By Steve Lichtenstein
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Lockers were emptied and bags were packed last Thursday as the Nets bid adieu to their 2013-14 season.
It ended sans the glory expected of a team that boasted seven All-Stars and cost owner Mikhail Prokhorov approximately $190 million in salary and luxury taxes.
The Nets were eliminated in five games by Miami in the Eastern Conference semifinals and now begin the process of taking stock as to what happened and how they should move forward.
Already there are whispers in certain media platforms that $98 million point guard Deron Williams wants out and that the Nets might oblige after his less-than-stellar postseason. There are also rumors that center Kevin Garnett will retire and forward Paul Pierce will follow him out of Brooklyn as a free agent to land somewhere he thinks he has a better shot at winning a title.
Backup center Andray Blatche stated on Thursday that he will likely opt out of his contract to test the free-agent waters, while the Nets might not have the resources under salary-cap rules to re-sign free agent Shaun Livingston or reserves Alan Anderson and Andrei Kirilenko — should they exercise their options to become free agents — even if they use their three-year, $10 million mini mid-level exception.
Remember back in November, when all within the Nets’ organization preached patience so that all the new components — plus rookie coach Jason Kidd — could take the time needed to mesh?
Well there’s a pretty good chance of that becoming an annual rite of fall, at least for the next few years.
That’s because of the 15 members on their current roster, the Nets can only be sure of eight — Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Mirza Teletovic, Marcus Thornton, Mason Plumlee, Jorge Gutierrez and Marquis Teague — who are locks to attend training camp. If Nets general manager Billy King doesn’t deal any of them away first.
Here’s my prediction as to who will and who will not be members of the Nets when the 2014-15 season tips off in late October:
Jorge Gutierrez: Fourth point guard found off the street who got promoted to third-string. Has a partially-guaranteed deal for next season. Kidd loved his tenacity as much as his Cal roots. He’ll return.
Marquis Teague: Acquired from Chicago as insurance for D-Will/Livingston, but played himself off the active list when everyone got healthy. If not for his guaranteed contact in 2014-15, he’d be dumped. Best hope for the Nets is that he either absorbs some of his older brother Jeff’s talent over the summer or that some team accepts him as filler in a larger trade.
Jason Collins: Made history as the first openly-gay professional athlete in the U.S. when the Nets signed him to a 10-day contract in February. The Nets extended him through the rest of the season after he filled in adequately when they were short on big men. As an unrestricted free agent, he has options both in and out of the NBA. I think Kidd still wants him around — especially if KG retires — and the Nets will offer him a minimum contract, which he will accept because there are few bigger platforms than the NBA.
Alan Anderson: The last man signed by King last summer, he will likely find better offers should he choose to look. Kidd appreciated his versatility, but that’s not enough of a reason for the Nets to dip into their mini MLE to match.
Marcus Thornton: Funny how a contract can turn from “albatross” to “asset” after a certain date. Like Kris Humphries last year, Thornton — who was pilfered from Sacramento prior to the trade deadline — goes from being an overpaid $8 million no-conscience gunner to a player of value because of his upcoming expiring contract. He’ll start the year in Brooklyn, but he could be trade fodder if the Nets falter out of the gate and need to blow it up.
Andrei Kirilenko: Disappointing that we didn’t see nearly enough of this unique player. Between injuries, minute limits and Kidd’s curious rotations, this was easily the most frustrating season of AK-47’s 11-year career. The Nets drew the ire of some in the league when they signed Kirilenko as a free agent for less than market value last summer — the Russian connection with Prokhorov and Brooklyn played some role, but no under-the-table arrangement was ever proven — but now the question is whether Kirilenko will make the Nets pay up by opting out of his second year. Unless he gets positive assurances from Kidd as to his role, I expect him to bolt.
Andray Blatche: Like Kirilenko, Blatche can opt out of his second year on the contract he signed last summer, but the Nets have early Bird rights on Blatche, which means they can give him a heftier raise than those allowed for Anderson or Kirilenko. But should they? Not if KG is back and Lopez is healthy. Why tie up money for four years on a player who had to be given four games off in January for “personal reasons?” Better to give the minutes to…
Mason Plumlee: Not going anywhere after finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting. Just please start working on shooting the ball into the basket from beyond three feet, OK?
Mirza Teletovic: Another Net who will return for the final season of his three-year deal. Now that Kidd has shown faith in the Bosnian forward, Teletovic needs to improve on his consistency at both ends. He has the potential to be more than just a stand-still three-point shooter.
