NBA Graveyard 2016: The Nets’ Cautionary Tale

It’s March and that means the season is effectively over for a number of NBA teams. We’ll be picking through the remains of the fakers, pretenders and never-had-a-chancers to determine what went wrong. More importantly, what can be salvaged going into next season and beyond? Cuz the great thing about the NBA is even when all is lost, the dead still have hope. There’s always room for wild optimism thanks to coaching carousels, the siren song of the big free agent, the franchise-saving Draft pick, the unknown potential of young assets and blind faith. 

Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov shot for the moon after moving the Nets from New Jersey to flashy new digs in Brooklyn. His aim proved disastrously awful, and today we sort through the aftermath.

netsgrave

Postmortem: The 2015-16 Nets never had a chance to win; they also had no incentive to lose. This is Dostoyevsky’s inevitable pain and suffering.

Russian majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov started his Nets reign with much fanfare, splashing into the American public consciousness on a jet ski with billions of dollars and a potentially sketchy past.

He declared that he’d get married if they didn’t win a championship in five years (which he hasn’t) and once in Brooklyn the Nets would be big enough as to steal fans from the Knicks (they haven’t). Which brings to mind another Dostoyevsky quote: “You can be sincere and still be stupid”.

With this win now and at all costs edict, GM Billy King dove headfirst into making Prokhorov’s vision a reality. In hindsight King’s deals in the last five years look awful and he deserves most of the derision he’s received before being removed as GM in January. But remember his owner gave him a blank checkbook and demanded a championship in five years or less. In more imaginative terms, picture King nervously making calls to other GMs with the barrel of a Kalashnikov pressing into his back. He did was he was told.

  • Brought in Deron Williams at the height of his powers, giving up Derrick Favors and picks to Utah.
  • Panicking to surround a grumpy Williams with talent, signed Gerald Wallace to a terrible contract as his career was about to spiral.
  • Traded a bunch of flotsam and a 1st Round pick plus swap rights on a future 1st Rounder for Joe Johnson, who brought a massive contract and at the end of his prime.
  • Traded for over the hill stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry; giving up a king’s ransom to the Celtics: Three (!) unprotected 1st Round picks + swap rights, Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and Kris Joseph.
  • Waived Williams, which will cost them $27.5M over five years.

There were more, but these are the deals that sealed the Nets’ fate not only for this season, but the next three. They won’t have their own 1st Round pick until 2019! Meanwhile, the Celtics are licking their chops at the wonders those unprotected picks could bring.

Brooklyn is left with solid but aging vets Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young, and not much else. Their one young player with real potential is rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a small forward who needs a lot of work on his shot.

Inevitably, Brooklyn was out of the playoff race by December, which they entered with a 4-13 record. Then the hammer mercifully fell on King and coach Lionel Hollins in January. Tony Brown took over as interim coach, but the GM search took over a month. Prokhorov finally hired Sean Marks out of the Spurs organization. He’ll have cap space to work with this summer in lieu of a 1st Round pick for the next three years. To be determined is how much leash he’ll be given by Prokhorov to pull out of the ditch the owner steered into.

A quick thought about Barclays Center. The Nets built a beautiful building in Brooklyn and filled it with sad basketball. The result is dead crowds, lots of empty seats and general apathy by the locals. Turns out there’s a lot more to do in Brooklyn than watch a 20-win team. I’ve been to one Nets game, at the end of 2013, and what struck me beyond the quiet was the darkness. Not sure if they’ve fixed it by now, but if not they need to. The aura was like a midnight mass: here’s a grainy picture to prove it!

barclays

Low Moments: They started the season 0-7, lost to the Magic by 23 points on Dec. 14, lost 10 straight home games in Dec-Jan, and after firing Hollins and King, Prokhorov said he hopes to compete for a championship next season. Sure. They’re 10-24 now under Tony Brown.

Bright Spots: Prokhorov stopped by training camp and gave some odd lessons on hand-eye coordination and balance, using mini basketballs and tennis balls. It’s an inspired bit of unintentional comedy, one of the few moments of mirth for the Nets this season.

Lopez has not only avoided another foot injury this season, he’s thrived. He’s averaging 21 and 8 on 52% shooting, willing this team to the 20-win barrier.

Hey, they just beat the Cavs! Though LeBron James shot 13-16 for 30 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, the Nets led the entire way and earned their best win of the season. This game may say more about the Cavs than the Nets, though.

Assets: There’s really not much here, which makes their dearth of draft picks that much more painful. Lopez has been great but you’re not building a contender around him – now that he’s put together a nice healthy streak, the time may be now to trade him for picks. Here’s a sad asset ranking:

  1. Lopez – His trade value won’t be any higher than it is now.
  2. Young – Could help a contender; skills are sort of wasted on this team.
  3. Hollis-Jefferson
  4. Bojan Bogdanovich – A defensive liability but he’s shown a penchant for scoring. He’ll be on an expiring contract next season.
  5. Chris McCollough – Late 1st Round pick, rookie year has been unexceptional. But he’s one of their precious few young assets.
  6. Shane Larkin – He’s cheap, if nothing else.
  7. Thomas Robinson – On a tiny deal that will be expiring after next season.
  8. Jarrett Jack? Let’s move on this is pitiful.

Free Agency prospects: It will be interesting to see what Marks can do this offseason. The Nets have plenty of cap space, but so do 20 other teams. They’ll likely need to overpay to convince young free agents and have virtually no shot at any big-time stars. They’ll try and get a meeting with Kevin Durant, though that’s a pipe dream. Hopefully Marks can preach patience with his owner rather than making a desperate play for a quick fix solution. That’s what has gotten them in this mess. He’ll need to do everything he can to acquire draft picks, or else the incoming talent pool will remain dry.

Resurrection Scale: 5% (In Need of a Savior) – A lesson to NBA teams for posterity, don’t trade No. 1 picks for depreciating assets. Don’t fall in love with the name on the back of the jersey if the guy wearing it is past his prime. It’s a cold reality, but the Nets have learned this the hard way.

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