By Steve Lichtenstein
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Ever since their move to Brooklyn two summers ago, the Nets have put their fans though one rollercoaster after another.
They went after high-profile players, whiffing on most but nabbing some. Head coaches have been coming and going. There were winning streaks that made you think they could actually contend for a title, and then cold spells which made you want the whole thing blown up.
The latest rumored ride, which would involve moving free-agent forward Paul Pierce to the Clippers, could be called “Back to the Future.”
Losing Pierce would likely also change the status of center Kevin Garnett, the other Hall of Fame-bound component who Nets general manager Billy King brought over from Boston in his blockbuster trade on the day of the 2013 NBA Draft. The 38-year-old still has one year at $12 million left on his contract, but he might choose to retire if he deems the Brooklyn situation hopeless with his buddy no longer around and is not packaged with him in the Clippers’ deal.
So much for that whole championship culture thing.
The Nets would be left with a core of brittle Deron Williams, even more brittle Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson …and little else, especially at the forward position.
That same trio led the Nets to a 48-win season in 2012-13, but the team was not deep or tough enough to get out of the first round of the playoffs.
It appears that King is mulling a return to those less-than-gloried days so he can rebuild in the future. Only without the three first-round draft picks he surrendered to Boston in the Pierce/Garnett trade.
Like the above-mentioned movie, this all makes little sense.
Though Pierce is fond of Clippers coach Doc Rivers from their nine years together in Boston, the Nets have Pierce’s Bird Rights, which means they are allowed to pay him far more than other teams without regard to the salary cap. The Clippers would need to execute a sign-and-trade to acquire Pierce at anything near his market value. Under the collective-bargaining agreement rules, teams like the Nets who are over the luxury-tax threshold are prohibited only from receiving free-agent players who were signed-and-traded.
If Garnett is also included in this rumored transaction, even less money would be available to pay Pierce.
Then again, re-signing Pierce should be a no-brainer for King.
Pierce was brought to Brooklyn to lead and show the Nets what it takes to win. No one on the Nets sacrificed more than Pierce last season. He was content to act as the third or fourth wheel on offense after 15 years as a go-to NBA star. His average of 28 minutes per game was his career low by almost five-and-a-half minutes. And when the Nets altered their lineup to go small, Pierce took on the job of banging larger bodies at the power forward slot despite playing his entire career on the wing.
While he’s certainly lost a step or two, Pierce still managed to post decent numbers — his regular season and playoff shooting percentages were in line with his career averages.
He also had a knack for making big plays, none bigger than the Game 7 blocked shot of Kyle Lowry’s potential game-winning floater in Toronto that allowed the Nets to escape the first round for the first time since 2007.
Besides, it’s not like Pierce is looking for long-term money. He stated publicly after the Nets’ second-round playoff exit that he has only “one or two years” left in his tank.
And so long as the nearly-untradeable contracts of Brooklyn’s version of the Big 3 remain on their books, there’s no way the Nets can get under the projected $63.2 million 2014-15 cap. D-Will, Lopez and Joe Cool are owed a combined $58.7 million for their services this season.
As for the luxury tax, the math still won’t work. Even if the Nets do not re-sign free agents Andray Blatche and Alan Anderson, they have $16.6 committed to Marcus Thornton, Mirza Teletovic, Andrei Kirilenko and Mason Plumlee.
So seven players would account for over $75 million. While dropping Pierce and Garnett from the payroll would save money, the Nets are going to have to pay replacements. The current reports detail Jared Dudley, Matt Barnes and Reggie Bullock as potential — though deemed insufficient by Brooklyn, per ESPN — compensation from Los Angeles in exchange for Pierce. Those three players alone have an aggregate $8.8 million in salaries for the 2014-15 season.
In no non-fiction world can the Nets get under the reported $77 million luxury-tax threshold this season without further drastic measures.
That will make the Nets repeaters — a word that probably 29 out of the 30 NBA owners dread — in 2015-16. The tax rate for those teams over the luxury-tax threshold for three straight years is meant to be onerous.
However, this is the bed Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov made when he had King attempt to construct a contending team, no matter the costs.
I don’t buy the reports that Prokhorov is suddenly changing course and looking to pare expenses. The Nets just unveiled plans for their new $45 million practice facility, to be built in Brooklyn.
Then, just below the reports of the Nets’ plan to dump Pierce, are ones of how the Nets are reviving discussions to trade Thornton to Cleveland for Jarrett Jack.
Great. Let’s spend $6.3 million per year for the next two-plus seasons — 2016-17 is only partially guaranteed in Jack’s contract — for a backup point guard.
Enough with the head-spinning twists and turns.
King just tabbed Lionel Hollins — the man he should have waited for last season — to coach. Now bring back Pierce at market value and let’s see what this team has.
There’s no need yet to go back in order to move forward.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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