Shaun Livingston: Unfortunately he played too well, especially after the New Year when the Nets changed their identity to embrace his skills as a long point guard. He’ll have to weigh the opportunity to parlay his solid 2013-14 into a worthy contract versus taking less to stay within a system that fits his comfort zone, as he certainly will attract an offer beyond the Nets’ mini-MLE. After his horrific 2007 knee injury nearly cost him his career, no one can blame Livingston for going for the bigger pile of dough.
Joe Johnson: Stay healthy, Joe Jesus. You were the only Net worth watching in the postseason. I couldn’t care less how much money you make.
Paul Pierce: An unrestricted free agent, the Nets would be most devastated should he leave. Even if the Nets executed a sign-and-trade to Pierce’s preferred destination — Clippers, with former coach Doc Rivers? — it would be a debacle of such proportions that it would signal the death knell on King’s reign. The Nets gambled away their future to bring Pierce and KG over from Boston, and now they both could be gone after one underachieving season. The Nets have Pierce’s Bird rights, so the hope is that King uses it and does whatever it takes to keep Pierce for the “one or two years” he said he feels he can play when asked in his postgame interview following Game 5 in Miami. I say the Nets get it done and that it leads to one more year of…
Kevin Garnett: If you’re a 38-year-old player whose game deteriorated this season — when he wasn’t sitting out with pain in his back and knees or just plain resting, KG couldn’t run longer than five minutes at a time — and who’s earned about $315 million over his career, how much does $12 million matter if it threatens to tarnish the memory of the proud warrior you used to be? As per his custom, KG ditched the media after both Game 5 and the Thursday exit interviews, so all we can do is guess at the answer. Mine is that Kidd convinces him to take the money to come back as a backup/tutor to…
Brook Lopez: The conventional wisdom is that the Nets would have given the Heat a tougher run had they had their All-Star center on the court. It is wrong. Miami is Lopez’s worst nightmare. Can you imagine him hedging high on pick-and-rolls and then running out to contest Chris Bosh’s three-point shots? And what about the rebounding? KG led all NBA centers in defensive-rebound percentage — he came away with 32.1 percent of opponent’s missed shots this season. Lopez was 61st out of 62 qualifiers (at 14.1 percent) before he injured his right foot and left ankle in December and missed the rest of the season. No, the Nets wouldn’t have risen from their 10-21 abyss — never mind stretched the Heat further than five games — with Lopez in the middle because they wouldn’t have been able to play the style that turned around their season.
No matter how amazingly proficient Lopez is when he has the ball — at the high post, the low post or from 20 feet away from the hoop — his lack of defensive fire and foot speed would have limited Brooklyn’s ceiling. Unfortunately, after this fourth surgery on his right foot, other clubs view Lopez as damaged goods with two more generous contract years. Should King even proffer Lopez around the league this summer, the only sounds on the other line would be chuckles. The same goes for…
Deron Williams: The main source of all that’s gone wrong in Brooklyn the last two years. Whether the roots lie in issues with D-Will’s ankles or his head, King sealed his fate when he cemented the foundation of the franchise on Williams’ back. The facts are in: He hasn’t been the transformational player deserving of a max contract. That contract — three more years for over $63 million — as well as the chronic ankle woes will prevent King from getting anything close to market value in a trade. Still, he has to go out and take the best offer. Hopefully a shorter-term contract comes back in return and the Nets can begin to restore some order to their salary structure.
It’s not the dollars that are worrisome, as Prokhorov has made it clear that he’s all for going for the gold no matter the cost. It’s the draconian rules laid down in the 2011 collective-bargaining agreement that penalizes those paying luxury taxes, especially the repeat offenders.
So not only do the Nets not have a pick in the upcoming draft (they have the ability to purchase a second-rounder), but they have few resources to use should they need to restock in the case of mass defections. No one’s coming over from Europe this summer, either.
The maximum long-term contracts of Lopez, Williams and Johnson alone will account for nearly $60 million towards a 2014-15 cap that is expected to be around $63 million.
Even worse, the Nets are on pace to zoom past the projected $77 million luxury-tax threshold, which will subject them to the repeater tax in 2015-16.
After the 2013 season ended with that ignominious Game 7 defeat at home to Chicago, I thought King had an impossible task to reconfigure that roster to make significant improvements given the salary-cap restraints. Give him credit for creativity. While this season didn’t meet expectations, this was certainly a talented and interesting group.
To build on it, King might have to tear some of it down — trade Williams and say goodbye to Blatche, Livingston, Anderson and Kirilenko. He needs to first convince Garnett and Pierce to give it one more shot in Brooklyn and then go back to the bargain basement where he has shopped fairly well the last two years.
And if that doesn’t work — and whatever-sized window the Nets thought they had becomes shut for good — it will be time to blow everything up. King included.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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