. The Nets would love to trade for Myles Turner. So would a dozen teams with more to offer. Realistically, this is an area where compromise will be needed.

A 3-and-D wing might be more attainable merely because there are more of them available. The mid-level exception might be enough to land a Gary Harris or an Otto Porter. If they’re feeling a bit more ambitious, they could look into the recent Marcus Morris trade rumors knowing that he brings the added bonus of small-ball center experience. This isn’t exactly an easy role to fill either, though, and Simmons complicates matters. Anyone the Nets add has to lean more towards the “3” end of the spectrum because if they don’t, opposing defenses will have two Nets on the floor they can sag off of.

So what are the Nets going to look like next year?

We can say with relative confidence that Durant, Irving and Simmons should be starting for the Nets next season, and if they aren’t, everything above can be thrown out the window. The next batch of players to address is Brooklyn’s trio of defensively limited shooters: Curry, Patty Mills and Joe Harris. Harris the best two-way player of the trio. He’s also the most expensive at $18.6 million next season. Mills, who struggled badly in the second half of the season, is the likeliest trade candidate. At $6.2 million, he could help the Nets bring in a moderately priced upgrade at center or the wing if attached to enough draft capital. For the right player, the Nets might be willing to pair Mills and Curry, who combine for nearly $15 million in salary. Even if they did, they wouldn’t exactly lack for shooting in closing lineups with Durant, Irving and Harris.

Unless they’re needed for trade purposes, the young trio of Thomas, Sharpe and Edwards should be back. All three serve as insurance for incumbent free agents. The Nets would probably prefer to give Thomas at least a steadier role next season in the event that they need another high-volume scorer to step in for Irving. Sharpe could at least fill Claxton’s regular-season minutes, though their roles in a playoff setting would be quite different.

The free agents are harder to figure. Claxton, by virtue of his restricted status, is likeliest to be forced to stay put for a below-market offer. Brown is probably going to have the widest market. While it takes a degree of commitment to fit him into the lineup offensively, there are simply too many possible suitors between the cap space teams and mid-level-wielding contenders to assume he doesn’t get offered something resembling starter money. If the Nets plan to play Simmons 35 minutes per game, they probably can’t justify paying Brown that much.

Drummond will, at a bare minimum, have his pick of minimum-salary offers from contenders. The Nets can probably offer him the most regular-season minutes. As this series proved, that doesn’t mean he’ll play much in the playoffs. A less ambitious team might be a better chance for him to rebuild his market value, but the Nets should have a reasonable chance at retaining him. The same is true for Dragic, though don’t be surprised if hightails it back to Miami now that he’s legally allowed to do so.

There will be ring-chasers aplenty. Don’t expect both Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge to return, but one could. Keep an eye on Carmelo Anthony. It might not even be the worst idea to bring DeAndre Jordan back purely for the sake of locker room harmony.

All of this adds up to a fairly flexible summer in Brooklyn. As hard as it might be to grasp after a first-round sweep, the hardest part is done. The Nets have three stars. They have valuable role players. They have assets to trade. If Brooklyn does this right, they’re not going to be stopped at seven playoff wins next summer. They’re going to have a very real chance to win all 16.

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