By Steve Lichtenstein
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Someone at Nets headquarters better make sure Billy King has some Gold Bond for his trigger finger.

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After all, this is the Nets general manager’s favorite time of the year. This is when King shoots for the moon. For the past two summers, King has hogged the NBA’s center stage, both for the high-profile deals he consummated as well as those that came close but didn’t pan out.

Once the Nets threw away their keys to their old New Jersey home and settled in the borough of Brooklyn in 2012, the wallet of owner Mikhail Prokhorov not-so-coincidentally started spewing cash for King to dangle at free agents and potential trade assets.

For two straight summers, King was a busy bee, engineering trades for the likes of Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, re-signing free agents to exorbitantly big (Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace) and bargain-basement small (Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson) contracts, and finding value late in the 2013 draft in Mason Plumlee.

All that work allowed the Nets to elevate from their laughing-stock status in their final New Jersey season into a solid playoff team, albeit one that is still far away from Prokhorov’s mission of true championship contention.

But now the spigot has dried up.

And I’m not talking about the recent rumors about Prokhorov looking to cut costs in order to ensure a $1 billion valuation for his franchise. The Nets are scheduled today to unveil their plans for a state-of-the-art practice facility in Brooklyn. Plus Prokhorov is known to be a fierce competitor—if the Nets somehow have a chance to get close to a title, I can’t see Prokhorov saying no because of some budget.

No, the problem is that the NBA has its own budget restrictions for its member clubs—called the salary cap–and right now the Nets are in its noose.

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are in play as free agents. Other stars like Kevin Love and Rajon Rondo may be trait bait. Thursday night is the entry draft, said to be one of the deepest in years.

And the Nets will be watching it all unfold on TV and social media just like me.

That’s what happens when teams like the Nets spend so lavishly that they not only exceed the salary cap, but also the luxury tax threshold. The Nets’ 2013-14 payroll of $102.6 million created a tax penalty of over $90 million.

Not only was the financial hit steep, but the rules under the 2011 collective bargaining agreement leave the Nets with little leeway to make further improvements this offseason. For instance, they are not allowed to complete sign-and-trades to acquire free agents. Nor are they allowed to offer contracts above the league minimum outside of the mini mid-level exception of a little over $3 million.

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On top of that, King dealt away draft picks like he had an endless supply, only now the Nets will be spectators in their own arena on Thursday as other teams look to add talent the old-fashioned way.

It turns out that not even the Nets’ money could be good enough to get the Nets into this draft. The Nets have around $2 million to spend, but King said in Wednesday’s press conference that he doubts that the Nets can buy or trade into the first round, though it’s possible a second-round pick can be purchased.

With little chance of securing top players (unless some less-than-intelligent GM out there wants to take on the bad Nets’ contracts of Williams and Brook Lopez—anyone?), whatever bullets King has left in his chamber have to be used to play defense.

I maintain that re-signing Pierce, not Livingston, is a priority. His departure as a free agent would be devastating, precisely because there’s almost no way for the Nets to replace him.

Fortunately, the Nets have Bird Rights in their hand, meaning they can sign Pierce to better terms than other clubs. If the Nets pay him market value for the couple of years Pierce says he has left in him, and if buddy Garnett eschews retirement to grab 12 more million dollars as King expects, this should get done shortly after July 1.

While Livingston, Anderson and Andray Blatche will probably find higher-priced homes, the Nets caught a break when Andrei Kirilenko exercised his option on Tuesday to stay in Brooklyn at low cost. Let’s not forget how Kirilenko’s injury woes dragged the Nets down last season.

Maybe that’s how King can talk himself down from the ledge. In addition to Kirilenko, Williams and Lopez should be healthier after offseason surgeries. Coach Jason Kidd should benefit from a season under his belt, which in turn should help the Nets avoid the dreadful start that almost destroyed their 2013-14 campaign. And King has actually done well in the last years with building a capable bench on the cheap, so there’s hope he can do it again.

The days of blockbuster deals are over for King. I expect him to lay below the radar in the next few weeks, focusing on fortifying the bottom of the roster.

That’s if he doesn’t feel the need to scratch the itch and then decides to blow the whole thing up.

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

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