By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the aftermath of former general manager Billy King’s unsuccessful spending spree upon the Nets’ 2012 arrival in Brooklyn, the franchise has worked tirelessly to shed its many onerous contracts to get under the league’s salary cap.
Now that Brooklyn is expected to have as much as $38 million in cap space this offseason, depending on which of its six players with team options and non-guaranteed deals it chooses to bring back, Nets fans can be forgiven if they’re a bit antsy to see how current GM Sean Marks fills the cap back up.
Will he go after the big fish like his predecessor often did to no avail? That’s unlikely, since Brooklyn is still not considered a prime destination for marquee free agents due to its lengthy distance from title contention. The Chris Pauls and Kyle Lowrys of the league would undoubtedly say, “Thanks, but seriously, no thanks.”
How about signing the young restricted free agents like last summer, when Portland and Miami matched Marks’ very generous offer sheets for reserve guards Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson? Sure, Marks has even better options on this year’s menu such as Washington’s Otto Porter Jr. and Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but both incumbent clubs are in position to similarly match even max offers for their starting 3-and-D wings, if they so desire.
My take at the time was that Brooklyn caught a break when the Blazers and Heat matched last July. To pay $75 million for four years is insane for a player with Crabbe’s limitations, and, while Johnson’s four-year, $50 million deal was far less egregious, was a sixth man on an average team worth 15 percent of the Nets’ team cap?
This time around, I would love for the Nets to be able to tout that they added a Porter or a Caldwell-Pope, but I would also understand if Marks opted not to risk so much long-term cap space for a team coming off a 20-62 campaign. Neither player is a superstar and, with so little talent in their cupboard, the Nets would still be more than one role player away from a mere playoff berth, with a lot less flexibility to make improvements.
However, these types of commitments would be infinitely more preferable to what Marks is rumored to be considering this offseason.
If you believe the reports from various media sources, the Nets are entertaining the notion of using their cap space as a garbage dump for other team’s mistakes. Portland, for example, is reportedly shopping draft picks if the acquiring club also eats one of their bad contracts.
Marks set the precedent for the Nets when, in addition to parting with wing Bojan Bogdanovic at February’s trade deadline, he took on the contract of Andrew Nicholson from Washington in order to obtain the 22nd overall pick in this year’s draft. The Nets are now stuck paying Nicholson, an absolute stiff of a big man, approximately $17 million over the next three seasons.
Though Marks has not commented or leaked anything related to his summer intentions, speculation abounds that Brooklyn just might double down. Sean Devaney of The Sporting News reported that the Blazers have had discussions with the Nets (and the Knicks) about potential deals that would help them with their cap space issues.
In a bit of irony, Crabbe is a name that has popped up in several news stories, since I’m guessing the Blazers figured out that paying guys like him, Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner outrageous sums over the next three years to do basically the same thing for a team that finished .500 doesn’t make much sense.
Taking on any of these contracts doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for Marks and Brooklyn, either.
Portland has three first-rounders, but they’re middle (15th and 20th) to late (26th). Brooklyn already owns the aforementioned 22nd selection, plus No. 27, a late second-rounder, and the means and desire to purchase another slot in the second round. Unless Portland is willing to cough up the 15th slot, Marks would be better off demanding its unprotected first-rounder in the 2018 draft, when the Nets are currently slated to play a spectator role after conveying the last of their traded picks to the Celtics (as a result of the infamous go-for-broke trade with Boston that King pulled off).
And that would only be for someone like Harkless or center Meyers Leonard, who are each owed in the neighborhood of $31 million over the next three years. Since the Blazers need to clear approximately $11 million to get below the projected $121 million luxury tax threshold, the Nets should at least make them take back Nicholson in any deal for Crabbe, a terrific 3-point shooter but a player not known for creating off the dribble or defending consistently.
(Side note: Though the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement prohibits Portland from trading Crabbe to Brooklyn for at least a year from his offer sheet signing, which means weeks after the June 22 draft, the two teams could, as NetsDaily.com pointed out, come to a handshake deal, with the Blazers selecting any traded pick on Marks’ orders. The deal would become “official” on the appropriate date in July.)
I can’t see Portland meeting these conditions, so maybe Marks should just pass on this strategy. It would be better for Brooklyn to remain patient, focus on adding more young and undervalued players, and see how the second year of the player development culture advances the cause before the club makes such significant investments. Save the cap space for those players who deserve it.
Let some other club deal with the paralysis that comes with having multiple players on bad contracts. Brooklyn has been there and done that.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1