By Steve Lichtenstein
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There was no way the Nets were picking up the necessary pieces to alter their status above mediocre at Thursday night’s NBA draft held at Barclays Center.
Nets general manager Billy King so drained his club’s assets in past stabs at greatness that no fan had a right to expect some wondrous transformation could occur overnight.
Of course, King couldn’t just sit still with the 29th and 41st picks. In a half-hour span late on Thursday, King executed a pair of trades — his ninth and 10th such draft-day maneuverings in three offseasons in Brooklyn.
After selecting Syracuse forward Chris McCullough and Notre Dame wing Pat Connaughton with his allotted picks, King sent Connaughton and reserve center Mason Plumlee to Portland for the rights to forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Blazers’ 23rd overall pick, and backup point guard Steve Blake.
King then dealt two future second-round picks to Charlotte in exchange for the rights to 19-year-old Argentinian forward Juan Vaulet, who was taken with the ninth pick in the second round by the Bobcats.
For all that work, King has made the Nets….
Obviously King is banking on Brook Lopez re-upping after the starting center confirmed on Friday that he is not exercising his player option on his 2015-16 contract and will enter free agency.
Obviously — right?
Sure, the Nets — who own Lopez’s Bird rights — can offer him significantly more money than all other teams. So King has that going for him.
But what if money isn’t all that matters to Lopez, who has interests outside of basketball (like dreaming of appearing onscreen in an upcoming “Star Wars” sequel)? Maybe Lopez has grown tired of having his name being dropped at every trade deadline over the last three years.
Lopez was slated to earn about $16.75 million had he opted in. I don’t see him giving Brooklyn a hometown discount.
A few weeks ago, I would have endorsed any possible Nets-Lopez parting. The only way the Nets can get out of their current mess is to first get out of luxury-tax hell. Their Max Three of Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson has been a suboptimal mix.
Plus the Nets had Plumlee, who despite serious offensive limitations had at least shown glimpses of being able to handle an increased role in his first two seasons.
As of today, the biggest of the Nets’ bigs under contract is second-year forward Cory Jefferson.
McCullough, who is listed somewhere between 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-11, will likely be of little help next season. He tore his ACL in his right knee in January and faces a long recovery. After he was selected, McCullough stated that he would be ready by November, but ESPN previously reported that he could be out the entire 2015-16 season.
Nets fans are trying to spin this as if McCullough will be “next year’s first-round draft pick,” since Brooklyn doesn’t have one of their own thanks to King’s generosity towards the Celtics in the 2013 Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett blockbuster. I’ve heard some claim that McCullough has “lottery talent,” as if that will ease the pain that comes with the risk of taking on damaged goods this coming season.
McCullough, like Hollis-Jefferson, is only 20 years old. He showed he could dominate against smaller college players, but there’s no way to know if that can be extrapolated to the NBA.
Hollis-Jefferson was heralded as the scoop of the draft when the Nets made their move. He surely fills their need for a strong wing defender. Some analysts compared him to Golden State’s Andre Iguodala. Until I see him knock down a shot from outside the paint, I see him as a poor man’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
As for Vaulet, I know King thinks he can buy second-round picks at the corner store, but did the Nets really need to deal two of them to get a guy few have even heard of? According to a story on SBNation.com, Vaulet played sparingly in his first year as a professional in Argentina (where he was coached by Manu Ginobli’s brother). He doesn’t shoot even very well.
To continue my ongoing thesis on King, he just doesn’t understand value.
It’s too early to predict if things will go from bad to worse in Brooklyn after these last few days. Lopez could easily re-sign and King could fill the backup role with a free agent pickup. Hollis-Jefferson may indeed thrive under coach Lionel Hollins’ tutelage the way Tony Allen did. And McCullough could also grow into a solid player by the end of the year.
King likes to swing for the fences, which often makes Brooklyn’s offseasons more entertaining than their regular seasons. There was no blockbuster this time, but the Nets certainly took some risks.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.