Nets Most Pressing Offseason Questions…And Guesses
Welcome to the NBA offseason, Nets fans.
The 2022 playoffs, which concluded on Thursday with Golden State finishing off host Boston in Game 6, were both entertaining and instructive. Anyone who watched Brooklyn all season through its four-game sweep at the hands of the Celtics in the first round knows well that this team wasn’t constructed properly to compete with the elite, particularly when injuries (Joe Harris and Ben Simmons) sapped the Nets further.
The Nets were far too small and didn’t have enough floor spacers on the court. Both finalists were well equipped with defenders in the 6-foot 6-to-6-foot 8 range, almost all (Warriors glue guy Draymond Green being the notable exception) of whom can knock down three-pointers at high rates. Other than superstar Kevin Durant, who at nearly 7-feet is a unicorn, Harris, who was lost for the season in November, and Kessler Edwards, a second-round pick who started the season on a two-way contract, were the only Nets who could fit in that category.
As such, Brooklyn is heading into another make-or-break offseason. Of the 15 players on their final roster, only six (Durant, Seth Curry, Simmons, Harris, Cam Thomas, and Day’Ron Sharpe) have guaranteed contracts without options for 2022-23. Two others (Kyrie Irving and Patty Mills) can opt out, one player (Edwards) is under a team option, and six (Bruce Brown, Nic Claxton, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge. Andre Drummond, and Goran Dragic) are pending free agents in two weeks.
That means there are endless permutations for how General Manager Sean Marks can rejigger things so that his club won’t again be on the golf course before next May arrives. Before anyone can make any predictions as to which direction the franchise goes, however, some questions need to be answered:
1) Joe Tsai’s budget
The Nets owner has clearly shown that he’s willing to open the spigot in pursuit of an NBA title. Only the Warriors spent more in terms of the salary cap in each of the past two seasons. The Nets, though, are facing the dreaded repeater tax, which call for insane penalties on every additional dollar spent, so no one can be sure how high Tsai is willing to go, particularly after this season’s expensive disappointment. How much of an impact will the stock market crash and looming recession have on next season’s Nets’ budget, though the league is expected to reap another windfall in the upcoming TV negotiations? Remember Tsai’s predecessor Mikhail Prokhorov, who set the league record, since eclipsed by Golden State, with a tax bill of over $90 million for one playoff series victory in 2014? He quickly pivoted to an austerity budget. I don’t expect the current organization to go that far, but Tsai is a businessman who has shown in the past that he is cognizant of the tax when making decisions.
Prediction: Cost-cutting, if any, will occur after December 15.
2_ Whither Kyrie Irving?
As I wrote over a month ago (Marks’ Gauntlet Notwithstanding, Nets Seem Stuck With Irving, For Better Or Worse (substack.com)), the best options for both the Nets and their superstar guard is for the two parties to reach an agreement on a return. The only question is which form that will take—does Irving exercise his player option and negotiate for an extension; or does he opt out, hoping for a new deal at max salaries? You’d think the latter option would be ridiculous given that Irving pretty much sabotaged this Nets season by refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The few teams with currently available cap space to take in Irving’s price tag should Brooklyn refuse to match (or Irving is miffed over its attempt to inject up to 15% of his compensation in games-played incentive clauses) aren’t necessarily the places he wants to call home base. However, this is Kyrie Irving, so everything is on the table. Would it really shock anyone if he decided to sign with Oklahoma City so he can go live on a Native American reservation?
Prediction: Irving opts out, agrees to a new one-plus-one max deal with incentives to stay in Brooklyn.
3) Which of the other free agents will return?
I think right away we can scratch Griffin and Aldridge, the two aging big men who could not have been pleased with their negligible roles in the playoffs. Drummond and Dragic seem likely to test the waters to see if any exception money above the veteran minimum is thrown their way. The Nets can only hope that Dragic’s connection with Head Coach Steve Nash is enough to sway him to give Brooklyn another shot. That leaves Brown and Claxton, two younger and more valuable assets who could be used as trade bait down the road. Since Claxton is a restricted free agent, the Nets can match any offer sheet. Again, the answer to question 1 takes precedence, since ESPN’s Bobby Marks computed that even a $10 million per year deal for Brown would cost the team another $36 million in luxury taxes. To me, that thinking was always backwards—the Nets aren’t in luxury tax hell because they’re paying guys like Brown or Claxton a mid-tier salary; their top 4 earners (using Irving’s option value) account for over $133 million in cap space, which is already fairly close to the projected tax threshold of approximately $149 million. Getting out from under the tax would require at least a Simmons salary dump. Still, most clubs look first at the true cost of the next dollar spent, not the overall payroll, so it’s harder to justify such exorbitant prices for one-way players like Brown and Claxton.
Prediction: Of the six, only Claxton (3 years, $36 million) and Dragic (vet minimum) are extended. Brown is just too costly to be Simmons insurance. Mills exercises his $6 million-plus player option and Nets exercise Edwards’ $1.5 million team option.
4) Exceptions? Trades?
Here is where things get murkier. Marks has few tools in his box to use to improve the team. He has next year’s Philadelphia first-rounder, which he can pair with one of Brooklyn’s trade exceptions (highest is $11.3 million, expiring February 2023) to acquire a player the Nets wouldn’t normally be able to afford under the cap rules. Again, adding a player in that manner would cost Tsai a ransom, so it would have to be the right player. Same goes for the $6.3 million taxpayer mid-level exception. Under no circumstances should these exceptions be used on a guard or on a non-shooter. The problem: Every team wants 3 & D wings and floor-spacing bigs who can switch out on the perimeter, so they’re expensive. To me, the biggest difference in the Nets/Celtics series was Al Horford. If only the Nets had $27 million more in cap space to acquire the center a year ago. When Brooklyn let Jeff Green walk after last season, the best they could do to replace him were the combo of James Johnson and Paul Millsap, neither of whom made it to the end of the regular season. Sure, it would be great if the Nets can lure a player like the Clippers Isaiah Hartenstein; unfortunately, the free agent center will probably garner an offer larger than the Nets mini mid-level. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if Marks used that mid-level on one of his former employees—Green (if he opts out), Taurean Prince, or Thaddeus Young. We’ll see if Marks can do better than the Johnson/Millsap/DeAndre Bembry/Javon Carter garbage pile from last offseason.
Prediction: Nothing beyond mid-level and minimum signings this summer; in holding pattern for blockbuster in January.