By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
As is often the case in Nets Land, Brooklyn’s 118-113 loss to Washington, in which the Nets blew a 15-point halftime lead, was not the most significant event at Barclays Center on Monday.
Earlier in the day, Houston notified Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks that it had matched the offer sheet the Nets tendered to 7-foot restricted free agent Donatas Motiejunas on Friday.
It was strike three for Marks, who whiffed when swinging high and hard at guards Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson over the summer when Portland and Miami, respectively, matched the Nets’ restricted free agent offer sheets.
“It’s obviously disappointing when you miss out on a chance to acquire another asset, but at the same time, it shows us that we were going down the right path, knowing that another team matched,” Marks said prior to Monday’s game.
Unlike those failed offseason bids, which were on the extravagant side, the Motiejunas offer was so reasonable, it was almost as if Marks was doing his Houston counterpart, Daryl Morey, a favor.
Motiejunas had been holding out since the end of last season while recovering from back surgery. The reported four-year contract that maxed out at $37 million was laden with team-friendly incentives, trigger points and unguaranteed seasons to offset the risk of any permanent damage in his back.
The Nets set the market. The $9.3 million (before incentives) Motiejunas will reportedly earn this season wasn’t vastly different from the Rockets’ most recent offer (reportedly a little above $7 million). Plus, only $5 million is fully guaranteed, the apparent sticking point between the two sides over the summer. Once Houston owner Leslie Alexander approved the additional expenditure, it was a no-brainer that the Rockets weren’t going to let the 26-year old Motiejunas walk free.
While I don’t hold the opinion that Motiejunas is a poor man’s Kristaps Porzingis, most analysts believe that he would have been an improvement over just about every Nets big except for center Brook Lopez. His four-year career numbers look rather pedestrian, but two seasons ago Motiejunas averaged 12 points and nearly six rebounds per game while shooting 50.4 percent from the floor and 36.8 percent from 3-point range.
Adding Motiejunas would have been like getting a free game in pinball. The Nets are not only about $18 million under the league’s salary cap, they are also approximately $8.7 million under the salary floor. That means that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov will be cutting checks totaling any end-of-season shortage to those players on the team’s existing roster.
Marks said he isn’t second-guessing himself after this latest setback.
“We put our best foot forward, and that was what myself, and Kenny (Atkinson) and ownership were comfortable in doing,” Marks said.
Marks, obviously, will get more at-bats to bring in talent. Unfortunately, this is just not the right time in NBA history for a rebuilding franchise to have oodles of salary cap space available.
The overflow of funds from the league’s recent TV renewals has caused the per-team cap to explode from $70 million in 2015-16 to approximately $94.1 million this season. The cap is expected to rise to about $102 million next year, which equates to a 46 percent increase over two years. Even the best teams like Golden State to find room to make significant additions in the offseason.
With money less of a concern, the top players these days are looking to exploit their freedom by fishing for winning situations.
Take, for example, Clippers guard J.J. Redick, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The 32-year old purchased a $4.25 million penthouse in Brooklyn last summer at the behest of his wife, who has a twin sister living in Manhattan.
“I’m a huge fan of New York City,” Redick said prior to last Tuesday’s thrilling 127-122 double-overtime Nets victory, their only win in their last 11 games. “It’s one of the greatest cities in the world. We looked in a few different places in downtown Manhattan and a couple different parts of Brooklyn, and we settled on Brooklyn. Brooklyn is an awesome city — I think GQ dubbed it the coolest city on the planet a couple of years ago.”
Now Redick, who will surely get a raise from the $7.377 million he is earning in the final season of his contract, is not the typical Marks target. Marks’ big-money offers have heretofore gone to players just about to enter their prime years.
But it wouldn’t matter anyway, because even if the Clippers, one of the Warriors’ few threats in the Western Conference, decided against keeping their core intact after this season, the Nets wouldn’t even be on Redick’s radar screen.
“I think marquee players want to have an opportunity to win first and foremost,” Redick said. “I know (the Nets) are in transition right now.”
He’s being kind. Without a first-round draft pick of their own until 2019 or the likelihood of adding a legitimate NBA superstar, the Nets figure to be mired somewhere near the league’s basement for quite some time.
Sure, the development stories of players such as Sean Kilpatrick and Isaiah Whitehead are nice. And the Nets should be able to win a few more games whenever Jeremy Lin returns from his designated hamstring convalescence (and who knows what 2016 first-rounder Caris LeVert will bring to the table when he is finally allowed to participate in games — he dressed for the first time this season on Monday, but did not play). But the Nets and their culture change haven’t yet altered their perception around the league.
They’re still going to have to wildly overpay for free agents and, when it comes to the restricted kind, even Prokhorov’s wallet hasn’t been enough to close the deals.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1