By Steve Lichtenstein
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It’s too easy to pile on the Brooklyn Nets right now.
Especially after their embarrassing 89-81 loss at home on Wednesday to a Boston squad more interested in developing their young players and less concerned with their place in the standings.
I’ve been through it all before in these posts: general manager Billy King should be fired. The Nets should have taken whatever Oklahoma City wanted to part with to rid themselves of center Brook Lopez (six points in a lackluster 17-minute “effort” off the bench on Wednesday). Ditto with Sacramento and point guard Deron Williams (four scoreless minutes before aggravating an injury to his left side).
Figure out a way to get back a wing defender so Joe Johnson doesn’t age 10 years this season chasing the opposition’s best player for 40 minutes a night because Sergey Karasev can’t guard a lamp post. Hopefully someone who can also make open three-pointers close to 40 percent of the time. But that’s not a deal-breaker.
Yes, it’s obvious that the 16-19 Nets, who are hoping to break their three-game losing streak at home on Friday when they face Philadelphia, are an unmitigated disaster — just one season after the trade that was supposed to change everything and launch them into the NBA’s elite company.
Ironically, it was the Celtics who were the Nets’ partners in crime in that summer of 2013 deal that brought future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn. Now Nets fans want Boston general manager Danny Ainge to stand trial on charges of grand larceny.
Boston forward Gerald Wallace, the lone live body from that trade who still wears Celtic green (though you might not find him buried so deep on the bench), reportedly before Wednesday’s game called Brooklyn’s maneuver “one of those get-rich-quick schemes. They took a gamble. It backfired.”
If only it were that simple.
At the time, we didn’t know that KG’s minutes would drop from close to 30 per game in his last season in Boston to under 20 as a Net. Still, the 38-year-old Garnett continues to be the Nets’ best defender and rebounder.
We also were unaware that owner Mikhail Prokhorov would suddenly embrace spending restraint this offseason (after setting a league record with over $90 million in luxury taxes paid last season) and pass on offering Pierce a free-agent contract. I’ll vent more on the Pierce debacle when his Wizards invade Barclays Center next weekend.
Before we totally bury King for that blockbuster alone, let’s not forget that the Celtics are also rolling dice here when they went all in on the rebuild.
For as chic as tanking has become in the NBA in the last decade or so, there are plenty of teams who are still waiting for its payoff. Boston’s turn might not come for another half decade.
I’m not knocking accumulating first-round picks–and the three (plus the right to swap slots in 2016 and 2018) that King transferred to Boston last summer was clearly excessive — but there’s a lot of luck involved for those teams relying solely on them.
First, they’re at the mercy of ping-pong bingo.
Five years ago, after the New Jersey Nets almost kicked the 1972-73 Sixers out of the league’s record books by tanking to a 12-70 mark, they got stuck with the third overall selection in the lottery.
Derrick Favors turned out to be a nice player, an asset King quickly used to piece together a deal for supposed franchise foundation Williams, but was he worth the agony of the prior season?
Even if you’re fortunate enough to land the top pick, true transformational players might not show up in every draft. Think 2013, where Nets center Mason Plumlee (taken 22nd overall) has the highest “win shares” of any player from that pool, per basketball-reference.com. Top pick Anthony Bennett? He ranks 58th out of the 60 players drafted.
Many of the top selections are skipping college after one year or are playing in overseas leagues that don’t always translate for purposes of NBA projections. Think about this: the next player the Celtics pick in Brooklyn’s spot in just a year and a half might be in high school right now. What are the odds this player becomes a professional difference maker in year one?
So far, Boston has used the first of its three first-rounders that could have belonged to Brooklyn on 19-year old swingman James Young.
It’s way too early to evaluate Young as he’s logged a grand total of 35 NBA minutes, but a real hot prospect wouldn’t have been a healthy scratch on Wednesday. Not on a 12-21 team.
Ainge has been through this process before. The 2006-07 Celtics tanked their way to the second-worst record in the league.
They proceeded to draw the fifth slot in the following draft, missing out on Kevin Durant, Al Horford and Mike Conley Jr.
They did, however, get a still-in-his-prime Pierce back from an injury-riddled campaign. Plus they already possessed a point guard named Rajon Rondo who was on the cusp of making a giant leap.
There’s no one like those two on the Celtics’ roster today, not since Ainge gifted Rondo to Dallas last month for spare parts and two more draft picks. The bounty for last season’s tank job — guard Marcus Smart (sixth overall in the 2014 draft) — is shooting 37 percent from the floor in his rookie season.
What they do have is a good young coach in Brad Stevens, a little bit of salary cap space next season, some decent role players, a giant $13 million trade exception and all those draft picks.
Now all Ainge needs is to find other general managers who can be duped into giving away their stars the way Ainge’s adding of Garnett and Ray Allen in separate trades for their remaining young assets (Al Jefferson being the most prominent) plus future first-rounders propelled them to the 2008 NBA championship and a trip back to the Finals two years later.
Good luck with that. King is still around at last check, but the Nets have nothing of that caliber Ainge covets. Other GMs have wised up. Add in that the free agent pool this summer isn’t expected to be flush with top talent looking to move on away from their comfort zones (though flooded with eager buyers in big markets) and Boston could easily be looking at another playoff-less season a year from now.
King at least tried to replicate what Ainge did in 2007 with the Garnett-Pierce acquisition. He just erred spectacularly in the roster mix. He banked on and bankrolled too many players who were too old and/or injury-prone to make that kind of impact and left this team perilously short of athleticism and options. The coaching carousel hasn’t helped either.
Now the Nets are just another bad Eastern Conference team like the Celtics, the only difference being that a team whose next draft selection of their own won’t occur until 2019 can’t tank.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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