Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Keith Bogans and Deron Williams looking mediocre at best.
The Knicks aren’t the only New York team boxed in by huge contracts. The Brooklyn Nets have even worse salary cap and luxury tax constraints over the next two seasons and less talent to work with.
With over $86 million already on the books for 2013-14 and a likely-to-rise $74 million and $73 million for 2014-15 and 2015-16, the Nets will be in luxury tax territory and stuck with a mostly unmovable roster that’s destined for a run at mediocrity for the foreseeable future.
What did $84 million buy Mikhail Prokhorov in 2012-13? Forty-nine wins, the ninth best record in the NBA, the No. 4 seed out East and an upset in Round 1. Better than average, but not by much.
Stuck in the Middle
With what will be essentially the same squad in 2013-14, for the same price, one might expect the same results. The thing is, the Nets will probably slip.
Not because Brooklyn will be getting any worse. They might even improve a bit.
Deron Williams was limping on bad ankles for the first half, but rocked it in the second half after treatment. Brook Lopez’ game will continue to develop. The offseason will do Joe Johnson’s plantar fasciitis, which killed him down the stretch, some good.
The Nets will have a new coach, too, surely the absolute best Prokhorov can get his hands on.
It’s just that the fifth-seeded Chicago Bulls (hello, Derrick) will pass them. The Miami Heat and annually-improving New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers aren’t going anywhere. Even the Atlanta Hawks (Stan Van Gundy?) will stir some troublesome brew.
As time wears on, so will it wear on Johnson, who looks all his 31 years, and Gerald Wallace, who looks older than his 30.
Hard to imagine the Nets outpacing other teams the next three seasons with two of their starting five in decline and suiting a cheap, Reggie Evans-caliber third starter.
Roster and Payroll
The general consensus is the Nets will not be moving Williams. That makes sense. He is the cornerstone of this team and when he’s healthy he’s still one of the best point guards in the league.
You can’t really put anything past Prokhorov (what if some ridiculous thing like a Kobe Bryant availability arises?), but the assumption is Williams is a Net for a while.
The same is true for Joe Johnson, but for a different reason. No one will have him or his looking-worse-every-day contract.
The same is true for Gerald Wallace, for the same reason, $30 million over the next three years. Wallace finished with 7.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG and 2.6 APG—the worst season of his career.
Then, there’s Lopez, who has blossomed into arguably the best offensive center in the NBA. Outside a Dwight Howard transaction, why would the Nets take the popular Brook out of Brooklyn? Or even then?
These four players alone will make about $64M in 2013-14, $68M in 2014-15 and a minimum of $72M in 2015-16—all over the cap, which should fall somewhere in the $58M-$62M range, and probably zooming past the luxury tax line (about $70 million in 2012-13).
And the Nets will likely want to sign free agents Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson, their “sixth men,” on top of that.
That’s six players already and little room to maneuver.
Brooklyn can improve their situation and perhaps rise above mediocrity over the next three seasons via trade(s) and the impact of their next coach (Steve Van Gundy?).
The draft will only help a little. The Nets are/will be too good to get early picks (22nd in 2013), unless they can trade for better ones. Even so, most of these players will need time to develop, minimizing their impact for a couple years (see: MarShon Brooks).
The Nets' best bet is to try and unload Kris Humphries in a package (with Brooks, Evans or Mirza Teletovic) that will either bring them one above-average player (J.J. Redick per dimemag.com?) or a deeper bench—either would be a big plus.
But, again, how much better will they get?
It’s not until 2016-17 that the payroll will finally be cleared. With the current payroll constraints, the Nets will also have trouble building that lineup for a while, unable to ink additional long-term contracts. By then, Brooklyn will be starting over.
The reality is the Nets have to work with this core for at least the next three seasons and it is up to them to raise their level of play if the team is to escape mediocrity—make the NBA Finals, say. It is possible, but given the competition, unlikely.