By Steve Lichtenstein
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I only needed Billy King to get one job done all summer.
I didn’t care so much when the Nets lost out on point guard Shaun Livingston or that center Andray Blatche was told to look for employment elsewhere. No, I believed the most pressing item on the Nets general manager’s offseason agenda had to be re-signing free agent forward Paul Pierce.
After all, King mortgaged the future of the franchise when he acquired Pierce and fellow future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett prior to the 2013 draft. The Nets surrendered to Boston three first-round draft picks plus the rights to swap slots in two other drafts.
To me and other Nets fans, that seemed to mean that King would work to make sure that those future picks turned out to be of relatively little value as compared to the pedigree of the players the Nets received.
And it’s not like Pierce can’t play anymore — at age 36, he may be a step or two slower than he was during his prime, but he is still a legitimate threat to score and few can match the toughness he brings to the court every night.
So how in the world could King let “The Truth” walk away to Washington on Saturday night after just one year in Brooklyn — for nothing?
Reports indicated that King didn’t even bother to match the Wizards’ two-year $11 million offer, despite the allowances under the salary cap rules to go significantly higher.
This after King recently committed $12.6 million over the next two years to acquire Jarrett Jack, a backup point guard.
King’s apologists will surely pin the blame on Nets ownership, who may or may not have applied pressure on King to cut costs after reports put their 2013-14 loss at somewhere near $144 million.
The Nets’ luxury tax bill of more than $90 million had a good deal to do with that. The incremental cost to retain Pierce would have totaled nearly $50 million after luxury taxes in the next two years.
Before you start praising King’s financial acumen, consider that the Nets will still be well over the $77 million luxury tax threshold this season, especially now that word is circulating that Garnett is preparing for a 20th season, taking his $12 million to the bank in lieu of retirement.
That puts the Nets 2014-15 payroll in the neighborhood of $92 million (including the expected announcement of the signing of Euro star Bojan Bogdanovich for the mini mid-level exception of about $3.3 million per year) for 12 players.
Those extra roster spots will either be filled by the Nets’ three second-round draft choices or a veteran willing to accept the league minimum the way Alan Anderson did last year.
So what does letting Pierce walk really accomplish? Unless King pulls off something drastic, like accepting pennies on the dollar for damaged goods center Brook Lopez or point guard Deron Williams, the Nets will still earn the dreaded luxury tax repeater tag next season.
I’ve read some reports equating the cost of Pierce’s contract with that which was signed by Cleveland’s LeBron James on Friday. You know, because you have to add in the luxury taxes the Nets would have had to pay.
King, with the acquiescence of owner Mikhail Prokhorov, volunteered to live as a luxury taxpayer when Brooklyn took on so many high-paying contracts in the last two seasons. Lopez, Williams and Joe Johnson alone will combine to earn over $58 million this season. We don’t add the tax rate to any of those payments.
Then King went all in to obtain Garnett and Pierce, believing the duo would fill in the missing pieces that would lift Brooklyn into the land of serious championship contenders. He knew then the prohibitive expense it would create, but, based on that original premise, it would have been worth it.
Except that Garnett was a shell of his former self last season, barely able to run for more than four or five minutes at a time. Either King was guilty of poor marketplace awareness by drastically overpaying for Garnett’s services or ignorance by not addressing his limitations during the discussions when asking Garnett to waive his no-trade clause.
And now Pierce, who sacrificed as much as any Net last season and was instrumental in Brooklyn’s seven-game series victory over Toronto in the first round of the playoffs, is gone for good.
Yet King somehow remains.
How is he still on the job? It would be one thing if this was his first rodeo. But let’s not forget that he destroyed the 76ers in his first GM gig by signing a bunch of mediocre players to outlandish long-term deals.
King does deserve credit for finding value late in the first round in the 2013 draft with center Mason Plumlee and he has done well filling holes with certain bargain-basement pickups like C.J. Watson, Livingston, Blatche and Anderson.
But where is he going to go to replace Pierce? If he’s counting on Bogdanovich or one of the second-rounders, those are bad gambles. King could just look at Mirza Teletovic as a reminder that the transition to the NBA from a European league can often be a lengthy one.
As for players chosen in the second round, the media likes to highlight the few that rise above and make contributions, but they are anomalies. In the past 10 drafts, only 95 of the 300 players chosen in round two have logged over 1,000 NBA minutes. The percentages get worse for players selected in the bottom half of the second round, where the Nets chose Markel Brown, Xavier Thames and Cory Jefferson.
No, under King’s reign the Nets are in a far worse position than they’ve been since the final tanking days in New Jersey, while the rest of the Eastern Conference has been busy making improvements.
This will be the third straight season where King has had to retool a big chunk of the roster. Lionel Hollins is the Nets’ fourth coach in the last 18 months.
How many more mistakes will King be allowed to make before Prokhorov says, “Nyet!”
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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