By Steve Lichtenstein
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Granted, the howls of laughter—much of which is coming from Manhattan–over the Nets’ signing of beleaguered big man Andrea Bargnani are somewhat deserving.
Bargnani was to the Knicks these last two years what point guard Deron Williams was to the Nets—a pouting, injury-prone, overpaid and underachieving former high first-round draft pick traded to the Big Apple for a steep price of future assets. The respective fan bases begged for both to move on this summer.
Brooklyn general manager Billy King just jettisoned Williams on Friday, but by the end of the weekend he guaranteed that the free agent Bargnani will remain in town for at least for another year (with a second contract year being a player option).
Both moves were more financial decisions as opposed to basketball decisions. King’s obvious goal this summer was to get the Nets below the luxury tax line of about $84 million. King will be paying Bargnani the league minimum, far below the $43 million that would have counted against the salary cap and accompanying luxury tax calculations over the next two seasons had the Nets not bought the Dallas-bound Williams out for around $27 million. (Which will be stretched to about $5.5 million for the next five years, thereby improving the Nets’ net bottom line for the upcoming season by an estimated $60 million, according to Mike Mazzeo of ESPN.com.)
Who should have we expected King to sign at that discounted rate—Tim Duncan? The Nets didn’t have the cap room (or exceptions) to go into the marketplace and acquire anyone with significantly more value.
Oh, I get that it was hard for King to do worse. Bargnani has missed 175 games over the past four seasons and when he did play, the resulting highlights were often more worthy of “Shaqtin’ A Fool” than ESPN’s Top 10 Plays.
He’s a 7-foot “stretch-4” or center who has lost his touch from three-point range (23 percent from deep in his two seasons in New York). His defense can be best described as inactive. And his basketball IQ is in the single digits.
Bargnani is clearly a gamble, but a bad one only in the unlikely event the Nets decide it means they need to part ways with rising sophomore Cory Jefferson and you believe the 2014 second-rounder will develop into something better than a garbage-timer. If Earl Clark is the only casualty, there isn’t much of a downside.
If Bargnani’s game continues to sink, I’m sure coach Lionel Hollins will find a special seat for him at the end of the bench. If something—anything–clicks for Bargnani in Brooklyn, King may have found another Andray Blatche-type bargain.
Bargnani is just one of many shots in the dark King is taking with the 2015-16 Nets. And that’s the bigger concern for those of us praying that the Celtics don’t end up with a lottery pick courtesy of King’s summer 2013 Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce blockbuster trade.
After another jumbled offseason under King, the Nets’ logo should be changed to a question mark.
Jarrett Jack—starting point guard? Approximately $63.7 million over the next three seasons committed to one-dimensional center Brook Lopez and his reconstructed right foot? And among all these new young faces competing for roster spots, can anyone play the game?
For instance, I found all the praise over King’s free-agent signing of power forward Thomas Robinson puzzling. In three seasons, what has Robinson ever done, except get tossed around the league from team to team? Last season, he converted on 25 percent of his field goal attempts from 10 feet or longer, per NBA.com. He’s a decent rebounder, but by no means is he a defensive stopper or rim protector.
I don’t mean to pick on Robinson, who is only 24 years old — Bargnani is 29 — and on a similar minimum deal. But to insist that the change in scenery was the only thing keeping the 6-foot-10 Robinson from reaching his potential means you’ve been watching his NBA games through beer goggles.
Let’s move on to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Nets’ prize on draft night who cost them young backup center Mason Plumlee and the rights to second-rounder Pat Connaughton. He’s young. He’s athletic. We’ll give him time to see if he can get his offensive skill set to match what he appears to be able to bring to the defensive end.
But when did 23rd overall selections get reclassified as sure things? Despite what you see from anyone who joins the San Antonio Spurs, it’s not that easy to remake an NBA player’s jump shot into a reliable weapon.
Whether it’s other young veterans Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington, Cory Jefferson and Markel Brown, or rookies Chris McCullough and Willie Reed, there are a multitude of reasons why each of these guys were passed over by so many teams.
It’s not quite the Land of Misfit Toys, because there is some talent and athleticism in this group. But I’ve found it strange that many of the expectations for these players disseminated by management seem to be outsized.
They’re all gambles.
It’s no secret that for the Nets to any kind of success this season, King needs to hit on a bunch of these moves. Even if they’re singles.
It would be wonderful if Larkin developed a credible imitation of D-Will’s pocket passes to Lopez off pick-and-rolls. Or if Ellington improved on his meager 29 percent efficiency on corner threes last season, per NBA.com. Or if Hollins drilled Hollis-Jefferson to be Tony Allen 2.0.
None of these may happen.
And certainly not right out of the gate. The Nets have had miserable openings to each of their three seasons in the borough. With many of the bottom-feeding teams in the East—including the Knicks—improved over last season, a similar slow start would be more challenging to Brooklyn’s postseason hopes.
Much of the blame went to King for his annual roster upheavals. Since King has reshuffled the Nets’ deck yet again, expect that the odds of that turning around this season to be about the same as those for Bargnani winning Comeback Player of the Year.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1