Lichtenstein: NBA Playoffs Should Show Nets’ Marks Folly Of Taking On Mega Free Agent Contracts During LeBron’s Reign

By Steve Lichtenstein
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With the NBA playoffs in full bloom, here are a couple of observations from a Nets fan’s perspective.

Brooklyn may have anywhere between approximately $27 million to as much as $38 million, depending on which of the six players with team options and unguaranteed contracts management deems worthy of bringing back in 2017-18, in salary cap space to spend on free agents this summer. But if this postseason has taught us anything, it would be buyer beware.

So long as LeBron James is ruling the Eastern Conference, money doesn’t seem to matter.

Just look at the Raptors, who were swept out of the playoffs by the Cavs last weekend and now have begun their annual soul-searching sessions about how to get over the hump.

Four of their top eight rotation players, including All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry (who announced Monday he will opt out of the final year of his contract), will become free agents. All will be paid handsomely in this era of TV largesse.

But is it worth it?

MORE: Lichtenstein: Marks’ Patient Plan For Nets Will Trump Jackson’s Knicks Fantasy

The Raptors had the sixth-highest payroll in the NBA this season at over $108.6 million. They had two All-Stars among their five players making eight figures per year.

Yet James treated the second-round series as if it were part of his offseason workout regimen. In Game 3, he unleashed his lefty floater. In Game 4, he fine-tuned his 3-point shot. One round away from reaching the NBA Finals for the seventh consecutive year, the 32-year-old James has shown no signs of decline.

In that period, the team that attempted to knock the King off his throne through the biggest deluge of dollars was, of course, the 2013-14 Nets.

As if Nets fans needed a reminder of former general manager Billy King’s ruinous scheme that brought future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce plus reserve guard Jason Terry to Brooklyn in an overhyped draft day trade that summer, TNT decided to air a segment on Monday night’s pointless “Area 21” show featuring Garnett and Pierce and why it didn’t work. Despite Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s splurge to the tune of an NBA-record $197 million (including luxury taxes), his team won one playoff round before falling in five games to LeBron’s Heat.

Instead of blaming the Nets’ “culture” (a possible dig at point guard Deron Williams’ underwhelming performance on a max contract), maybe Garnett and Pierce should have echoed former Brooklyn assistant general manager Bobby Marks, now with The Vertical. Marks, in an interview with CBS Sports Radio on Monday, explained that the franchise just made a gross miscalculation as to James’ and Miami’s vulnerability at that time.

As every team in the East has since learned, you’d better make sure you will kill the King before you bankrupt your treasury attempting to do it.

Getting back to the present day, Nets general manager Sean Marks has repeatedly asserted that the quick-fix strategy is out of his revised playbook. Don’t look for Brooklyn to be in the bidding for the marquee free agents when the new league year begins in July.

However, if his 15 months on the job are an indication, Marks could try again to upgrade the team through signing younger restricted free agents.

Otto Porter Jr.

The Wizards’ Otto Porter Jr. is set to become a restricted free agent this summer. (credit: Getty Images)

While certain players such as wings Otto Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope seem like attractive targets, they will not come cheap. Hence, the corresponding salary cap filling would carry an implied risk.

In order to avoid another “miscalculation,” Marks would be wise to ascertain the true value of adding any max contract player at this stage of the rebuilding.

Imagine if Marks had nailed all three of his offer sheets he made this past season. That’s $8 million per year for Donatas Motiejunas, $15 million per year for Tyler Johnson and a whopping $18.5 million for Allen Crabbe.

While Johnson and Crabbe are still young players with potential and the Motiejunas signing would have come with heavy protections, limited guarantees and multiple trigger dates, how much better would the Nets have been this season? 30 wins instead of 20? 35?

And then the Nets, who have no first-round draft pick of their own until 2019, would have been very limited in this and future offseasons.

When, or if, James finally displays his mortality.

A LOOPHOLE IN DESPERATE NEED OF FIXING

If you’re watching the Boston-Washington series, you’ll notice that every time Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas comes around a high screen behind the 3-point line, he’ll immediately stop and then jump in the air, hoping he draws contact.

If Thomas doesn’t hear a whistle, he’ll make a jump pass. If he does, he’ll immediately heave the ball toward the basket. Even if the ball lands in the third row, it’s a three-shot foul.

Thomas isn’t the only player taking advantage of this farce. Houston star James Harden adds in the flailing arms and neck snap every chance he gets to bait the referees.

The “continuation” rules, which allow for a player to be deemed in the act of shooting if he gets off a shot without another dribble after getting fouled, have to be amended. The original intent for this rule was to promote fan-friendly drives to the basket.

Fans aren’t clamoring for this nonsense.

All such whistles above the 3-point line should be considered on-the-floor fouls. A team in the bonus would receive two free throws, not three. If the defending team had fouls to give, then the offense should resume its possession out of bounds.

The league set a precedent in its recent “rip move” rule, which eliminated the shooting foul when a player is contacted on the arms during a side-to-side movement with the ball in his hands. I call it the “Brook Lopez Rule,” since the Nets’ center seems to be the only player affected by it, probably because he’s the only one slow enough to allow the refs to see it.

I’ve been whining about the three-shot foul all year, particularly when the Nets were routinely on the wrong side of these calls after point guard Jeremy Lin’s injury. It seemed rookie Isaiah Whitehead got nailed at least once every game.

My mind didn’t change when Spencer Dinwiddie was signed and perfected the move — and then taught it to Lin — to Brooklyn’s benefit later in the season.

Dinwiddie, of course, is fine the way things are.

“At this level, it’s like guys (have) PHDs and (are) savants in their sports,” Dinwiddie said after the Nets’ final home game on April 8. “Any rule you change, they are going to try to get a leg up. And if you change the rule in another way, they’re going to exploit it in another way.”

Sorry, Spencer. It’s time to close this loophole.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1

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